Chasselas is your typical mildew-prone European grape variety that shouldn’t really work in England. What could possibly go wrong?
After two years of living in rented accommodation after our return from Switzerland, we bagged our first-ever mortgage last year. My wife Jenny and I became first-time house buyers, aged over 40. We now live in Jenny’s home village in the county of Suffolk.
The front garden at our new abode is considerably bigger than the back garden. (Our address was once a council house.) Previous occupants used to grow their own produce, although the most recent owners preferred trim borders and bushes to cabbage and carrots. The grass was yellow and the borders in bloom (yet untidy and overgrown) when we arrived in summer 2019. Instead of working on my gardening skills, I hired someone with a mini-digger to rip up most of the lawn a few months later – with a view to planting vines the following spring.
Fast-forward to 18 April this year: 50 grafted vines arrive at our doorstep. I immediately start digging. Here are the details:
A massal selection of 50 Chasselas vines; prepared and grafted at the Pépinière Hebinger vine nursery in Alsace, sourced indirectly via a supplier in Somerset. We planted five rows, with the vines situated 80 cm apart along each row and a gap of 140 cm separating each of the rows. Due to space constraints, we had to plant three of the vines in a separate area of the garden. However, the planting density is still relatively high in an area measuring almost 50 square metres – that’s almost one vine per square metre.
Why vines? Because our front garden is a south-south-east-facing suntrap. The off-white/cream facade of our house (and our neighbours’ house) reflects the sunlight and protects the plot from northerly winds, yet there is usually enough breeze around to dry the vines quickly after rain. The well-draining, gravelly loam soil in our front garden also seems well-suited to tempering the natural vigour of the Chasselas vine. Massal-selected vines tend to be less vigorous anyway. This is important when the vines are spaced so closely to each other.
From a personal point of view, growing my own vines is like scratching an itch. Before becoming a translator at the turn of the millennium, I considered a career in wine. I even worked for two summers as a vineyard helper in the Pfalz and Alsace respectively. Ultimately, I ditched my viticultural ambitions in favour of a job in Basel. But the itch remained.
Chasselas is a variety with which I have considerable affinity. I used to live in the Markgräflerland region, one of the grape’s hotbeds in the south-west corner of Germany, where the locals refer to the variety as Gutedel [guut:eey:del]. Despite being one of the world’s oldest grape varieties, Chasselas has led an underdog existence everywhere except in its Swiss hotbed on the shores of Lake Geneva, from whence it probably originated.
Growing Chasselas in England is quite a challenge. Or let’s put it another way: I could have made things easier for myself by planting a disease-resistant variety. Fungicides and other synthetic treatments are a no-no. Natural, organic treatments will be frequent. Teas made from common ‘weeds’ such as horsetail, dandelion and yarrow have been part of my repertoire since planting, as has diluted milk on one occasion. These solutions help to control mildew in different ways. In the long run, I may have to ditch the milk if I ever manage to make wine and want to label it as vegan.
Any actual harvest is still a long way off. We’re talking 2023 (or maybe 2022, depending on how well the vines establish themselves). In the meantime, I need to replace the plastic roof that turns our garage into a sauna during the summer months. That’s the next project.