I never considered myself a true self-sufficient gardener until I began growing grapes. These juicy orbs can be turned into almost anything, from cheap plonk (check out Wendyl Nissen’s simple wine recipe which featured in her latest newsletter) and fancy verjuice, to jams and jellies and plump raisins. The leaves can be used as a green wrapper for dolmades, and the vine clippings can be woven into rustic garden supports or wreaths. Grapes are one of the most versatile crops you can grow in the backyard and it’s prime time for planting.
Plant in autumn or early winter in a sunny spot (sunlight is essential for proper ripening), and provide some sort of support. Train against a wall or fence, or espalier your vine against a simple post and wire trellis.
Your soil must be free-draining and reasonably deep, and plants should have good air circulation to reduce the occurrence of diseases. Don’t park your vine in the corner of a wall or fence, as air movement will be blocked.
If you’re stuck for space, grow your vine in a half wine barrel and use stakes or a rose umbrella frame to support it. Avoid plastic pots as they heat up too readily.
Around midsummer, snip off some of the leaves around each bunch of grapes so that plenty of sun gets through to ripen the fruit. Cover the vines with netting too if you don’t want to share your bounty with the birds.
Wasps are often a pest, as they’re attracted to the ripening grapes. Remove any overripe bunches of grapes from your vine and set up traps if you see them loitering. Pour sugar syrup into a narrow-necked bottle. The wasps will sniff it out and crawl inside, but they won’t be able to fly out.
When it comes to harvesting, taste your grapes before picking; sugar content changes throughout the harvest season and the berries won’t ripen once picked. The warmer the climate, the higher the sugar content.
Raisins are simply dried grapes. All you need for drying purposes is sun. Traditionally, grapes are dried right in the vineyard in between the rows of vines. Depending on the temperature, this can take between two and four weeks. For me, it usually takes two and a bit.
As the grapes dry, moisture evaporates and the fruit is left with a more concentrated sugar content. As sugar is a natural preservative, it provides the dried fruit with a longer shelf life.
You might think that the drying grapes would attract dozens of annoying little flying critters, but that’s not the case. Your grapes are drying, not decaying. I’ve never had a problem, but if you do, cover your grapes with one of those domed food covers.
The grapes most often used for drying are table grapes (as opposed to wine grapes) and, in the commercial world at least, Malaga, Muscat, Sultana and Thompson Seedless varieties are among the most commonly used. Each has a high sugar content with soft skins and a rich flavour, and all dry well. But by far the most widely grown raisin grape is the Thompson Seedless variety. Don’t worry if you don’t have any of these varieties – for homegrown purposes, any grape will do.
Four kilograms of fresh grapes are needed to produce 1kg of raisins. Pick bunches of grapes when ripe, then rinse and pat them dry. Pick the grapes off the bunch and remove any stems.
Place the individual fruit on a clean tray and spread them out so they’re not touching one another. Place the tray in direct sunlight. Check the grapes regularly for progress. Intense heat and sun may produce raisins in as little as a week, but it generally takes between two and four weeks. You can then store your raisins in an airtight container.