Choice of grape

There has been a resurgence of interest in growing grapes in the UK and a number of books are available on the subject. Grapes will grow, and more importantly ripen in the UK if you have a good site. Grapes need warmth to ripen and it is said that they do not like standing in water (I have never tried so cannot comment!) but other than that they will grow in most conditions and are not killed by winter frost - but it is best to avoid frost pockets as a late frost can damage new growth that may already be in flower.

Grape diseases are normally dealt with at the growing stage and the books give guidance on what diseases you are likely to encounter and how to deal with them. However, one disease is relevant at the time of planting - phylloxera. This is a small creature that feeds on vine roots and causes serious damage leading to death of the vine. It was responsible for the widespread destruction of European grape vines when it first arrived from America - where the vines had learned to coexist with it.

European vines (i.e. pure vitis vinifera or noble vines) were considered to produce better flavoured wines so commercial European growers have adopted one of two strategies:

  • Grow vinifera vines grafted on American rootstocks that are tolerant - i.e. are not killed, or
  • Grow hybrids - crosses between vinifera and American vines that exhibit the best qualities of both.

In practice, even hybrids are commonly grown as grafted plants in Europe but amateur growers in the UK have the luxury of being able to grow European grapes on their own roots if they so choose and there is one school of thought that says grapes grow best on their own roots - as nature intended.

If you were unlucky enough to find phylloxera on your vines you would have to notify DEFRA who would destroy your vines - grafted or not; it is the policy of eradication (a bit like the recent outcrops of foot and mouth disease in cattle, or bird flue in turkeys). According to DEFRA, phylloxera ‘is locally established in the UK, but is under containment’. Either the vineyards have been well managed, or we have been lucky, or the creature cannot survive in our climate, or some combination of all three.

Be warned, however, it is important to ensure that vines are phylloxera free - do not be tempted to bring a vine or cutting back from your holidays - you would not want to be the person who introduced phylloxera into the UK!

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