Her Outdoors: Chateau Merrers

Jane Merrick

A silly label, I know. I don’t really have a Chateau with a vineyard, but I do have a grapevine and it is one of my life’s ambitions to make my own wine. When I was first offered an allotment in April last year, there were three choices of plot. Only one was completely overgrown – the other two were pretty neat and had things growing in them. Only one – this same one – had some shade at the end of the day – the other two were in full sun, all day long. And, with all its drawbacks, this only one had a huge grapevine draped over a wooden arch. In April it was not quite in bud, just a frame of slightly unkempt old wood, so I waited for its leaves to burst in May, followed by long, graceful stems and tendrils criss-crossing each other and wandering onto the path and miniature bunches of grapes emerging in June.

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Bunches of grapes starting out in miniature

By July, deep into what was a gloriously hot summer, I had to keep pruning the new stems to keep it from scrambling into next-door’s plot. I placed a table and chairs underneath the canopy and this is where I sat, when I had the chance, to shelter from the sweltering sun. The stems were so long and the leaves so plentiful that I was, at the height of summer, hidden by the vine in my old red foldaway chair. It was easy to forget I was in south London.

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The grapevine in full leaf towards the end of May 2014

After a bit of research (although I struggled to find a really good book on grapevine maintenance and wine-making, if anyone has any suggestions), by mid-August I cut back the leaves on top of the canopy to expose the growing grapes to full sun. I had no idea what type of grape it was – red or white, dessert or wine, let alone the variety – so it was exciting to sit and look and wait and guess. In September, after weeks of mainly dry, warm weather, the grapes started to ripen: they were red and, actually, fairly sweet. I threw a net over the grapes and vine at this stage to keep the birds off – although I’m sure a few of them got through, and there were so many bunches anyway it didn’t matter.

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Grapes in September 2013, starting to ripen

In the middle of October, it was time to harvest. The bunches were heavy and some grapes were splitting, over-ripe. I took my daughter and one large plastic bucket down to Plot 35a to collect our grapes. She held the bucket, while I cut the bunches. Our bucket was full – I reckon there were about 150 bunches in there, with another 150 left on the vine. Then we took them home, me explaining to Girl Outdoors that the grapes were going to be turned into wine which unfortunately she couldn’t drink – not unless we’d kept a 2013 vintage until 2028.

I’d bought some wine-making equipment from Whyte’s – sterilising jars, campden tablets, bottles, corks and a hydrometer to measure the sugar content (crucial for wine-making if you don’t want to make vinegar). I spent all evening and well after midnight hand-squashing all the grapes (wishing all the while that the grapes were white, not red, as crimson juice splattered all over the kitchen floor). But had I spent several hours squashing grapes into something that would never turn into wine? As Whyte’s recommends leaving red wine for six months, at least, I couldn’t tell then. I left the grape juice to ferment for six weeks and then put it into bottles shortly before Christmas.

And that’s where it’s been, since then. I nearly opened a bottle the other day but … am too nervous it will be disgusting and my wine-making dreams will be crushed, like those grapes. Anyway, that was the 2013 vintage. I have to get ready for Chateau Merrers 2014…

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