It’s been a bumper harvest at Britain’s most northerly commercial vineyard and as Amy Jane Beer discovers, the wildlife is also enjoying the fruits of the owners’ labours.
Britain’s most northerly commercial winemaking establishment on Farfield Farm, near Westow, doesn’t feel like a northern frontier. The autumn sun is warm, and the people at work outside a cluster of stone buildings are in T-shirts. By the time the resident winemaker, Stuart Smith, appears with an amiable collie called Beth at his heel, I’ve already met the rest of today’s mixed team of visiting specialists and volunteers. They include young horticulturalist and IT specialist Jack Fletcher, consultant winemaker and award-winning cider producer Simon Day, Gareth Morgan, wine educator, taste expert and professor of business at Sheffield Hallam University, and a tall Mancunian wine enthusiast called Max, who visited Ryedale Vineyards on an open day earlier in the year and offered to return for harvest, exchanging labour for learning. Volunteers are an essential resource at this time of year, but with the Wolds resplendent in Indian summer sunshine, bed and breakfast en famille and as much vine-related chat as you care to absorb, it’s easy to see why they’re happy to pitch in – the easy collaboration between Stuart, his wife Elizabeth and Simon and Gareth is clearly a meeting of minds.
At end of the 1900s, a well-worn joke in wine-growing circles had it that it that the best way to make a small fortune was to start with a large one and buy an English vineyard. But history doesn’t necessarily agree. The 20th century may have marked a nadir in English winemaking, but it wasn’t as if it had never been done. In fact, vines have been growth rather extensively across southern Britain since at least the Norman Conquest. However, in the last few decades, the industry has enjoyed an impressive resurgence, with English sparkling wines beating genuine Champagnes to prestigious international awards. Even so, planting a vineyard anywhere is a gamble. And planting one in North Yorkshire might seem to be symptomatic of a special sort of madness. But to Stuart and Elizabeth, it was a natural next step.
Stuart previously spent 20 years in the vine supply business, amassing a wealth of knowledge and contacts. Midway through clearing breakfast, processing laundry and preparing cakes and soup for lunch, Elizabeth tells me: “I knew we’d end up with a vineyard. But it wasn’t until I retired that Stuart decided it was time to start.” The idea really took hold after Stuart advertised spare vine stock in the Yorkshire Post. He ended up driving all over the region delivering to farmers who responded.
“We saw lots of lovely places and it started me thinking. When we first looked around Farfield Farm in 2006 we thought the house was far too big and we couldn’t afford it. But then as we were leaving, Elizabeth said: ‘Unless... we also do bed and breakfast’. And so, here we are.”
We take a tour. Beth the collie follows Stuart’s every move, only hanging back when we enter the winemaking sheds where canine intrusion is strictly forbidden. The grapes we pick will be pressed straightaway, and Simon and Gareth are already busy with the first press of the day. I resist the urge to take off my boots and socks, there will clearly be no barefoot trampling antics here. The floor may be ancient heritage-listed stone flagging, but the winemaking kit is modern and squeaky clean looking. A row of shiny vats awaits this year’s bumper yield – today they’ll be pressing an early ripening white Solaris for sparkling wine and Rondo, for red and rosé. There are several further varieties including Ortega, Seyval, Phoenix and Madeleine Angevine ripening on 10 acres here and down the road at Paradise Farm, near Howsham, all contributing to an expanding portfolio of wines. There’s a small apple and pear orchard too, and 2012 saw the business expand into cider-making.
The topography of Ryedale Vineyards maximises the benefit of any sunshine, and the relative dryness of the local climate, and the nature of the soils convinced the Smiths that good wines could be grown here. These same features also benefit wildlife – the area is a hots pot for a wide range of mammals and birds. As a lifelong bird enthusiast, Stuart couldn’t help but notice the wildlife that was flourishing on the unoccupied farm and he decided that his new vineyard should remain a haven for nature. He invited the RSPB to help with management advice, and worked with local wildlife artist Robert Fuller to install barn owl boxes. The farm is now a great place to see barn owls, and other diverse bird life, and an abundance of brown hares.
“Our approach is to cohabit,” says Stuart. “We have to use some sprays to prevent vine disease, but we don’t spray insecticides.”
“And we use dried crushed eggshells to keep slugs off, never slug pellets, because I wanted to help hedgehogs,” adds Elizabeth. “One of the first things I did when we moved in was ask the landscapers to gather all the dead wood on the farm and build a habitat pile – they thought I was very strange.” Green thinking extends to every aspect of the business. Everything possible is recycled and the grape waste goes to compost.
Tour over, we have work to do. The Rondo grapes are ready, and we head out to start bringing them in. “Look at that,”’ says Elizabeth. She weighs the first bunch in her hand, pointing out the dusty bloom covering each fruit and showing me how the stalks have turned from green to pink. The final test – a gentle squeeze of a single berry from each bunch shows it to be fleshily soft. “Perfect,” she says. “That is a lovely bunch of grapes. They weren’t quite ready yesterday – amazing what an extra day’s sunshine can do.”
We go to work – testing and clipping bunches from the vines with secateurs, and laying then into trays pulled along in a plastic sledge. Where we find grapes that are still not quite ripe, we leave them, but snip away any leaves that might be shading them a little too much. It’s a subtle art – already I’m tuning in to the differences between the ripe and the not quite ready. The light breeze makes the vines rustle – they sound like the sea.
The hedgerows surrounding each field at Farfield Farm are heavy with haws, rosehips, sloes and brambles – fruit-eating birds will be well catered for this winter.
“We have bird feeders too,” says Elizabeth. “And I leave all the seed heads in the garden for them – it looks a mess mind.” Blackbirds and goldfinches nest in the vines, while buzzards, kestrels, sparrowhawks, occasional red kites and barn owls patrol the broad swathes of untreated open grassland around the margins of each field. The mice and voles they hunt are abundant, but apparently not a problem.
“The only thing that really takes grapes is wasps,”’ says Stuart. “So we have to do something about them. The rabbits and hares can be a nuisance too, so we put guards on the vines to protect the stems, but we’ve found harvest mice nesting in the guard tubes and they also make perfect hibernating places for ladybirds. Last year we had so many ladybirds we had to be really careful they didn’t end up in the wine.”
There’s a pond at Ryedale Vineyards full of frogs, toads and newts – a sign by the back door of the house warns visitors not to step on them as they congregate on the porch. Still, it must be very different here in winter.
“‘Oh yes,” Elizabeth sighs. “That’s when we’re out here pruning the vines. You can only do that for short while before your fingers freeze. But I like it – it’s always good to feel we’re setting the vines up for a good start in the spring.”
It sounds like a hard grind, but today it’s genuinely pleasant work and before I know it we’ve filled a small van with laden crates and Elizabeth calls a break for lunch around the farmhouse kitchen table.
I wonder when Stuart realised that his would be the most northerly commercial vineyard in Britain. In fact, why, given his experience in vineyards throughout England and Wales, did he think Yorkshire would be a good place to set up?
“He’s a Yorkshireman,” laughs Elizabeth. “It could never have been anywhere else. Vines are a challenge anywhere. Yorkshire really isn’t that different. We’re picking grapes at the same time as everywhere else, this year we started the same weekend as the Loire valley. It’s all about choosing the right varieties.”
But what about the wine? The first bottles were ready in 2009, and success at regional awards has followed every year since. 2013 looks like being the best yet.
“We’re hoping for 10,000 bottles,” says Stuart – he whispers the figure as though he can hardly believe it himself. “We’ve never been anywhere near that before.”
And that is thanks to the weather. Vines don’t only need sunshine, they need it at very specific times. In Ryedale this year the a late spring retarded flower development so that they all bloomed at the same time; May was frost-free; the July heatwave began after the fruit had set and autumn has been kind.
In the interests of research I buy a bottle of Yorkshire’s Lass. There is always extra pleasure in a product whose very molecules have been assembled on home turf. It’s a light, citrusy white, very pleasingly dry. I’m trying to be objective, but my judgement is unavoidably coloured. I can’t help it, to me this tastes of Yorkshire sunshine and skylark song. Cheers.