How do you make a million pounds in the wine business? By starting with two million. It’s an old joke, but there’s more than a kernel of truth in it. Winemaking is a difficult business and an expensive hobby. Yet people still want to do it: witness all those vanity vineyards belonging to successful techies in California. Or, failing that, journey with me to the idyllic surroundings of a car park in Tooting, in south-west London.
Like many wine buffs, I have long harboured fantasies of having my own vineyard. But south-east London, where I’ve lived all my life, is hardly ideal wine country. And I know nothing about gardening, let alone viticulture. So when we moved house a decade ago I was thrilled to find a thriving grapevine growing up the back wall of the garden.
The following summer it produced a bumper crop of grapes, and this summer it did the same again, despite being mostly ignored (though I prefer the winemaker’s term “minimal intervention”). The red grapes it produces are merlot, as far as I can tell, having looked closely at pictures of the shapes of vine leaves on the internet. Fortunately, all those grapes need not go to waste – thanks to the Urban Wine Company.
Set up in 2009 by two friends, Richard Sharp and Paul Miles, the Urban Wine Company gathers grapes from dozens of gardens across London. On this year’s designated harvest day, a sunny Saturday in September, I got up early and headed into the garden with a pair of secateurs and a couple of laundry baskets. After much inexpert snipping, I had soon gathered 21kg of grapes. With this harvest loaded into the boot of our car, my wife and I drove across town to the designated rendezvous point, a car park in Tooting.
The mood was festive as we unloaded our grapes alongside other equally enthusiastic would-be winemakers, who arrived in a steady stream by car, bus and bicycle. Our grapes were inspected, weighed and then loaded into the back of a lorry, which took them to a winery in Staffordshire to be made into wine. All the grapes are combined, so the Urban Wine Company serves as a regional winemaking co-op for the back-garden grapevines of London. The English climate is most suited to white grapes, notably those for sparkling wines, the best examples of which now rival champagne in blind tastings. But like us, many urban growers produce red grapes, so in this case the resulting wine is a rosé.
According to the company’s rules, growers are entitled to one bottle of wine for every 2kg of grapes, so we signed up for ten bottles of Chateau Tooting, as the communal wine is known. When we first took part in this whole jolly exercise in 2009, the result was a deep pink, somewhat tannic but generally not-bad still wine. Over the years a couple of London restaurants have even featured Chateau Tooting on their wine lists. This year, in response to the growing reputation of English sparkling wine, the grapes will be made into a sparkling rosé.
Our bottles will be ready for collection next November, just in time for the party season. By then I will have sent next year’s harvest on its way to the winery.
That is the nearest I am ever going to come to being a winemaker. But given the risk, complexity and expense of doing it all properly, it is quite close enough.