Helen Babbs offers her excellent advice on how to plant a vineyard on your smallholding.


The recent trend towards hotter summers in the UK is opening up a wider range of crops that can be grown on your smallholding. One option that’s quite well proven is to plant a small vineyard for wine-making. This could be just a few rows of grapes to make a household supply of wine, or an acre or more to diversify your smallholding into artisan wine-making. Small vineyards with tours, wine-tasting, etc are popular destinations with tourists too, so planting a vineyard offers more earning potential than just that of selling your wine. As with an orchard, however, a vineyard is a long term investment of money, time and effort, so it’s important to plan carefully before you begin to plant.

Starting on a slope

A good vineyard starts with a good site.

While Mediterranean or Californian wine growers can cover every field with vines, a UK vineyard needs a south or south-west facing slope, in order to get the warmest temperatures and maximum sunshine. For commercial production, a site elevation of less than 100m above sea level is the general rule, but if you are just growing for a hobby there is no reason not to try some vines, even if you live halfway up a mountain! The site also needs to be sheltered from strong winds, and have a sufficient slope for cold and moist air to drain downhill away from the vines. Frost pockets must be avoided – you are basically looking for the field where the grass grows the latest into the winter and starts into growth earliest in the spring. Cold temperatures in midwinter are much less important: most vines planted for wine-making in the UK are fully hardy, and actually need a period of chilling overwinter in order to produce fruit the next year.

The choice of soil for your vineyard is generally less important than its overall position. Vines will flourish in any type of soil, as long as it is deep and well drained. For planting larger areas in particular, it’s a good idea to have a soil test carried out to assess what needs to be done before planting your vines. There are a number of soil testing services aimed specifically for vineyards. In general, the soil needs to be well cultivated and have plenty of organic matter added for the best long-term growth. A soil pH of 6.5-7 is ideal, so you may need to add lime as well.


A vineyard needs two kinds of fencing: an excluding barrier for any large pests around the outside; and supports for the vines inside. In the UK, rabbits and deer are the main large pests. You’ll already be aware if you have these on your smallholding, so enclose your vineyard area with rabbit-proof fencing before you begin to plant. Alternatively, you can fit individual rabbit nets to each vine. For deer, sturdy deer fencing at least 2m high is the only solution.

Once your vineyard is secure, you’ll need to install supports for the vines. A post and wire system is most common, using 2m posts driven into the ground at least 50cm deep. As they’ll be supporting a heavy weight of vine growth, it’s essential that these are well braced at the end of each row. Pairs of horizontal wires are strained along the fences at 30cm height intervals, fastened onto the end posts with “vine-eye” screws that allow the wire tension to be easily adjusted. The positioning of these support fences depends on the desired orientation and spacing for your vines. To get the best ripening for the grapes, rows are usually laid out running north-south, with 2m between each row.

Hardy vines

Once you’ve planned the perfect site, the next step is to choose the vines to fill it.

White grape varieties are generally hardier and ripen, so these are the most recommended for UK planting, but there are also some hardy red/black varieties too. Fruit nurseries, vineyard suppliers or other local grape-growers will be able to tell you what varieties tend to work best in your area, but some of the best known and most reliable vines include the white ‘Seyval Blanc’, ‘Reichsteiner’ and ‘Bacchus’, and the red ‘Triomphe’. Planting a mix of varieties will give a more reliable yield whatever the weather.

How many vines you need depends on how large a vineyard you have space for, and how much wine you want to make. Vines are normally spaced at around 1.2m apart in each row, and yield 2-2.5kg of grapes from each vine. Two kilograms of grapes make about two bottles of wine, so 20 vines for a 40 bottle vintage will need a 25m row, or five 5m rows.

Getting stuck in

Like other soft fruits, vines are planted when dormant and bare-rooted over the winter. They are normally available as one-year old grafted plants, looking basically like a short, wax-covered stick with roots! It’s important to make sure they’re planted at the same height as in the nursery, so the graft union doesn’t get buried and rot off. After planting, the vines need to be mulched thickly to suppress weeds and conserve water. Alternatively, they can be planted through black plastic landscape fabric, which makes managing them afterwards much easier.

Although most books about fruit growing or pruning have a formidable range of complex diagrams for training vines, the most common “Double Guyot” method is actually very simple. Each year, three stems or “rods” are trained vertically from the vine trunk to the top of the fence. In the winter, two of these rods are bent down and fastened to the lowest horizontal wires, while the central rod is cut back to a low stub from which fresh rods will grow. The horizontal rods then produce vertical fruiting stems along their whole length the next summer.

If planting dozens or hundreds of vines, straining wire fences and specialist pruning all sounds too much, but you would still like a vineyard, there are a number of viticulture contractors, who will carry out part or all of the vineyard installation for you.

While you wait

Vines take three years to bear their first crop. During this time, the base of the vines needs to be kept clear of weeds, if not planted through landscape fabric, and the grass between the rows mowed short. If your vines are trained slightly higher than normal, Miniature Southdown sheep can be grazed in the orchard to do this mowing for you! If you have very dry summers, you may need to water the young vines with a drip irrigation system in order to encourage a strong root system and sturdy growth.

Harvest time

Once the first crop does appear, it’s still time to be patient.

Grapes for wine need to go on ripening for about 2-3 weeks after they become fully coloured, as this is the period of maximum sugar production. The higher the sugar content, the better the wine produced, so it is worth the wait! If your vineyard produces more fruit than you can process at home, there are contract wine-making services available. These typically require 500kg of grapes or more, but will return them to you as finished, bottled wine, ready to mature. Your vineyard will go on yielding for decades, so there’s plenty of time to experiment and work out what suits you – and to enjoy your home-grown vintage!

All photographs courtesy of Darcy Gander/vine-works.com


This story was written exclusively for Smallholder magazine by Helen Babbs. For more like it, subscribe to the monthly magazine by calling 01778 392011 or emailing subscriptions@warnersgroup.co.uk. It is also available from newsagents.