You may know that I also work in wine (as co-owner of Ten Green Bottles in Brighton) and Fiona and I are keen to offer wine as an important part of the experience of staying here at the windmill, if guests are interested. So as well as having a good stock of wine available (of course!), we’ll be offering tastings and tours, and we couldn’t resist also having a go at growing our own!
Despite people often assuming that because I sell wine I know a thing or two about growing it, this isn’t quite the case! Knowing something in theory is very different to getting your hands properly dirty, and I have to admit that I tend to struggle even keeping the odd pot of herbs alive in the UK. But we’ve been reading up on the subject over the last few months, and have a spot in mind that we think could work. It faces more or less south (good), is very steep (good), and and has very poor, very stony soil - good for vines, but not for our backs trying to dig! In fact the stone seems to be absolutely masses of schist, which is the same stone found in the Douro Valley - where they make Port - giving me brief delusions of making wine to a similar standard. It has also already been cut into terraces, sort of, which saved us a lot of work. The decision was made, though, when we talked to one of the locals who, without the slightest prompt, pointed to that piece of land and said it would be good for growing vines.
Ideally, we should have been digging trenches for the new vines in the autumn, to then let the soil sit for a few months before planting in the spring. I was all up for this, but Fiona pointed out that as we didn’t actually own the land at that time, this may not be the best idea. So we waited, and when we came over to Portugal for a few days in February to buy the property we spent a frantic few hours wrestling with stones and soil, and then mud, when it started to rain (all this is usually done by machine, of course, but we were working with the resources available!). My trainers never quite recovered, our digging fork was bent out of recognition, we had aches in muscles we hadn’t known existed; but we had our trenches dug.
We estimated that we’d done enough digging for the grand total of eight vines! So, with a rough three to four bottles per vine, we’d bagged ourselves two or three cases of wine - in another three years time. Hurrah! It’s set to be a rather exclusive vintage (get your orders in now). We decided that this would be very much a practice year, and we’d aim for the big time next time round.
With this being a practice year, it seemed a bit much to drive halfway across the country to a specialist nursery, so we were pleased to find some vines on a trip to a nearby garden centre not long after we arrived in March. The varieties available were mostly table grapes, but they had some Moscatel, which works well, as it’s the variety in the one wine we can both agree we absolutely love (a good Moscato d’Asti - beyond that our tastes diverge significantly!). They also had some red Moscatel, which I think I may have had at some point in an unusual old vine blend from Chile, and I think I liked it... So we bought four of each. The ultimate aim is to plant a few different varieties, which - in an ideal world - will all work beautifully when thrown in together, or - more likely - some will work better than others and we’ll plant more of those.
So, we paid good money for what looked suspiciously like a few dead sticks, brought them carefully home, soaked the roots in water for a few hours, and set out to plant them. I dug holes in the soil we’d already dug up and filled in once already, while Fiona untangled the roots, bedded them in (doesn’t mean she took them to bed with her...), and watered them. We soon realised that, if we were being honest with ourselves, our trenches dug for eight vines only really fitted seven, at a stretch. But we had been thinking we should also grow something to provide shade outside the miller’s house, so another hole was dug there and in went one of the reds.
Then we waited, watering our dead sticks day and night, and assuming we were having no more luck as gardeners than we’d had with our herbs back in England. We had a period with a couple of days of rain in a row when we didn’t go down to water, and then - as if by magic - little buds had started to appear on some of the vines! And the really great thing was, that out of all the vines planted, the only one that I actually put in the ground myself was absolutely bolting along. Green fingers after all!
And so it’s continued over the last couple of weeks; some faster than others, but all the vines pushing out a few shoots. We knew that really, we should be cutting off most of the new buds to focus the growth, but after worrying so much about them even being alive, it seemed crazy to be taking a knife to all this magical new growth - this morning, however, I built up the courage to play executioner and tidied things up a bit.
The next stage is to start training them, and hopefully seeing the new shoots rocketing up - don't forget to follow us on Instagram for updates!