Even while he was busy pouring me tasting samples of several other wines in the range, it was clear that Stuart Smith, of Ryedale Vineyards, was proud of being a double award-winner.
“We entered the International Wine Challenge so we could benchmark our wines against others, and we are delighted with the result,” he told me. “Our Taste of Paradise Sparkling 2011 Rosé and Yorkshire’s Lass 2013 both won Bronze medals.”
Stuart and his wife Elizabeth, who together do most of the work at their eight-acre vineyard, have already won handfuls of medals in regional and national UK wine competitions. But there is nothing quite like putting your wines into a pool of over 10,000 samples from around the world and having them tasted by an international panel of judges.
It takes consistency, quality and confidence to do this and that is how Ryedale Vineyard, in Westow, between Malton and York, became the first Yorkshire wine producer to win medals in an international wine competition.
It is not so long ago that English wine was the subject of sniggers and even now when I mention Yorkshire wine I am met with a mixture of laughter and plain disbelief. But in the last 10 years English wine has moved into the mainstream and now even Yorkshire wines are becoming more established as vineyards get older and winemaking improves.
But while Stuart and Elizabeth are the first to win international medals for their Yorkshire wines, they were not the first to plant vines here. Apart from historical reports of vines being cultivated by monks in the 15 century, George Bowden at Leventhorpe Vineyard, just outside Leeds, can claim that accolade. Over 30 years ago, when he was driving to work during a particularly bad winter, he noticed that the snow on the south-facing slope that he eventually bought had already melted. There was something special about that land and this became his vineyard. George has been through all the changes that English wines have seen in recent years. “Did people laugh at you in those early days?” I asked him. “Oh yes, but some of those critics are now my biggest fans,” he chuckled.
Now George has become somewhat of a TV star having appeared with Oz Clarke, James May and John Sergeant when they visited his vineyard. But that isn’t what makes him proud. To celebrate the 650th anniversary of the Worshipful Company of Vintners, Leventhorpe Vineyards Madeleine Angevine 2010 was poured at a grand dinner in London attended by the Duchess of Cornwall. “The French sommelier who selected it blind from a whole line-up of English wines thought it was the best.” Clearly quality is uppermost in George’s mind, and he is pleased with the recent good weather that has seen his vines go through flowering and fruit set. “The grapes have set and the crop is looking good but it is a long time until harvest so I never make any predictions.”
Over in Nun Monkton, between York and Harrogate, Chris and Gillian Spakouskas are busy expanding their Yorkshire Heart vineyard and have plans for a new visitor centre. They started out 15 years ago with just 35 vines in their garden and gradually expanded until now they have over 10 acres. “We are just planting some new land with Seyval Blanc and some early Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. We are doing really well with sparkling wines,” said Chris. “Our wine won the Trophy for the best Sparkling Wine in the Mercian Vineyard Association Awards and Gillian won the Winemaker Trophy too.” This fizz is bottle-fermented and left on its lees to age and develop more complexity. “We are doing some experiments to find out the best length of time to mature it. So far we have some at 12 months, 24 months and 32 months of age and the longer it ages, the more complex it becomes.”
When they are not looking after their vines, making wine, or helping their son Tim make beer in the brewery they set up nearby, they welcome visitors to the vineyard. You can visit, have a tour and a tasting, or even pull up in your own caravan and stay in the vineyard. “People love to wake up in the heart of the Yorkshire countryside and just wander through the vines,” said Chris.
Visitors are all part of the grand plan at Holmfirth Vineyard, which is situated on a blustery hillside in this village famous for The Last of the Summer Wine. Ian and Becky Sheveling gave up a hectic lifestyle to move back to their home roots and set up a vineyard. Now they have transformed the site and have eight acres of vines planted. “We have increased the acreage of Rondo and Solaris which seem to do really well on our site,” said Ian. That is not all that has changed here. There is a smart winery, fully equipped with as much shiny stainless steel as I have seen in quality wineries in France; there is a restaurant serving hearty Yorkshire breakfasts, lunches and afternoon teas, and now there are seven luxury holiday apartments in a building which is part-burrowed under the vineyard.
Most people I talk to dream of owning a vineyard. The imagined lifestyle is one of sitting on a veranda, with glass in hand, watching the grapes grow. But it isn’t like that. There is winter pruning, shoot thinning, soil maintenance, weeds to deal with, more planting, winemaking, and then you have to sell it. That is where the medals are useful. They give Yorkshire wines the credibility to stand shoulder to shoulder with wines from around the world.
Congratulations to all our Yorkshire vineyards for putting Yorkshire on the wine map. Wines are available from each of the vineyards and at farm shops and restaurants across the county. Look out for them.