In conversation with Chris and Gillian Spakouskas

Chris and Gillian Spakouskas at Yorkshire Heart in Nun Monkton, York, talk to Vineyard about what it’s like to be a Northern wine producer. 

How did you end up planting a vineyard in Yorkshire? 

We didn’t so much end up in Yorkshire as start here. The vineyard developed from a desire to make wine, originally small scale but when a passion for growing vines kicked in, we looked for the most suitable site around us.

Tell us about your terroir…

First planted in 2006, Yorkshire Heart is a 14-acre site planted on Alluvial drift (sand over clay) 18-metres above sea level. 7000 years ago, the Vale of York was a large lake, so we have very productive land. Our site is flat and sheltered from the westerly winds. We grow a mixture of varieties including Acolon, Cabernet cortis, Cabernet franc, Chardonnay, Dornfelder, Gamay, Ortega, Pinot gris, Pinot noir, Regent, Rondo, Seyval blanc, Siegerrebe and Solaris.

How was harvest 2019 in terms of quantity and quality?

2019 was a tough harvest in so much as the weather interrupted the flow of picking but the fluctuating temperatures have helped the fruit have good phenolic ripeness. All in all its been a good harvest with clean disease free fruit and expected quantity for the age of our vineyard.

What is the biggest viticultural challenge of being located so far north?

While it’s true that our climate is slightly less favourable than that of the southern vineyards, we do have very good growing conditions in Yorkshire. Like everyone we can be challenged by late spring frosts. We are fortunate enough to have an excellent agronomist, John Buchan, who is always on hand to advise us.

How would you describe the ethos of the estate?

Good better best, may we never rest ‘til our good is better and our better best! 

What is your approach to winemaking?

You can make good wine in a winery, but great wine comes from the vineyard. So, we dedicate our time to growing the best quality grapes possible. Our wines are fresh acidity, rich fruit forward style. Made to be drunk with food. 

What technology / machinery could you not live without in the winery?

The red wine fermenter and oak barrels are as important as anything. It might sound daft, but we couldn’t survive without our forklift truck. 

Do you have a market in mind when you are crafting your products?

From day one we built our business with cellar door sales as our target market. We are therefore fortunate enough to get a lot of useful feedback directly from the consumer, so we can create a style of wine to suit our market.

Do you think producers need to offer more than just wine to be sustainable?

It depends on your business plan, we always intended to grow the tourism side of the business and this has proved to be very successful for us.

How has the UK wine tourism offering changed since the business started? 

There is a lot more publicity and hence a lot more interest in visiting vineyards and tasting English wines. We’ve noticed a steady stream of returning customers who appreciate Yorkshire wines and are interested to learn more about where the wine comes from. We offer vineyard tours twice weekly, the tours last two hours and cover a little history, a walk among the vines and an interactive winery experience where we run through the processing equipment to show how grapes go from the vine to the bottle. We taste through four wines and include a tasting platter. Most of our weekend tours number up 100 visitors at a time and are generally pre-booked. In 2018, we were delighted to be awarded a gold medal in the IWC cellar door challenge.

Why do your customers seek out vineyard experiences? 

For many it’s an opportunity to connect with local food production. English wine is growing in stature and people are keen to widen their knowledge. 

How can tourism help to sell wine?

If you give people a great experience in the amazing setting of a vineyard drinking wine produced just a few feet from where they are sitting it creates a long lasting memory. 

Do you think it is going to become more challenging to stand out in a crowded market?

Not at all, it can only help promote English wine as our industry grows and more consumers learn to trust the brand WineGB. In reality England is a small country so geographically your location is of little significance.

Name one interesting fact about Yorkshire Heart that helps the brand stick in people’s minds.

We are a family run business very much hands on with three generations involved in building it. Many people ask how we came up with the name Yorkshire Heart, I like to tell them it’s because Gillian is from Yorkshire and that I’m all heart!

What do you think is the biggest issue facing the industry at the moment?

There is an underlying current of fragmentation in our industry, we must stick together as WineGB and build a strong brand nationally. As a rapidly growing industry we need to encourage far more education and training. 

What advice would you give to those looking to get into the UK viticulture industry?

Don’t waste time looking for the perfect site, it probably doesn’t exist, make the best of what you’ve got and make use of all the help that is available. Buy the best sprayer you can afford. You can have the best marketing strategy in the world but it’s your vines that will make or break your business. Employ an agronomist and follow their advice.

What’s in store for Yorkshire Heart in 2020?

We will be planting a further three acres of vines, developing the tourism and restaurant side of the vineyard.

Finish this sentence: In ten years’ time…. 

We will see the vineyard mature into a top-quality site and be respected among our peers for the wines we produce. Oh! and tootle about in a brand-new Aston Martin. 

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