Northern delights

Melting misconceptions into medals.

In part two of our focus on viticulture in Yorkshire, Victoria Rose visits Little Wold Vineyard in the old market town of South Cave, East Riding.

You close your eyes and think of Yorkshire. Do you see the rolling purple heather-covered hills of the North York Moors or the lush green valleys of the Yorkshire Dales? Do you remember the last time you read Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights or James Herriot’s series of books? Maybe you start singing Arctic Monkeys, or think about how long Sean Bean will make it through a film or television series before he gets killed off? 

Perhaps you think about crumbly Wensleydale cheese, a comforting cup of Yorkshire tea, a humongous Yorkshire pudding atop a Sunday roast, tucking into a chicken parmesan, or savouring a refreshing pint of John Smith’s. 

Supping your way through a deliciously, crisp Yorkshire wine is probably not (yet) on this list, but given the drive, enthusiasm and quality bursting from growers and wine producers dotted around God’s own county, surely it will not be long? 

As we ascended a steep, chalky track heading up towards the new tasting barn at Little Wold Vineyard, on the outskirts of South Cave, East Yorkshire, the rain clouds descended.

“People usually comment how beautiful the view is, but today you’ll just have to take my word for it,” chuckled Alice Maltby, as she ushered Vineyard magazine’s photographer, and I into the ‘contemporary rustic’ barn. With beads of water dripping off my wax jacket I walked towards the impressive floor to ceiling glass window. Squinting through the hanging grey mist, it was just possible to make out the vineyard on the opposite hillside.

We thankfully took a seat at one of the trestle tables right next to a portable heater. As Alice fumbled behind the bar for a kettle, I glanced round at the perfectly designed interior of the wooden clad barn, which was mostly constructed by Alice’s brother and Little Wold’s vineyard manager, Tom Wilson. 

True to the family’s farming roots, a large willow light installation hangs from the A-frame structure’s steel beams. Each table is simply decorated with an empty sparkling wine bottle, repurposed as a candle holder, and a vintage milk bottle filled with pretty seasonal foliage. 

“The milk bottles all date back to when my grandfather, Robert, ran a dairy herd on the farm,” said Alice, pointing to the red lettering which reads R J Wilson & Sons. “When my grandparents first purchased Market Place Farm the farmhouse and yard were located in the centre of the village and the land was divided between steep chalky slopes and productive flat land.” 

Running through the history of the site, Alice explained how the village of South Cave grew around the farm making it increasingly difficult to manage the livestock. Eventually, pressure from residents moving into the village, who “didn’t like the smell of the animals or their movements”, forced Robert to give up the herd and the farm was put into cereals. 

“We were growing predominantly barley and wheat but as our land was so steep, we needed special machinery to harvest it safely,” said Alice. “Then in the late-1990s, early 2000s, cereal prices fell through the floor while the cost of inputs like fertiliser doubled. Everything was just too difficult, and it certainly wasn’t profitable enough, so the hillsides were put into an organic stewardship scheme and the flat land was planted with willow.” 

Part of a cooperative of local willow growers, Alice’s father, Henry, initially started supplying willow for use as biomass at Drax, which is located just a few miles away, the first power station in the UK to be fuelled by wood. 

“When Drax pulled the willow contract we had to start shipping the crop up to Northumbria where it is still used today to produce high-end cardboard for Champagne bottle boxes,” said Alice. “Although it is now a nice link with the vineyard, and I am sure we will get boxes from them at some point in the future, the change in circumstance had a huge impact on the profits and made it extremely difficult for dad, who was approaching retirement age.” 

Knowing that the farm wasn’t viable in its current situation, Henry found himself at a difficult crossroads: sell up or drastically change tack.

Sloping chalk land

Not wanting to give up his family’s legacy, it was time to find something completely different to do with the land.

“While visiting family in South Africa, dad was out playing golf and as he teed off, he watched his golf ball sail over the green towards a neighbouring vineyard. He looked out at the winery and says he thought about how lovely vines in Yorkshire would be,” said Alice.

From this, Henry started to research English wine. As he knew he had south facing, steep sloping chalk land, further advice was sought from Stuart Smith at Ryedale Vineyard. The site was reviewed, the soil was tested, and after Stuart’s conclusions the family decided to diversify into viticulture. 

“Stuart said to dad that if we didn’t plant here, then he would and so we took it from there,” said Alice. 

The first vineyard, which sits opposite the new tasting room, was planted in 2012 with Madeleine angevine, Solaris, Rondo and a very small amount of Pinot noir précoce and Chardonnay. In 2014, the Wilsons planted more vines, which included Seyval blanc and in 2018 another site on the farm was established with 6,000 vines, including Phoenix, more Pinot noir précoce, more Seyval blanc and Siegerrebe.

“The first site was not only ideal from a viticultural point of view, it was also well hidden,” said Alice. “Dad was a bit worried that his farmer friends would laugh at the vines, and if it all went wrong, he knew he could quickly plough it up without anyone seeing. Now we know it is a success, the second vineyard has been planted on another suitable site which is definitely in a position where everyone can see it and is even visible from the M62.” 

Steep learning curve

Named after the district of low hills in the East Riding of Yorkshire, Little Wold Vineyard today has 10,000 vines in the ground, all of which are managed by Henry and Tom. As discovered in last month’s editor’s visit to Laurel Vines, northern viticulturists are severely at a disadvantage when it comes to accessing relevant training and education. Fortunately, the Wilsons have been able to draw on and adapt their extensive agricultural knowledge.

“I don’t think dad and Tom give themselves enough credit for the skills which they have brought across from farming,” said Alice. “Tom is the third generation to farm this land and both him and dad know how to work on the steep slopes. The first vineyard was planted with the rows far enough apart to get the big tractors through and when it came to planting time, I remember we borrowed a machine from a local Christmas tree farmer. It was a single armed subsoiler, we had some blue string for lining everything up and we just dropped the vines in. It is just about being creative and finding different ways of doing things without having a detrimental impact on the end crop.”

The family might not have come into viticulture from a wine background, but knowing the land, understanding the basic principles of growing crops, experience of managing a spray programme and knowing how to operate machinery has all helped immensely.

Having said this, the task of getting the vineyard up and running has still been a steep learning curve for the Wilsons.

“I learnt very quickly that there are a number of basics which you have to keep your eyes on, of which mildew is one,” said Henry, who lost some of his first potential grape crop to disease after not implementing a rigid enough spray regime. “The pruning was initially problematic too, and we struggled to get it right at first. But going into something relatively blind, we always knew it was going to be a bit of a challenge. We have done a lot of learning since then. It has probably taken longer to get going than if we had known a bit more, but I am delighted to say that, even at this later stage in my life, we have hit upon something which is providing a real future for the farm.”

Overcoming the small hiccups from their formative years, both Henry and Tom now know how to deal with everything they have come across before and are only stumped by issues which they have not seen previously.

“We need to find someone who can come into the business with some sound viticultural knowledge,” said Henry. “Finding labour is an issue because no one round here aspires to be a vineyard manager, because they don’t know it is a career option. The people who want to work in the wine industry, tend not to have an agricultural background, so they don’t know how to drive a tractor, and the people who go to the local agricultural colleges have their sights set on sitting on the big fancy GPS guided machinery all day, which we don’t have.” 

With this in mind, Alice told me that Little Wold have already expressed their interest to be involved in the apprenticeship scheme which was last month announced by Sussex-based Plumpton College. 

“We want someone who will just be focused on the vines and growing the grapes,” said Alice. “When it comes to picking, we have an adopt a vine scheme and a lot of members are happy to come along and help with harvest. But for the strenuous work it is really tricky to find people who will be reliable enough to turn up and who will be happy enough to get the job done. Up here, finding anyone who is trained is impossible and that is why the apprenticeship is so interesting to us.”

Other growers are curious

Having never grown vines anywhere other than Yorkshire, Henry couldn’t comment on whether the viticultural challenges he faces are any more difficult or persistent than those experienced by other growers in the UK.

What was clear, however, is that while the public are becoming increasingly familiar and accepting of the fact that there are vineyards littered across the South, there is still utter shock and sometimes disbelief over the concept of a Yorkshire vineyard making quality English still and sparkling wines. 

“Everyone just thinks that it is too cold to grow grapes in Yorkshire, but the quality of our wines is proof that it clearly does work. We have three still whites, a rosé, a red, a sparkling white and sparkling rosé in our range and so far, everything we have produced has been awarded at least a bronze medal,” said Alice, who has also been picking up accolades having been named the 2018 New Business and overall Woman of Achievement at the bi-annual Hull and East Yorkshire Women of Achievement Awards. 

Indeed, the estate’s 2018 Poppy Hill Rosé was recently awarded the Mercian Vineyards Association (now called WineGB Midlands and North) trophy for the highest scoring wine in the North region. The 2018 Three Cocked Hat and the 2017 Henry’s Harvest picked up bronze medals in the Independent English Wine Awards. The latter also won a WineGB Awards’ bronze medal along with the 2016 Heather’s Sparkle and the 2018 James’ View.

“I think that the awards really do say something about the quality of grapes we can grow,” said Henry. “When we travel to industry events in London it is really interesting that other growers we meet are so curious about what we are doing up here in Yorkshire and we have had some very good reviews of the wines. Even Oz Clarke said that our traditional method wines are very good examples of English sparkling and I am quite happy to move the business forward with positive comments like that.”

As well as providing the family with a morale boost, knowing they are on the right track, the awards also help to give Little Wold’s Yorkshire wines more credibility and provide an opportunity to put the wider region in front of fellow UK wine industry peers.

“When we travel to the award presentations it is great to be able to see other growers representing the midlands and northern regions,” said Alice. “There are not many of us, but we are creating more of a presence and making more of an impact. There might be misconceptions about vineyards up north, with people thinking that it is too cold or whatever else, but the fact that we are attending the same events to pick up similar, if not the same, certificates shows that we must be doing something right.”

Alice also tells me that she distinctly remembers at one of the awards presentations a few years back, she was sitting next to the owner of a large, well established vineyard in Surrey. 

“I made a comment about the fact that we were just winging it and he simply laughed and said, ‘just look around this room, everyone is just winging it really’,” said Alice.

Struggling to keep up with demand

Winging it or not, Little Wold’s bright and promising line up of wines is certainly proving to be as popular with consumers as it is with the award judges. The estate, which produced 2,000 bottles in its first production year and 6,500 in its second, has successfully sold out of each vintage. With this, thoughts have already turned to how to keep on top of supplying the increasing demand. 

“I know I am biased, but I do like our lighter, fruiter styles. We seem to have a very good following for it too proven by the fact that we have some interesting sales leads. My worry now is that if they all come off that we wouldn’t have enough wine to supply them,” said Henry. “We have been lucky enough to take on another established vineyard in Doncaster. Without that site we would be seriously short of grapes. Although, the fact we are actually struggling to keep up with the demand for the wines is actually a very nice situation to be in.” 

From the 2018 vintage, benefiting from access to Summerhouse Vineyard’s fruit, Little Wold were able to ramp up annual production to 12,500 bottles. From April 2019 through to my visit in October, Alice says they have already sold half of this and are now delicately managing stock to ensure it lasts.

“People might be talking about oversupply, but we certainly are not there yet,” said Alice. “Being in Yorkshire, not surrounded by lots of other producers might possibly help, but we also have a lot of restaurants, farm shops and local wine merchants who want to work with us. We are now working out how to balance trade sales with what we sell direct. We are learning as we go along.”

Legacy for generations

Selling as much wine as possible direct to the consumer, and reaping higher profit margins, is surely the main goal of all wine producers, worldwide. This is even more important for Little Wold, a family-run farm trying to build a viable legacy for generations to come. 

Currently, Little Wold do not have an onsite winery. All fruit is transported to Halfpenny Green in Staffordshire, where the renowned team, headed up by Martin and Clive Vickers and Ben Hunt, transform the grapes into bottles of delicious English wine.

“We were advised to use Halfpenny Green by Stuart Smith and we have been very pleased with them,” said Alice. “We went into winemaking completely blind. My knowledge was that I liked a medium-dry white and that was about it, but I have learnt a lot since then. Clive and Ben have been instrumental in guiding us through the process. We take the grapes down to them at harvest and go back again in January or February to taste what’s in the tanks. They will then sit with us and work through the blending and dosages for the sparkling and we just focus on making the wines so at least we could enjoy them.”

Using a contract winemaker, coupled with a bumper 2018 harvest and ambitious plans to double production with the acquisition of another vineyard, has naturally put quite a strain on the cash flow of the young business. 

“It has been a struggle this year,” said Henry. “We have a lot of value in stock but until it is sold, that’s all it is. Finances are seriously stretched, so we are doing a lot of other things on the farm to help with this.” 

During our interview, Henry teased Alice that the new tasting room (or shed as he calls it) has been constructed from an agricultural frame so that it could be “dual purpose” and quickly converted back to “storing corn or sheep” if it all “goes wrong with the grape growing” business.

Joking aside, the new tasting room has opened many opportunities for Little Wold to host a range of wine tourism events, courses and experience days and it is clear there has been plenty put in place to ensure that the vineyard successfully brings other income streams into the farm.

“We have always tried to be a little bit out in front, which has made life a bit more interesting, albeit risky, but the fact the people are coming to visit the vineyard and are enjoying the experience is really wonderful,” said Henry.

Teacher turned wedding planner

While the tours and tastings, workshops, masterclasses and corporate events might all be new to Little Wold, Alice already has plenty of experience in welcoming visitors to the vineyard as she established a lucrative wedding offering at the venue a few years ago. 

“When we planted in 2012, we knew we weren’t going to get a crop for a few years,” said Alice. “I knew the owners of a tipi company, called PapaKåta, who came to do a site visit. After seeing the unique combination of our cracking view and the vines they suggested that we give weddings a go.”

After finding a section of land which was flat enough for the tipis, Alice started to gently advertise the venue and after a few bookings “it went mad”. The location became so sought after, Little Wold purchased its own wedding marquee and today Alice (who married her husband Andy at the vineyard in 2016) also helps couples to organise the entire day, from booking caterers to arranging security.

“It can be stressful for people to organise a wedding when the venue is totally off the grid,” said Alice. “Hosting weddings at the vineyard is not as easy as people think, but it is an incredible thing to be a part of. It has also been great for budgeting and forecasting because we know a year or even two years in advance what bookings are in.”

For Little Wold too, which has not yet opened a cellar door retail facility, the weddings provide an ideal opportunity to sell and promote the wines direct to a captive audience as only estate-grown wines are now served at the weddings. 

“On a wedding day we will have 100 plus people arriving at the vineyard from all over the world,” said Alice. “A lot of visitors don’t know that we grow grapes in England, let alone in Yorkshire. These guests will all be drinking our wine, looking at our vineyard and I often hear comments about how amazed people are at the quality of the wine. Seeing the wines appear on social media and watching new followers pouring in from further afield can only be a good thing as well.”

Weddings might be the ideal way to help people fall in love and buy into the brand, but Alice points out that it is not for the faint hearted. The ex-primary school teacher believes that it takes a certain type of estate owner to make vineyard weddings a real success. 

“The weddings are worth it, but you do have to be extremely well organised,” said Alice. “I have been trained to be patient and organised. You have to be very open minded because couples have extremely high expectations and you need to make sure you can live up to them. You also have to be prepared to deal with phone calls at all times of the day with brides, and grooms, throwing all manner of questions at you and expecting an immediate response. The day itself is also tiring. From setting up to closing down it is an all-day affair; at 28 weeks pregnant I remember doing 20 hours on my feet. They are long, hard days but are absolutely worth it at the end.” 

Currently the wedding guests have exclusive use of the site, another aspect which Alice believes is something for vineyard owners with existing tourism facilities to bear in mind. She explains that Little Wold do have future plans for a cellar door shop, but it is hoped that this will be located on another site, so that bride and grooms don’t “have to share their special day with hundreds of other people who may also be visiting your vineyard”.

Looking to the future, Alice also mentioned that she would like to offer accommodation too, with glamping type facilities or log cabins. With a vineyard located in the picturesque Yorkshire Wolds, producing a range of delicious English wines, Alice and Tom are keen to do everything they can to turn the farm into a wider business which can sustain the entire family. 

“There is more to viticulture than meets the eye and the cost of production is not cheap,” said Alice. “Both my brother and I are involved in the business currently, but my husband and my sister-in-law both have other careers. I would like to think that by the time we hand it down to the next generation the business would be sustainable, but it has to have lots of branches to it. There is no chance we could solely live off the wine sales, the tourism aspect of it is vital.”

The wines

Barley Hill White

Named after an old photograph of Robert cutting the barley crop while Henry, a small boy at the time, collects the sheafs. This was the first wine Little Wold produced and is a well-balanced, medium-dry blend of Phoenix, Seyval blanc, Solaris and Madeleine angevine. A real crowd pleaser with stone fruits on the nose.

Chalk Hill White

After customers said they would like a drier version of the Barley Hill, the Wilsons set about creating Chalk Hill. This blend of Phoenix, Solaris and Madeleine angevine has a floral nose with bold citrus note on the palate.

Heather’s Sparkle 

This brut Rosé sparkling wine, which exhibits delicate strawberry aromas, was made for Henry’s wife Heather, to mark her 65th birthday. 

Poppy Hill Rosé

A single varietal Rondo bursting with crisp, juicy strawberry notes, Poppy Hill is a tribute to the year Henry misjudged his weed control and accidentally transformed a valley of cereals into a sea of poppies. While photographers and artists flocked to see the beautiful spectacle, the local agricultural college used it in its weed management lectures and no one dared mention poppies in the Wilson household for many years after.

Three Cocked Hat

It is customary for farmers to name their fields and the estate’s charming Rondo red wine is named after the field in which the tasting barn sits. When constructing the barn, archaeologists came to oversee the project and brought a map showing that the name Three Cocked Hat dates back to the 1800s. A bit of luck too, as the woodland on the other side of the valley used to be called Sweaty Bottom. 

James’ View

This single varietal was produced after the incredible 2018 vintage and is one of the finest examples of Phoenix in the country. Named in memory of Alice and Tom’s brother James, as well as the spectacular views enjoyed from his memory bench, this luscious wine, boast a nose of sweet green peppers with moreish flavours of ripe tropical fruits. 

Henry’s Harvest

Named after the pioneer behind the farm’s success and the vineyards existence, this brut is fresh and fruity with hints of green apple.

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