Make mine Marsala

Words by:
Steffie Shields
Featured in:
August 2015

Steffie Shields examines the virtues of growing vines.
Let’s talk about Marsala – no not the sweet Sicilian wine but apparently this year’s ‘in’ colour, both in fashion and in the garden, a thought-provoking ruby red with a sophisticated, natural earthiness.

Quite which style guru decided this, I know not, but the colour Marsala is an agreeable accompaniment to all shades of green, especially those tones between acid yellow and lime green, and looks good alongside any hue of blue. A favourite shrub, Cotinus coggyria ‘Grace’ sports this striking colour especially backlit by sunlight.

No leap of imagination to turn our thoughts to summer wine, I am reminded of a certain gardening club talk. I discussed garden designer Mark Anthony Walker’s contemporary plan for the old Medieval Bishop’s Palace garden in the heart of Lincoln. Considering the old Roman wall towering over the east side of the garden, I showed how he creatively extended the relatively small garden space by ‘borrowing’ the neighbouring south-facing vineyard on Lincoln Hill just below Edward King House. The distinctly Italianate feel he created with a grid of fastigiate hornbeams, reminiscent of Lombardy poplars, appropriately leads the eye towards the rows of vines beyond. I was later reliably informed by a club member that these special vines were donated by Neustadt an der Weinstrasse, (which means ‘New Town on the Wine Street’) a town twinned with Lincoln. The grapes were therefore, of course, a German Riesling variety! My mistake, though I think the setting remains Italianate.

I wonder why are there not more vines grown elsewhere in the county? A robust vine, both pleasing and uplifting, was obviously an essential in the lives of the Romans for they brought their vines with them. Perhaps English summers were much warmer then? There is nothing more civilised, or more restful, to enjoy – or ‘geniessen’ to use the German word which better describes such warm feelings – than sitting with friends outside in the garden with a glass of wine, or two, on a balmy summer’s evening. With our climate so unpredictable, we savour such fleeting golden moments when time almost stands still.

My husband and I have been fortunate to have taken several memorable holidays on arranged garden tours. We love exploring sunny Italy with its unique blend of villa architecture and formal gardens, where everywhere you look seems to be a classical painting. We remember laid-back meals outside under vine-clad pergolas shading us from the heat of the baking sun, sharing the local wine and pleasant camaraderie. Once I was amused to see a veteran vine dangling golden grapes along the front of an old farmstead, stemming from inside the walls and trained over the doorway.

Could they have built the house over the old vine? We came home refreshed and uplifted with ideas to improve our ‘patch’ and definitely determined to eat outside more often, if at all possible. As picnic-lovers know, food tastes much better out of doors. So we decided to extend our house with a covered patio area. Its location is relatively high so the prevailing west wind can sweep or bluster through the garden. The compromise was to install glass sides to offer shelter, but leaving the south-facing side of the patio open to the elements, with the roof supported by three brick pillars. Friends were confused by this design. Why didn’t we glass in the whole to make a conservatory or ‘garden room’? They christened the new space ‘the loggia’, rather a grand word, even if the inspiration did come from Italy, considering the style of our standard 1960s chalet bungalow home.

The crowning glory has been to grow climbing vines and roses as both ornament and frame for open views out to the garden, borrowed Glebe Field and village cricket field beyond. On one visit to the Bordeaux area, I had noticed that some French farmers plant roses at the ends of each row of vines.

Hence I planted Rosa ‘Warm Welcome’, orange with a hint of Marsala, beside a vine on each of the outside pillars, one Vitis ‘Muscat Bianca’ and the other Vitis ’Black Hamburg’, with another ‘Muscat Bianca’ on the middle pillar. After three years’ growth, including this year’s amazing summer for roses, the effect has been better than I hoped, quite magical.

Yes the vines are vigorous and need regular pruning in summer months. Snipping back to two buds, or two emerging bunches on each stem is a straightforward, easy chore that even my husband has been happy to tackle. With no pretensions or intentions to make wine, we just enjoy the atmosphere, the shimmering tones of green and dappled shade created by dancing vine leaves.

Sitting there in the early evening with a glass of wine, or the occasional Pimm’s, we watch the grapes swell, eventually turning translucent and luscious in sunlight, ripening to glorious gold by November. One drawback, the grapes are full of tiny pips, though, in a good year, the sweetness can be sensational.

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