Sheffield vineyard run entirely by volunteers produces enough grapes to make thousands of bottles of wine
You may have heard about Whirlow Hall Farm through the grapevine. An educational charitable trust, it is a favourite location for school trips, with opportunities for animal petting and rides on farmer John’s tractor.
But for the last decade Whirlow Hall has also had something for the parents to enjoy too – a vineyard producing grapes used to make delicious English wine.
The vineyard was planted in 2010 with support from Hugh Facey, chairman of Sheffield manufacturing company Gripple, and last month produced its twelfth vintage.
Derek Henry, who has volunteered at the vineyard since it was planted and now helps run it, said: “You expect something like this to be in the south of France. A lot of people thought it was crazy to even have the idea.
"Hugh Facey brought the idea to the farm and got sponsorship from various business colleagues to establish it. I had recently retired and came to volunteer at the farm and that project was starting at that time.
"At Whirlow If you get involved with something you end up helping to run it. We had some problems with weeds in the first year. I asked questions about pruning and I learned a lot.
"We are a marginal vineyard - it is 850 feet above sea level, we are on the limit of where vineyards are viable. We don’t get a great crop every year but then not every vineyard does, no matter where you are."
This year, however, the vineyard had one of its best harvests ever, producing around three tonnes of grapes, which translates to roughly 2,000 bottles of wine.
The vineyard grows three varieties of grapes: rondo, solaris and phoenix and can produce five different types of wine – sparkling white and rosé, and still red, white, and rosé. All are sold under the aptly named Steel City Wine brand.
Derek added: “People generally reckon the wine is a pretty good quality. English wines are reasonably popular these days but due to the volume compared to French, Italian and Chilean, the chance of finding an English wine is very small. They don’t tend to sell them at the supermarket.
"2018 was a good harvest, this year we had a really good harvest. Last year was less than one tonne. It is due to the weather, we do the same amount of work every year. We had a really hot spell around May, when grape flowers are opening and that is critical. The grape flower fertilisation took place during the warm dry spell. We had an Indian summer which really ripened the grapes up.”
A lot of work goes into looking after the vineyard which has about 2,800 potential vines and is cared for by up to ten volunteers.
Derek said: “We tend to spend two months pruning, just cutting back last years growth, and tying down vines and establishing the potential for new shoots on the vines. Vines are a climbing plant, you need a trellising system of wires for them. Ultimately it’s a hedge trimming exercise.
"June and July time is continual hedge cutting. We have a team of volunteers for grape picking who may not have done any other work on the vineyard. We send an email when we know the day we will be picking and we generally get about 30 people to help pick."
After the grapes are picked they are sent to Halfpenny Green Vineyard in Birmingham, which has between 30,000-40,000 vines and also does contract wine making for small vineyards like Whirlow Hall.
The grapes that have just been picked at Whirlow will come back from Halfpenny Green in the middle of next year in the form of several thousands bottles of wine.
These are sold at the farm shop and are also used at wedding receptions and other farm events. The sparkling wines are priced at £25 a bottle and the still wines are £15.
Derek said: “Money from the wine is a part of the farm’s fundraising activities like growing sheep and pigs. It is added profit for the ongoing work of the trust. The vineyard is another aspect of the farm. It is one of these niche things that a farm trust can get involved in with the support of volunteers and Gripple.”
Volunteering at the vineyard can be a physically demanding job, especially in the colder weather. Derek said: “A lot of the time it’s relaxing but it is also a labour of love, it is a lot of work.
"Deciding when to pick the grapes is difficult. The longer you leave ripe fruit on the vine the greater the risk is that they may go off or birds and badgers will try to have them. It’s a balancing act of leaving them on as long as possible. You always want to leave them another week.
“It’s rewarding when you see 30 people on picking day and you see all these piles of boxes. It makes you think maybe all that work in cold snowy January when we started pruning was worth it after all.”
Derek and the team of volunteers will start pruning the vines again in January next year in preparation for the growth of the farm’s thirteenth vintage.
Steel City Wine can be bought from the Whirlow Hall Farm Trust shop online here: https://www.whirlowhallfarm.org/shop/farm-shop/?filter=true.