Producing wine on the Wetherby doorstep

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There was an article in one of the Sunday papers this week about the fact that the big French wine growers are now using a range of high-tech gizmos such as robots, laser guns and even ‘drones’ (unmanned aerial vehicles) to assist them in their wine production.

I thought that it was only the Americans in Afghanistan who used drones in order to drop bombs by remote control.

But it seems that small, inexpensive imitations are now being used to fly over the vineyards to photograph the vines.

The drone is operated from an Ipad and the film is downloaded onto a computer via a small storage device.

It enables the growers to see if treatments have been applied evenly and where water is accumulating after a shower of rain.

Laser guns are used to test the ripeness of the grapes and to help the grower decide if they are ready for picking.

Robots make a survey of insects, assess ripeness and detect blight.

I assume that all this high-tech stuff cuts down on manpower and perhaps helps to make what is potentially a pretty risky business into a safer one.

I don’t think our local vineyard in Nun Monkton will need such devices – at least not just yet.

Did you know that we have a wonderful vineyard just a few miles up the A1?

I certainly didn’t until last year when Gill and Chris Spakouskas came to the Wetherby Twinning Association’s AGM to talk about their experiences as winegrowers.

We were all so impressed by their knowledge and enthusiasm that we arranged to visit the Yorkshire Heart vineyard last week.

We were unbelievably lucky with the weather.

After days of winter temperatures, cold winds and rain, Friday evening came round with blue skies and even – dare I say it? – sunshine!

We were greeted at the vineyard by Gill with an initial tasting of their sparkling wines.

Now, I can’t think of a better way to start off the weekend than sitting in a beautifully-tended vineyard in the warm evening sunshine, sipping a glass of fizz, can you?

Gill and Chris started off in early 2000 with 35 vines in their garden and five years later, had made their first official wine.

They enjoyed the experience so much that they decided to go for commercial planting and in 2006, after choosing a suitable seven-acre site, planted 1,000 vines.

They planted 1,000 to 3,000 vines each subsequent year, so that they now have around 12,500.

It’s been very much a case of trial and error finding out which variety is best suited to our Yorkshire climate and the soil.

But it is quite obvious that they have both enjoyed every minute of the experience.

The vineyard looks immaculate – rows and rows of vines with grass in between.

Each row has the name of the variety and the number of the rootstock on it, so that identification is easy.

I don’t think any of us had thought about the bureaucratic side of being a winegrower.

The vineyard is regularly inspected by Customs and Excise.

All of the wine produced has to be accounted for and the appropriate duty paid.

If some of the wine is turned into wine vinegar, the inspectors require proof.

I’m sure that many potential growers would be completely put off by having to jump through so many hoops, but not Gill and Chris – they are made of sterner stuff!

The grapes are harvested by hand in September/October and only the top quality ones go to the winery.

We asked if the grapes were pressed by the traditional method – ie someone walking up and down on them in bare feet.

Gill said that they had tried it, but it’s very cold on the feet and not very effective!

The range of wines is most impressive – a sparkling white and rosé plus a red, a white and a rosé.

We tasted all of them and I have to say, we enjoyed them all.

In fact, when we make our official visit to our twin-town, Privas, next year, we will certainly be taking some samples with us to show what we can do in Yorkshire!

Not content with just the vineyard (or perhaps to satisfy Chris and his son), a micro-brewery was opened in 2011, using only top quality ingredients and equipment.

All of the beers brewed on site use local produce wherever possible, including water from their own natural spring – giving the beer a unique Yorkshire taste.

I wonder what this highly enterprising couple will come up with next?

It is very heartening to meet people who are doing something different with such passion and enthusiasm.

I wish them every success and hope that we have a lot more sunshine to give them a great 2013 vintage.