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Fruit of the vine that's not for wine

20 April 2023
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Photo: GettyImages

Grape-lovers enjoying late harvests or preparing for winter pruning might take a leaf out of the book of a rare surviving table grape grower. Words Diana Noonan

Gardeners are well known for being in touch with the natural world, and for seeing life reflected in the cycle of the seasons. Organic table grape grower, Wendy Phillips, of Te Kauwhata’s Daywen Vineyard (halfway between Hamilton and Auckland) is no exception. Each time she heads out to her vineyard with her pruners, she can’t help but reflect on biblical references to vines, grapes and wine. “Pruning away what’s not needed makes room for new life to spring forth in its place,” she says. Not that Wendy has a great deal of time for contemplation. With seven thousand-odd vines to manage, her work is never-ending.

“My parents grew table grapes before me,” she tells me. “In the 1960s, they took over land that had already been planted out in vines in the 1940s.”

Wendy is still harvesting from those original plantings, plus the extras that she and her late husband, David, added when they purchased more land. Although Wendy is always experimenting with new varieties of grape in an effort to see if she can get her vines to crop sooner, in the main, her vineyards produce ‘Albany Surprise’ and a white grape, mysteriously referred to as ‘White Almeria’.

“The white grape didn’t have a name – or not one that my parents were aware of,” says Wendy. “Then, one day, a gentleman was passing by, and he popped in to buy some grapes. When he caught the scent of the white ones, he was ecstatic. He kept saying: ‘I haven’t smelled that smell since I was in Almeria, in Spain, during the war!’ And from then on, our white grapes were called ‘White Almeria’!”

Table grape growers were more numerous in Wendy’s parents’ day, but check online now and you’ll soon find they are a rare breed. The decline, says Wendy, began back in the 1980s. “It started when the larger wholesalers began importing out-of-season grapes from Chile and Australia, and then America. But they’re not like ours. Ours have flavour. I think the imported ones are just sugary juice.”

Which begs the question, by many, of exactly what table grapes are. “They’re for eating rather than wine-making,” explains Wendy. “Most are big and fat, and in New Zealand, juicy. Wine grapes are small, and they’re not cared for in the same way as table grapes. It doesn’t matter if they’ve got marks and blemishes on them, because at the end of the day, they’re only going to be squashed.”

Wendy’s table grapes are sought after, and at harvest time, she is kept busy couriering them all over the country. But getting them to this stage is no easy task.

Cultivation process

Wendy’s cultivation year begins in spring, when the vines are suddenly covered in “little furry buds that burst into life”. Shortly after, the self-pollinating vines flower and the vineyards are enveloped in what Wendy describes as “a wonderful perfume that is a cross between a perfumed orchid and a frangipani”.

The grapes are left to their own devices during the pollination period, but once the little bunches form on the vines, summer pruning begins – and it doesn’t stop until February. Along with pruning, there is also grass to be mowed between the rows (the clippings are returned to the vines to provide nutrients), and weeding to be done with a weed-eater beneath the vines themselves. If rain is scarce, irrigation may be necessary, right up to the start of harvest time. One thing you won’t see going on, however, is the application of herbicide.

“My parents only ever used copper on the vines,” says Wendy, “but then, suddenly, growers were encouraged to use other chemicals. We tried them, but we went from having no disease to having black spot and mildew, so we gave it up. And now, the vines are healthy again!”

In fact, Wendy interferes as little as possible with her vines, providing them only with regular lashings of liquid seaweed fertiliser (she says it also helps keep disease away) and a modicum of lime when soil tests suggest it’s required. “It’s important not to give the vines anything that’s high in nitrogen,” says Wendy, “or you’ll end up with all leaf and just a few bunches of grapes.”

When it comes to pest control, Wendy claims to employ “about a thousand staff!” She is talking, of course, of the clouds of sparrows and myna that descend on the vineyards to gobble up aphids and other insect pests

Little, however, can be done to control the weather, and in recent years, Wendy’s vines have been “hammered” by incessant rain and wind. “It’s not just the damage this does to the leaves and fruit that is the problem,” she says, “it’s the overcast sky that comes with it. If the grapes don’t receive the necessary sunlight, they won’t sweeten up.”

Regardless of weather, however, the picking goes ahead from February (in a good year) through to as late as May. The bunches don’t ripen uniformly, so pickers work their way along the net-covered rows, snipping off bunches and returning to harvest from the row all over again at a later date.

Packing takes place on the property, and the grapes are not washed before being prepared for sale. (“When they’re grown organically, there’s no reason to wash them,” says Wendy.) Sales are undertaken swiftly as Wendy doesn’t like to store the fruit in a chiller. “Once you take grapes out of a chiller, they soon collapse,” she says. “But they keep quite well on a shelf at room temperature.”

Post-harvest needs

When harvesting is complete, it’s straight back to work again, starting with winter pruning. It’s a time to remove the old wood that has supported the previous season’s grapes, and to tie down new laterals from which bunches will grow in the coming season. “Wine growers aim to have far fewer buds per lateral than table grape growers,” says Wendy. “We like to make our vines work hard, so each lateral has about 10 buds on it.” With up to 40 laterals per vine, and two or three bunches of grapes growing from each bud, it’s not uncommon for a vine to produce a hundred bunches of table grapes per plant.

Once winter pruning has been completed, it’s time to attend to repairing infrastructure in the vineyards. There are posts to strain, and wires to reattach and tighten. In short, there is virtually no letup throughout the year.

While Wendy tries to remain optimistic about her table grape growing, she admits that climate change is taking its toll, and as it does so, more growers are tempted to pack it in and sell their vineyards to developers to turn into housing. But Wendy’s love of the land, her vines, and the tradition of table grape growing means she’s determined to keep on keeping on. This commitment is something for which the grape-loving public are very grateful.

Stop Press

Just as we were going to press, we heard from Wendy that, for the first time in 50 years, there was no commercial harvest at Daywen. “It’s not so much the rain that fell over two days during Cyclone Gabrielle that was the problem,” says Wendy. “It was the easterly winds that ravaged the vineyard from August through to February. Other than a few pick-your-own folk, who were happy to add sugar to the juice they extracted, our customers had to go without table grapes this year. The fruit just wasn’t sweet enough.” Wendy puts this down to the poor quality of the wind- battered leaves that were not in a state to do their work.

But Wendy is no quitter. She plans to plant more shelter – poplars for a start (they let the sun through in winter), and to begin the winter pruning earlier than she would normally. “What’s life for, if it’s not for growing,” is her motto – and we have to agree. All the best for the 2024 season, Wendy!

Wendy’s tips for home grape growers

• Give your grapevine a neutral pH, clayish soil, and irrigation up until the harvest period if the weather proves dry.

• Mulch around your vine with grass clippings, add lime as required and avoid high-nitrogen fertilisers. • Net your grapes as they ripen to protect them from birds (and stow the nets away when not in use, to prolong their life). Remove nets when not required to allow the birds in to clean off the pests.

• Be sure to attend to both summer and winter pruning to encourage plenty of bunches to form.

• If your hands are weak, or you’re harvesting decent quantities of grapes, consider ‘electric’ secateurs. They will take the hard work out of snipping through wood.

• ‘Florist snips’ are an ideal tool for harvesting bunches of grapes.

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