A vintage year for grapevines

Trail your trellis with wine-dark foliage and drink to a display of fiery autumn colour
Grapevines in the garden are pure theatre. They will garland a greenhouse, inside or out, romp across a pergola, make a ravishing outdoor pelmet along the top of french windows or simply smother a wall or fence with their shapely, maple-like leaves and decorative grape clusters. After a few years, even the gnarled stems have their own beauty.

It's worth setting up a wire grid above the patio or terrace to enjoy a Mediterranean-style vine-in-the-sky: at this time of year the wires will be covered with twirly tendrils and leaves, and the clusters of grapes will dangle enticingly like big glass earrings.

Grapevines in the garden
Grapevines supported by trellis screen and pergola envelop the terrace in colourful autumn splendour

Or you could set up a pair of painted trellis screens on either side of the patio and train potted vines to scramble up them. The grapes may not be edible or qualify for wine-making, but nothing in your garden, I guarantee, will give you so much pleasure at this time of year. And the leaves — there are plenty to spare — make great green doyleys for cheese platters and, first blanched, as wraps around rice, pine nuts and cinnamon, Greek-style.

Wine grape Muscat of Alexandria
Wine grape Muscat of Alexandria
For autumn colour, vines are unbeatable, especially if you can set up a vine so that the low rays of the sun shine through the foliage, making the leaf colours glow. All varieties of Vitis vinifera — grapevines — take on reddish tints before leaf fall, but if you want dark and dusky foliage to echo the tight, small, purple grape clusters, choose Vitis vinifera purpurea, which could have been snatched straight out of a Rembrandt painting. The leaves start out damson-red then deepen to a moody, dusky purple. It is well-behaved, will grow alongside a climbing rose or summer clematis and makes a good front-of-house climber when given, as with all vines, a decent framework of vine eyes and wires.

The whole point of growing Vitis coignetiae is its magnificent foliage, but this rampant vine needs serious space. If you have a large and sunny house wall, rejoice, because the fiery autumn tints of the heavily-veined, giant-lobed leaves — they can measure nearly a foot across — are just spectacular when given the right showcase.

You could also grow the vine scrambling up a mature tree. Unsurprisingly, the aptly named crimson glory vine has been given an Award of Garden Merit by the Royal Horticultural Society. However, Vitis Brant is the one to choose if you want a more manageable vine with both decorative foliage that turns marbled orange and crimson in autumn, and small, sweet black grapes that are just about edible.

The late foliage and purple fruit of Vitis vinifera purpurea
The late foliage and purple fruit of Vitis vinifera purpurea
The success of Chateau Tooting, the wine created from grapevines grown in south London gardens, has shown that London gardens can produce a decent vintage, so if you're after producing your own wine, Phönix is the collective's recommendation. Given our recent volatile summers, sweet dessert grapes are not guaranteed from any variety, but best bets are purple Boskoop Glory, Regent and Black Hamburgh, the same variety as the 243-year-old grapevine at Hampton Court Palace, which produces about 600lbs of black grapes a year.

Like all grapevines, these varieties need poor, well-drained soil, and a sheltered, warm site. You don't need to take a viticulture course to prune them: the crucial point is to prune in midwinter so the sap doesn't 'bleed', cutting back to within two or three buds from the main framework. In summer, you can just keep chopping back wayward stems to a bud.

I grow Fragola, which has dainty bunches of sweet, deep-red grapes that taste a little of strawberries, and New York Muscat, which does indeed have a muscat flavour, against a south-facing wall. Truth to tell, I'm not holding my breath for a great harvest this year, but no matter: the glorious eye candy of foliage and fruit more than compensates.

Photographs by Marianne Majerus


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