Vineyard owners in Yorkshire are turning the notion of wine making on its head
PUBLISHED: 11:49 08 November 2011 | UPDATED: 20:15 20 February 2013
Vineyard owners in Yorkshire are turning the notion of wine making on its head as Annie Stirk, our food and drink consultant discovers Photographs by Joan Russell
The print version of this article appeared in the November 2011 issue of Yorkshire Life
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Yorkshire has become the latest region of England to more than jst dabble in viticulture, with five new vineyards popping up over the last decade. And although wine cultivation in the North is not entirely new the Romans and the Cistercian and Benedictine monks made wine for a long time the inclement northern weather was not thought to be the best conditions for the delicate sensibilities of a wine-making grape.
But as Karen Hardwick, director of the Harrogate-based Wine Academy, suggests, the sudden growth in winemaking in colder regions (the newest vineyard is based in Perthshire) is not just down to global warming.
Improved rootstocks mainly German hybrids that are resistant to rot mean that we can now grow grapes successfully in this region and this has had more impact than climate change, she says.
Indeed, recent figures suggest theres been a 45 per cent increase in the number of vineyards in England, with warmer weather and cold climate vines making it possible for vineyards such as Leventhorpe, based in Leeds the first and most established commercial vineyard in Yorkshire Holmfirth in the Holme Valley, Summerhouse near Skelbrooke village and Yorkshire Heart, near York, to make quality wines north of the Wash.
But its a relative newcomer that has recently taken the most northerly commercial vineyard crown. Ryedale Vineyard which sits at the foot of the Yorkshire Wolds is home to 10 acres of vines (three of them organic) and three wines won bronze awards in competitions last year.
Stuart and Elizabeth Smith started the venture in 2006 after years of growing and selling vines to other wineries but always dreaming of running their own. Growing was in our blood as both our grandfathers were farmers, says Stuart, whos originally from Skipton. In the early days, I delivered vines all over Yorkshire and the UK for farmers and gardeners to trial grow vines and I saw the potential of setting up my own vineyard. We love wine and have toured the vineyards in the Loire valley and Beaujolais region while on holiday.
Eventually, the couple bit the bullet and started looking for land to grow the vines and buildings for wine production. We were introduced to Sir Fred Strickland Constable who owns the Strickland Estate and he was very supportive of our idea, says Stuart. Last year he even helped pick the grapes.
But as with all good things, the wine has been a long time in the making. The Smiths planted their first vines in April 2006, some 7,000 vines in the space of seven hours. We enlisted the help of a planting team from Luxembourg and the vines grew like mad but then we realised we needed to protect them so we had to put in 2,500 rabbit guards and canes too.
Today, its very much a family business with two grown-up sons
and two daughters who come to help with the picking. Two other workers, fruit specialist Philip Stanway and wine educator Gareth Morgan, volunteer their help and support because they love the job so much.
Picking usually starts at 9.30am when the dew has gone and the bunches are dry. We work for three hours solidly and then have a coffee break and afterwards we have a sociable lunch in the farmhouse kitchen, says Stuart, who also runs a B&B on the site with wife Elizabeth. But our most dedicated assistant, who is always there to help in winter or summer, has to be Beth our four-year-old border collie.
Despite the warmer conditions and stronger vine stocks, growing grapes in Yorkshire still poses obvious problems. Grapes need at least 100 days to ripen, not easy when the weather is more showery than sunny and theres a rule of thumb that in England, grape production will only be really good
two years in every 10, four years it will be average and four years it will be poor or terrible.
Sometimes a late frost can ruin the developing grapes, too much rain can swell and burst the grapes, and too little warmth means unripe grapes, says Karen. Even the most established vineyard owners are on a steep learning curve, she adds.
But Stuart is keen to dispel the assumption that it is challenging to produce wine in Yorkshire. For him its been a bumper year
Its no more challenging making wine here than anyway else in the UK, he says. We have a sunny, south-facing vineyard with very little rain and its been a great year for growing grapes with a lovely, long growing season. I never really think about the problems, I just like to grow the grapes.
Of their 10 major grape varieties, Ryedale uses Riesling and Pinot Gris for its Wolds View wine and Ortega for its Yorkshire Lass. This is Elizabeths favourite grape: you get big bunches, lots of fruit and the wine has a lovely peachy flavour.
About 15 per cent of all wine produced in Britain is sparkling and Ryedale is no different. Stuart and Elizabeth make Champagne-style wines from Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier grapes and in February are planning to launch a pale pink fizz called Taste of Paradise in time for Valentines Day. Overall, Stuart confidently predicts they will produce up to 5,000 bottles this year quite a serious amount. My goal is 20,000 bottles and I think well do 10,000 within three years, he adds.
This year, Stuart has reason to feel especially proud. They have begun bottling the vineyards first red vintage unusual in the South, let alone in the North. The vintage, which is made from their star Rondo grapevine, was made possible because of the early spring and warm summer. I always knew we could make a red at some point, says Stuart. Ultimately, it is all down to the weather and this year the grapes had just the right sugar content. We are really looking forward to producing an 11% volume red wine, without the need to add extra sugar.
Karen Hardwick believes that although many Yorkshire wines are currently seen as a novelty with time and increasing wine making expertise it will improve.
Stuart says the demand for a homegrown product is definitely there. There is a tremendous loyalty to Yorkshire produce and we are tapping into that, he says.
Above all, its more than just a job for Stuart and Elizabeth, who clearly have a love of wine and of working together. It is a wonderful way to live. Having a vineyard is a way of life and a passion and its lovely seeing something produced that you have created yourself, says Stuart.
Elizabeth adds: In the winter I love seeing the glow from the lights under the pantiles in the winery, knowing that Stuart is checking the wine and afterwards will come in with a bottle to taste and logs for the fire.
Top five Yorkshire vineyards
Situated within the boundaries of the City of Leeds and trading for 25 years, this remains the largest and probably most well known of the Yorkshire vineyards. Grower George Bowden, a chemistry teacher who turned to winemaking has won critical acclaim for his wine from the likes of Oz Clarke and Rick Stein. Bullerthorpe Lane, Woodlesford, Leeds, 0113 288 9088.
Ian and Rebecca Sheveling hand planted a seven-acre vineyard at Woodhouse Farm in Holmbridge with 7,000 vines in 2007. They produce a medium dry white and a rose.Woodhouse Farm, Woodhouse Lane, Holmfirth, 01484 691861, holmfirthvineyard.com.
Close to the ancient Barnsdale forest, this vineyard was first planted in 2005 by Elizabeth Scott and is now one hectare in size. It offers five wines including a sparkling and a red. Summerhouse Vineyard, New Close Lane, Skelbrooke, Doncaster, 01302 721688, summerhousevineyard.co.uk.
Husband and wife Chris and Gillian Spakouskas planted the vines at this vineyard in the Vale of York in spring 2006. Plantings in 2007 included several varieties of red grape, including the classic Cabernet Franc, which had never been grown this far north before.The Firs, Kirk Hammerton Lane, Green Hammerton, York, 01423 330716.
Farfield Farm, Westow, York, 01653 658507, ryedalevineyards.co.uk.
Back to wine school
The Harrogate-based Wine Academy, formed 10 years ago, has become the biggest wine school in the country, providing informal tastings and events, and offering Wine & Spirit Education Trust qualifications to wine enthusiasts across the north of England.
With more than 20 years of drinks trade experience under her belt, director Karen Hardwick brings bundles of knowledge and enthusiasm to tastings, and also helps local restaurants, hotels and retailers train their staff in all things wine.
My aim is quite simply to ditch the jargon, demystify wine and give consumers the confidence to try different wine styles, she says.
Karen hosts fun wine appreciation evenings in Harrogate, York and at Harvey Nichols in Leeds.
Call 01904 701180 or log on to thewineacademy.co.uk for more details.