It’s the terroir, stupid. That’s what makes a good wine. Even the most amateur of amateur wine buffs will tell you that. It’s all about that ill-defined collection of elements: the rainfall, wind, sunshine, soil, drainage and whatever else impacts the life of a grape. A good wine comes from the terroir, and it turns out there’s some very lovely terroir in Yorkshire.
It took many people a while to realise that. For a lot of years English wine was treated as a joke (those who found it most absurd were the English), and to drink a wine from as far north as Yorkshire would have been considered ridiculous. But George Bowden didn’t think it was ridiculous. In 1985 he became a pioneer, creating Yorkshire’s first commercial vineyard, Leventhorpe Vineyard, just east of Leeds, having been inspired by America’s resurgent vineyards, which he witnessed while working as an engineer in the US in the 1960s.
‘I did a lot of travelling there,’ he explains, ‘And the vineyards, especially in California, were just starting to come back commercially after Prohibition, the Depression and the Second World War. It took an awfully long time.’
Just as English wine was derided until recently, Californian wine was treated as a joke back in the 1960s. George recalls being in a restaurant in San Francisco in 1969 and seeing the Maitre d’ deliver a bottle of Californian wine to a regular customer. The customer looked at the label, adopted a look of disdain and told the Maitre d’ to take the bottle away, telling him contemptuously, ‘You know I don’t drink domestic.’
‘It took them a few years to improve,’ says George, ‘And look where they are today. That guy who said that will wish he had shares in them.’
George returned to the UK and taught science in Yorkshire’s schools, and it was his teaching experience that prompted him to make his first wine: he needed it for chemistry demonstrations. Once he realised he could make it, he decided that he would go ahead and try what they had achieved in California: commercial production. So he created what he describes as ‘an experimental vineyard’ in the late 1970s. It went well.
Next he needed a site. While driving back from an exam board meeting in Wakefield he noticed a field. It was different to the other fields. When he had driven past that morning it had been snowing heavily. Now the sky was blue but the snow remained in the fields, except for that one field, where the snow had melted away.
‘What that told me was that it catches the sun,’ he explains, ‘It retains the heat, the water resulting from the melt gets away as quickly as anything, and the size of the trees around the land told me what the soil was like.’
It was the perfect place for a vineyard. When the land came up for sale George went to the auction, made the winning bid, then went to see his bank manager to ask for money to fulfill his commitment. The bank manager gave him a lecture for buying land with money he didn’t have, then gave George the money. George now owned five acres of land. He planted the vines and by 1988 he was producing wine. If people sniggered, George didn’t care.
‘I never take any notice of people’s reactions,’ he tells us. ‘The English always ask why someone’s doing that. The French always say someone’s doing it for a reason, and the reason is the end result. The English are skeptics. Though because of the way the quality of the wine has improved, they’re becoming less so.’
George has now retired from teaching and spends all of his time looking after his vines with his wife (‘I do all the donkey work and Janet does all the intellectual, financial work,’ he laughs). They’re both in their sixties, producing wine for loyal customers (including players and staff from the French national rugby team), winning awards, gaining plaudits from the likes of Rick Stein, and in 2007 they were visited by the Duke of Kent. So yes, it’s gone rather well. And once George had led the way, others decided to follow.
Those now making the running in the county’s wine production are the Yorkshire Heart vineyard in Nun Monkton, which started growing grapes commercially in 2006. In Holme Valley there’s the Holmfirth Vineyard which was established in 2007. And there’s Ryedale, the most northerly commercial vineyard in the UK, not that they advertise themselves as that.
‘We don’t live on the reputation of being the most northerly commercial vineyard,’ explains Elizabeth Smith, who runs the vineyard with her husband Stuart, ‘Because we know they’re creeping north.’
Elizabeth and Stuart are both pensioners now (Elizabeth declines to be more specific), but they work full-time producing wine. Prior to entering the industry Elizabeth worked in the education sector, while Stuart bought and sold vines. It was in 2006 that they decided to give their own vineyard a go, planting vines at Farfield Farm, where they converted a derelict building into their home and turned the cowshed into the winery. They now have a second site too, both of them near Harrogate, comprising 10 acres in total.
‘I think I always knew we would have a vineyard; I don’t think I expected to have 10 acres of vineyard,’ laughs Elizabeth. ‘But I’m really glad that we went ahead because we are serious wine producers and we’re taken seriously. It’s not a hobby, it’s a life.’
Elizabeth and Stuart have two part-time staff but they also recruit their children and grandchildren (who are now adults) to help, as well as being assisted by local volunteers during the harvest (‘We’re really grateful for their help,’ says Elizabeth). The extra workers are a necessity, with the grapes needing constant attention and prompt action at the right time (‘When you’ve got a vineyard you don’t go on holiday,’ she adds), though German engineering has made things easier.
Elizabeth explains that they grow a variety of vines which were developed at a wine institute in Germany, specifically to withstand tougher climates. That’s enabled a lot of more northerly vineyards to produce good wine, though the Yorkshire climate means they are still restricted, like all other British vineyards, in the type of red wine they produce – they can’t grow Merlot and Shiraz. What they do produce however is Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
‘They’re planted in the middle of the vineyard so they’ve got vines at each side, which makes it just that little bit warmer,’ explains Elizabeth.
The resultant sparkling wine (which they send to a wine maker in Herefordshire for fermentation and bottling) is good enough to win awards, which is something Elizabeth and Stuart are getting used to: they’ve won British and international competitions, including the International Wine Challenge (which is regarded as the world’s most meticulously judged wine competition), and they added more medals to their collection in May. Yet despite the international plaudits, Elizabeth says that export isn’t their focus.
‘We’re very small in terms of the vineyard world,’ she explains. ‘Ten acres is not a lot. It feels like it, but it isn’t. We sell locally, we’re in some lovely farm shops, Lewis & Cooper in Northallerton have our wines, Castle Howard sell us, and all the way up to Berwick where we supply Jones and Jones, down to The English Wine Centre on the south coast.’
They love it down there apparently; Yorkshire wine is making a name for itself, it’s being sold across the UK, it’s gaining respect and becoming another boon to Yorkshire’s foodie credentials (the vinyards are part of some foodie tours). As even the most skeptical of wine critics will tell you: the terroir up north isn’t grim at all.
You can buy Leventhorpe wine at selected shops and through online stockists. For a list of stockists of Ryedale wine go to www.ryedalevineyards.co.uk