REPORTS in the press of the failure of this year’s English grape harvest are a little exaggerated. Yields were down in many vineyards, but even in North Yorkshire, healthy, ripe grapes made it to the press and will make good wine.
I joined the pickers at Yorkshire Heart Vineyard at Nun Monkton, just outside York, on a blustery, cold morning, just before the clocks went back.
As I drove down, I cursed heavy snow showers and a BBC Radio Tees traffic reporter who insisted that it was ‘Baltic out there’; but after a steaming cup of coffee and a warm Yorkshire welcome from Chris and Gillian Spakouskas, the owners of Yorkshire Heart, the bulldog spirit took over.
Out we went with Chris’s warning that grape secateurs can be devilishly sharp, and lethal when your hands are numb with cold, and set to work on several rows of Seyval Blanc.
“Seyval really seems to like growing here,” Chris remarked cheerfully, as bucket after bucket full of ripe grapes were loaded on to the 1954 mini truck that looked as if it might have come straight out of a Pink Panther film.
Seyval Blanc is a hardy variety that is both disease-resistant and early ripening. Although it isn’t big on flavour, it can be an excellent base for sparkling wine, which is why Chris and Gillian grow it.
This year’s crop, certainly smaller than they would hope for in a better season, was still big enough to produce a thousand bottles for every hectare of vines, and was in good condition.
The natural sugar levels were such that, left to its own devices, it would only achieve around 7% or maybe 8% alcohol, but the law permits growers to enrich the juice before fermentation with sugar, and Gillian will not be pushing that limit this year.
Acidity levels were good too: high enough to give the wine crisp freshness, but the juice was certainly not mouth-puckeringly sharp.
The 18 or 20 pickers were friends and family, most of whom had helped on a couple of previous occasions at Yorkshire Heart. We turned out in return for a free lunch and healthy dose of fresh air.
The snow, sleet and rain held off. The sun shone. The going under foot on the grassed rows between the vines was good to firm, and the keen north wind served to ensure the grapes were clean and dry.
When sugar levels are low the last thing a winemaker needs is further dilution from rain water.
We each snipped away, working methodically down one long row and up the next, piling the grapes into orange buckets which were then tipped into bigger grey ones and loaded on to the Pink Panther truck.
The trellising system at Yorkshire Heart, like many in the UK, is kind to pickers.
The rows are relatively wide and the grapes are trained so that they grow at a convenient height.
Unlike the last time I picked grapes in France, I wasn’t continually bending and stretching.
And because the sugar levels were relatively low, my hands didn’t become horribly sticky, which they do within 10 minutes of picking in warmer climes.
We were pretty efficient and kept to schedule. With a willing team, two days are enough to pick the fruit from the vineyard which is just less than three hectares (seven acres) large.
Some varieties didn’t cope too well in this cool, wet season. Apart from Seyval Blanc, the most successful were the deep red Rondo, unusual in that it has red juice, and the scented Solaris, which is such an efficient sugar machine that I found it hard to resist a pick-one eat-one strategy when I joined in stripping the last few rows of it. It was delicious.
After lunch, while the rest of the team worked on another part of the vineyard, I went with Gillian to the winery to begin crushing the grapes we’d already picked.
Their press is a very efficient, modern, pneumatic job – a horizontally mounted stainless steel cylinder that turns slowly while a heavy-duty rubber membrane inside gently inflates, squeezing the grapes against the sides.
Gillian weighed the crates of grapes before I helped to heave them, whole bunches, into the opening on the side of press.
Commercial winemaking is very carefully monitored by HM Customs and Excise.
Each cycle for sparkling wine takes about two and a half hours, during which the bag inside the press slowly inflates several times.
The juice drains into a trough below the press and is pumped straight into a tank. It is left to settle for 24 hours and is then fermented with the help of cultured yeast.
Gillian will begin the second fermentation to turn the still wine into fizz in a couple of months’ time – another story.
The sparkling wine we helped to make will be ready to celebrate Christmas 2013; smaller quantities of still wine, white, red and rosé, will be bottled late in the spring. A little patience is needed.
In the meantime if you fancy visiting this fascinating vineyard give Gillian and Chris a ring, they’re delighted to welcome groups.
Details at www.yorkshireheart.com
WINE OF THE WEEK
GSM £4.49, Morrisons
Hearty Spanish red from Valencia, a blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre. It has a herby, slightly savoury smell and a chunky, concentrated flavour of ripe black fruits, all rounded off by soft tannins. Brilliant value for money and perfect with any steaming hot autumn stew.
Plan de Dieu, Côtes du Rhône Villages 2011, one of an increasingly impressive Tesco Finest range, shows what fabulous value some of the lesser known parts of the southern Rhône can offer. At just £6.99 this gives many a Châteauneuf du Papes or Gigondas a real run for their money. It's packed with spicy, herby black fruit, with hints of black olives and liquorice with juicy acidity and soft tannins.
Two more value-for-money goodies from The Wine Society impressed me recently: The Society's Verdicchio de Castelli di Jesi Classico (£6.25), a deliciously fragrant Italian dry white. It's refreshingly tangy, slightly salty, with ripe apple and grapefruit flavours. The society's Rioja Crianza 2008 (£6.95) is made by the excellent Bodegas Palacios: a forthright mix of almost raisined, spicy fruit and spicy oak, quite juicy acidity and firm tannins. www.thewinesociety.com