Make your own wine

Ever fantasised about owning your own vineyard? Time Out meets a man who is living the dream on his south London allotment

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    Château Sydenham

    The sun was high in the sky, and the grape-picking was in full swing. Afterwards, we sat at a table in the fading sunlight, drinking and discussing the liquid results of previous years; not the memories of late summer in the Loire Valley, but harvest time in the depths of Sydenham.

    Hidden down a lane behind a row of respectable south London suburban houses are the New Kent allotments. Forming a large green breathing-space sloping down from Crystal Palace, they’d be impossible to find if you didn’t know they were there. Turning left at the end of the lane, you are surrounded by an immense vine, 40 feet long and winding its way above your head on a trellis arching over the path. Somewhere in its midst is Peter Springall, an 82-year-old retired engineer who has been growing grapes here since 1982.

    Peter recalls buying the vine as a cutting for £9 back in 1982 from a nursery in the Kent countryside. Bunch after bunch of its black pearl grapes now hang from its strong stems. Springall has made all the wine-making machinery himself, everything from the mill that first crushes the grapes, to the wooden vat that holds the juice while it is fermenting.

    On another site stretching up the hill, he produces cabernet sauvignon, a Swiss variety of muscat, and cascade. He’s got rid of two rows of white grapes, because he no longer cared for white wine. ‘When I first put these vines in in the 1980s, everyone said you couldn’t grow red wine in this country. But I’ve got a south-facing slope here, and you also have an extra 7 per cent warmth in the city.’

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    Peter Springall has been growing grapes here since 1982

    A lifelong wine lover, Springall says he’s been making (and drinking) wine all his life. ‘I can remember in my youth making bottles of potato wine and stuff like that. Then I started beekeeping in 1947 and the obvious thing was to make mead from the honey. I suppose the vines just progressed from that.’

    Springall claims the local climate of the site helps produce a good grape harvest. ‘The cloud over there,’ he says, pointing to the sky, ‘is coming from the west. By the time it reaches us, it will have dispersed. Then they reform over there, two miles on. It’s a mesoclimate. That all helps. Then we just seem to get the best of the sun on this slope because of the steep hill behind us leading up to Crystal Palace.’

    But he is in no doubt that global warming has changed the growing and harvesting of vines over the past 20 years. The grapes are now picked at least a month earlier, at the start of October, rather than November. And the biggest danger to the grape harvest, late frost, has become almost non-existent. In the past, his vines were often covered with plastic in the early spring.

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