Call me crazy, but I intend to become the first producer of wine made from outdoor grown grapes in Northern Ireland. There are a few wine producers in the south of Ireland, but to my knowledge nobody in the North has so far attempted it. As a general rule wine production is limited to roughly 30 to 50 degrees north and south, although with global warming the limit is slowly creeping beyond these confines. The south of England, which is just above that line, is starting to be recognised as a producer of quality wines, but we are still a fair bit further north on about 54 degrees north. However we are by no means the most extreme with semi-commercial plantings in Denmark and the Swedish island of Oland.
So if they can do it in Scandinavia, why not me? We are 1 mile from the eastern most point on the island of Ireland on the Ards Peninsula south of Belfast. It is one of the driest spots on the island as we are protected to the south-west by the Mourne Mountains and frost or snow are very rare occurrences. Unfortunately though we have had late frosts, which may therefore damage early growth. Sunshine is not abundant of course and generally damp weather does occur all year round. Our specific site is sheltered from winds by being located within a dip in the landscape and all round hedging. The soil is an extremely well drained sandy loam, preventing the soil from becoming water-logged.
So in Spring 2015 we got planting. After researching the best potential grape varieties for our climate which were also likely to make tasty wine, I ordered 50 vines from an English importer. Unfortunately I don’t remember the name of the importer. So how did we choose the varieties? Clearly Pinot Noir or Riesling wasn’t going to work here. Both of these, as well as 99% of the world’s quality grape varieties for wine making are of the vitis vinifera genus. They originated from the Middle East and are all rather prone to a variety of fungal diseases making them difficult to grow in a damp climate without spraying them with anti-fungal sprays, something I am keen to avoid.
In recent years there have been advances in breeding so-called inter-specific hybrid varieties, crossing vitis vinifera with other genuses (geni… what is the plural?) of grapevines. The aim is to create varieties that are earlier ripening and more resistant to fungal attacks. Early trials were considered of inferior in quality to pure vinifera vines, but more and more are coming through, which are indistinguishable in quality. Much of the research is done in Germany and Switzerland, where they are now known as PiWi’s, which is short for the German word pilzwiderstandsfaehig, which means fungus resistant. Trust the Germans to come up with a snappy sounding word like this. I identified 2 of these PiWi varieties as most suitable for outdoor production in our climate: Solaris and Rondo. Solaris is a white variety, bred in 1975 in Germany and has Riesling and Pinot Gris in its parentage. It is very early ripening and produces high sugar levels even in challenging climates. Rondo is a red variety bred in 1964 in Czecheslovakia and interestingly the first commercial planting was actually in Ireland at Thomas Walk Vineyard in Co. Cork. It is also grown not that far away from us in north Co. Dublin. In addition I planted 3 Regent vines in the polytunnel. This is another red grape which gives deep colouring to a blend, but would probably not ripen fully outdoors here. Finally the previous owners of our plot had already planted a very early ripening red variety of unknown provenance.
The latter is also a very heavy cropper and veraison (as the grapes start to change colour) has already started as you can see.
To combine permaculture principles together with viticulture, I encourage biodiversity amongst the rows of vines and always keep the ground covered with a combination of ground cover plants and mulch. The mulch consists of chopped weeds and used straw form the chicken shed. Later this autumn I will also add conditioned strawbales in which I have grown a few crops in this season. This straw, enriched with urine and wood ash has sprung a lot of fungi, which all in combination will help build soil in my little vineyard.
Some of the plants have been sown or planted deliberately as companion plants for the vines, such as clover for nitrogen fixation, hyssop to improve yields, deter pests, attract beneficial insects and improve aromatic flavour compounds of the grapes, lavender for similar reasons and fennel, again to deter pests and attract beneficial insects.
About 10% of the vines I planted last year didn’t survive their first winter. 2015 was a particularly cool and damp year, so the young vines didn’t ripen their wood sufficiently to make it through the winter. Of those that did survive, most look pretty healthy and the first grapes are appearing. Not enough to make any wine yet of course, but a first indicator to see if anything will actually ever ripen here. The signs so far are not looking too promising yet. We’re coming up to the end of August and the first Rondo grapes are not pea-sized yet.
I am assuming that even if grapes will ripen here, I won’t be able to have a harvest every year. This season had started very promising with hot and sunny weather during flowering in early June, however since then it has been more changeable and now we have a positive autumnal feel in the air.
The Regent vine in the polytunnel is looking a bit more promising to produce a couple of bunches this year.
I may try to make some wine from the unknown grape variety this year, but I’m not holding high hopes for any actual good wine to come out of it. I’ll keep you posted on further developments.