YES it is possible to set up a backyard vineyard. Here, in Melbourne, in the outer north-eastern bushy suburb of Warrandyte, my friends are just about ready to harvest their first grapes.
Over the past year and a bit I’ve been watching their 52 grapevines, grow and thrive. My mouth is watering thinking of the wine they are going to produce……all 50 litres of the stuff. So if you think you might like to try setting up a backyard vineyard here are some pointers! And when I’ve tasted their wine (hint hint) I’ll be sure keep you posted.
To get the words “from the horses mouth” so to speak, I sent my friends a little Q&A….here are their answers.
How did you choose the site to set up your vineyard?
We’re on a moderately-steep north facing slope, perfect for a vineyard in a “cool” climate as this maximises the amount of sun the vines receive. For ideal growth and ripening a vineyard requires unrestricted sunlight and this is tricky in most suburban gardens and small bush blocks such as ours. The ideal site was immediately up the hill from the house – the first vines are about 5 metres from the back verandah. The vineyard has unrestricted sunlight from about 9 am to around 7 pm in summer. In our area we are permitted to remove any native vegetation within 10 m of a house without permit, and this was also a deciding factor as the vineyard site had several small trees.
When did you plant the vines?
The vines were planted in late November 2013. Usually vineyards are established in early spring, but the availability of these particular vines was later in the year than usual.
Your favourite books or websites to learn from when setting up a vineyard?
Probably the most useful book overall has been “From Vines to Wines” by Jeff Cox. It’s an American publication and covers the essentials of vineyard establishment, vineyard management and winemaking.
Another useful title was “Wine from 100 vines” by John Dixon which usefully highlighted the problems faced by a very small vineyard based in central Victoria. Essentially, if you don’t net your crop, you will quickly lose it all. Think pests of all kinds from birds through to wombats. (Wombats don’t eat the grapes, but they tunnel under permanent netting and let other undesirables in).
What variety did you select and why?
I chose a French clone of Shiraz. Good Shiraz seems to be able to be grown in almost any wine region in Australia, being very expressive of the locality. This makes it a safe bet for the production of high-quality wine. These vines were supplied grafted onto phylloxera-resistant rootstock. Phylloxera is an untreatable root-devouring louse that devastated the great vineyards of France, and is present in many wine regions of Victoria. Resistant rootstock is advisable insurance, and can also help with growth in troublesome soil conditions.
My particular clone (No. 470) was evaluated in France as producing some of the best wines, but at the cost of low production, and were supplied by the Yalumba Nursery in the Barossa Valley.
How many vines have you planted and what are their spacings?
There are 52 vines in 6 roughly equal rows running due north-south down the slope. Based on the rocky soil and low-vigour soil (or so I thought) I followed the model traditionally used in the poor-soil vineyards of France of planting vines on a 1m x 1m spacing.
Close planting has two advantages – it maximises the use of the land, and also the competition between vines is thought to keep yields low, and hence quality high. With close planting, you need to carefully trellis the vines, and I went with the fairly traditional vertical shoot positioning (VSP) system, which trains the vines into a narrow hedge starting about 1 m above the ground and topping out at about 1800 mm. Shading of neighbouring rows has to be avoided, which limits the height to which you can train the growth.
Biggest challenges over the first growing season? Disease, pest, watering etc?
For the first two years you should concentrate on getting the vines to grow as well as possible. The vineyard is irrigated with roof-tank water and so were watered as needed. The growth achieved by some vines greatly exceeded my expectations, causing me to question the assumption of low soil fertility!
Annoyingly there’s quite a bit of variation in the vigour throughout the vineyard, which seems to be leading to fruit ripening at different times. This is inconvenient for wine making, due to the low volumes to be produced (about 50 litres). It’s thought that the growth of each vine can be tuned by altering the water available to the roots, and so the watering rate from the drip irrigators on each vine have now been individually tailored to try and even out the growth through the vineyard.
The vines received limited fertiliser – in the form of pelletised chook manure a couple of times in the first growing season. Weak vines were given more to try and close the development gap.
This year I had issues with rust mite attacking the top corner of the vineyard, which de-vigours the vines and eventually causes red colouration on the some leaves. Initially I thought this was just this region of the vineyard being particularly infertile (the soil on the vineyard is quite variable in composition), as these vines were slowest in the first year. On reflection, they probably were infected in their first year. The rust mites are microscopic – only under 100x magnification are they easy to see. They were controlled with a wettable sulphur spray, which is allowed under organic farming rules.