English wine used to be the butt of jokes and now it’s winning awards. neil hudson talks to george bowden who has enjoyed a bumper year at his leventhorpe vineyard.
GEORGE Bowden is having a good year, except he’s still a bit worried about wasps.
He’s speaking to me from his vineyard at Leventhorpe, on the outskirts of Leeds, which just so happens to be one of the most northerly in the country.
“They have a knack of turning up when you least expect it,” says the chemistry teacher turned winemaker.
“In the summer, they’re good because they eat a lot of flies but there’s still time for them cause a problem, it’s all to do with their life cycle, because this is the time of year they all get kicked out of the nest by the queen and go off and fend for themselves, so they have to go find food and sleep under the leaves and so on.”
While the life cycle of wasps is not something you might expect your average wine maker to be genned up on, for George it’s just one of the countless useful nuggets of information he’s picked up since he bought a farmer’s field near the Leeds-Wakefield border more than 20 years ago.
It’s a stone’s throw from the big roundabout at Colton but still far enough away from the city to make you think you’re in the middle of the countryside.
He bought the field almost by chance, having driven past it during a particularly harsh winter in order to avoid the main roads - it was then he noticed the snow had already melted on the field, which told him it was well drained and soaked up heat from the sun. He made a mental note to himself: ‘if it ever comes up for sale, I’ll buy it.’
Not long after, it did come up for sale. He recalls half in jest: “I think I sneezed during the auction and ended up buying it.”
He continued teaching until 1999, when he decided to devote his himself solely to the vineyard.
This year is especially poignant for him because it will be 30 years since the vineyard was founded on the gently sloping south-facing fields off Bullerthorpe Lane between Swillington and Woodlesford.
The field was mentioned in the Doomsday Book and even back then it was noted for its favourable climes, with George pointing out that they used to overwinter pigs there and that pigs feel the cold as we do.
Indeed, there are even reports of vines being grown in the area as far back as the 15th Century and George reasons he’s merely revived the tradition. Indeed, he’s is in reflective mood.
“If all the humans disappeared,” he muses, “all the vines would too, they’re cultivated by us. They originally grew on mountain sides, in places like the Alps and Himalayas.
The first documented evidence of wine being cultivated was with the Persians.” But since then it’s become a global phenomenon and is increasingly seeing some of the lesser known countries challenging the so-called big boys of the “old world.”
“Wines from Britain used to be looked down upon, in the same way wines from New Zealand or Australia were once but now no-one questions them. Some of the wines we produce here have just won gold and silver from the UK Vineyard Association,” says George.
Not only that but the acreage of vineyards in England has doubled in the last seven years and there are some producers aiming to produce an unheard of million bottles a year.
Perhaps more importantly, mentioning English or Welsh wine at a dinner table is no longer likely to attract sniggers of derision.
There are now over 400 vineyards – and 116 wineries – scattered throughout the UK and wines from our shores, especially a nice glass of fizz, are fast making their mark in the world.
Earlier this year a West Country winemaker became the first English vintner to be shortlisted for the world’s top sparkling wine award, rubbing shoulders with France’s top Champagne houses.
Leventhorpe is no stranger to awards either, having won several regional accolades – it has also passed quality tests to differentiate it from other ‘table wines’, so, its labels now carry the words ‘Yorkshire Regional Wine’ to reflect this.
Mr Bowden’s wines have other plaudits, including praise from the likes of TV wine critic Oz Clarke and journeyman James May – the two collaborated on Oz and James’s Big Wine Adventure (2007), although he recalls they both got rather inebriated during their visit.
Having swapped the classroom for the vineyard, he’s now a man who is used to working outdoors and everything that comes with the not so great British weather.
Indeed, when I first met him several years ago on a cold March morning, he was suitably dressed, whereas I was dressed in a suit - hardly the right gear to be stomping around a muddy field in sub-zero temperatures.
For George, though, it’s something he’s become accustomed to. “I live with the seasons these days, like a farmer. I do whatever needs doing at the time and I have set tasks which I know I have to get through.
“In the winter, there’s pruning to be done, in the spring tending new growth, then cultivating and then, of course, the harvest. It’s like washing plates in a hotel… there’s always more to do, but I don’t see that as a negative. “I’m quite glad to be out in the elements. The cold is never something you get used to, you just grin and bear it and go have another cup of tea.”
Harvest time is fast approaching. When the time is right, he will begin harvesting his crop, starting at the top of the field and, over a period of around ten days, working his way down, so that all the grapes will have reached roughly the same level of maturity.
He jokes that his two regular helpers during harvest time are “the only two teetotal Methodist grape pickers in the country”, which is something I get the impression he’s rather grateful of.
“We’ve not done bad for pests this year,” he continues, “but I never like to let my guard down. We’ve had a good July and August and a cooler September, which is good for the vines, because it means they won’t ripen when they’re not supposed to.
“I don’t want to be drawn into saying what’s going to happen, because it might come back and bite me but it looks like we’ve got a good crop and the sugar levels in the grapes are just where they’re supposed to be.”
He’s hoping to harvest his six acres of vines, around November time and this year, because of the good weather, he’s expecting a bumper crop, although he won’t go into too much detail on it.
A slightly guarded nature and a tendency to make dry witticisms are just two of his character traits. Which is not to say he’s not amiable, because he is but he certainly epitomises that no-nonsense Yorkshire stereotype.
George’s wines go all over the UK and he supplies several restaurants and bars in Leeds.
He’s proud of the fact the word ‘Yorkshire’ appears on his wine labels, because his English regional wine has to be tested by Defra to meet strict EU standards.
Some of his wines even go as far as Japan and France, which is pretty impressive especially given our Gallic neighbour’s standing in the wine world.
Still, he’s not complacent and is always ready with a pearl of wisdom: “Wasn’t it John Lennon who said that life is what goes on around you if you try to get ahead?
“English wine seems to be on the up at the moment, it commands a lot more respect than it did but that’s the same with any new industry.
“What you do not want is people buying one bottle, it’s the repeat sales which matter and in order to achieve that you have to have quality.”
l For more information contact the vineyard on 0113 288 9088 or email firstname.lastname@example.org