Craft Kings - Woodchurch Feature 01, May 2020
I met Graham in 2008 while working in London. We both loved visiting vineyards abroad and on one of our first dates Graham took me on a vineyard tour around his home county of Kent. We visited Chapel Down and Biddenden. We were excited about were the English wine industry was heading and we were impressed by some of the big name sparkling wine producers such as Nyetimber and Ridgeview who were beginning to beat Champagne in competitions.
It wasn’t long into the relationship when we decided we could team up and set up our own vineyard. So we enrolled onto some viticulture courses at Plumpton College. The courses at Plumpton are excellent and gave us all the knowledge we needed to start making our dream a reality.
We knew that establishing a vineyard and producing wine could take many years so we were keen to get started as soon as possible. We faced a difficult choice – should we pool our savings and buy a house together or should we take a risk instead and buy a piece land to create a vineyard?
Once we’d decided to take the plunge, our first and most important task was to find the right piece of land. After searching for many months a field with a south facing slope and the right size became available. The field was just outside the village of Woodchurch and at the time it was used for grazing sheep. We employed a viticulture consultant to help us assess the site. All the tests came back positive, so we bought the land in October 2009 and then set about preparing it for the vines to be planted.
We planted 10,000 Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier vines in May 2010. To say we were inexperienced was an understatement. We often joked that we could fill a book with the mistakes that we’ve made along our way, but we muddled through and always got advice and help from consultants to make sure we didn’t mess up too much!
We had our first harvest in October 2012, from 10,000 vines we got a small 2 tonne crop. To put that in perspective those same vines produced 40 tonnes in 2018.
We released our first wine in 2015 which won medals from Decanter, IWC and IWSC. We have increased our range of wines in recent years and are now selling 3 sparkling wines and 2 still wines with another 2 still wines to be released in Summer 2020.
We built a visitor centre on the vineyard in 2018 and we now welcome visitors all year round to sample our wine and wander through the vines. Like the vineyards Graham and I visited back in 2008, perhaps our story can inspire people to set up their own business and follow their dream. If we can do it anyone can!
Q: Before going into the wine business, what was your background and had you any experience within the wine industry before taking the plunge?
A: Although neither Graham or I have a background in the wine industry, before we bought the land for the vineyard we studied viticulture at Plumpton college which has a wine centre and is known for it’s excellent viticulture and winemaking courses. The wine business in the UK was only just taking off but we were able to find some experienced consultants to help with establishing the vineyard.
Q: It sounds like you took a huge gamble buying the land instead of a house, do you think it was the right decision?
A: Absolutely, we are so proud of the vineyard and how it has grown over the last 10 years. We have developed the business gradually and been careful not to take too many risks.
Q: The cost of setting up any business is expensive and I am sure that wine making is possibly right up there on the list... not only did you pool your savings to buy the land, I am assuming that you also had to buy the vines, bottles, barrels, machinery, labelling, website etc, then you have to pay yourselves while playing the waiting game on the grapes - How did you fund all of this? was it loans, investors, crowdfunding, savings etc?
A: Yes the winemaking does cost a lot, we have been able to sell grapes to help cover the costs, but as you say there are lots of other costs that we have to budget for. We've used our savings, we've taken out loans, but all with the knowledge we are investing in something that will give us a small return at some point in the future…How does the saying go "the best way to make a small fortune with a vineyard is to start with a large one"
Q: You mentioned there was a lot of muddling along the way in becoming the brand you are today. For other drinks entrepreneurs who are thinking of starting their own business - do you have a checklist of things that they should be thinking about, that you would only know from experience?
A: The muddling I can recall was mostly on the agricultural side, even having done the courses the reality of a big field and looking after 10,000 vines is quite a task. We did a lot of the vineyard work by ourselves to save money in the early days, we had to learn as we went along… for the most part we became experienced viticulturists, but we had our moments, for example it was not uncommon in the early days for the tractor to be stuck in the mud!
If anyone wants to talk about setting up a vineyard we are more than happy to meet them and talk through the trials and tribulations, I think it really depends on the person setting the business up and their skills, but my advice would be: be prepared to think about the vineyard day and night, make sure you hire experts to get things up and running, be prepared to do lots of different jobs yourself. It can be stressful being responsible for a company and a product so try not to put too much pressure on yourself.
Q: I have read that English Sparkling Wine is receiving great appreciation and winning more respect and awards than Champagne - why do you think this is the case and what should people look for when choosing an English Sparkling Wine.
A: One of the main reasons is due to the growing season in England being longer than in Champagne, the fruit ripens more slowly and retains it’s acidity while developing delicate fruit flavours. English sparkling wine is made in the same way Champagne is made using the traditional method, the wine makers in England are making some spectacular wines. More and more people are choosing to buy English wine for special occasions, gifts, and weddings, as well as buying an exceptional wine they are also supporting local and UK businesses.
Q: I always believed that in order to produce great wine, you require lots of sunshine and a warm climate, however I have now been advised that our cool climate encourages the slow ripening of the grapes which allows for a more delicate bouquet of flavours. Would you agree with this?
A: Yes this is exactly the reason our sparkling wines are competing with some of the finest sparkling wines and Champagnes from around the world. Recently we won gold for our Blanc de blancs, at the awards ceremony our wine was being served to guests alongside Dom Perignon and Dom Ruinart, amazing!
Q: I have read that British Sparkling Wine is to be known as British Fizz, as it obviously can't be called Champagne - I personally feel that this makes it sound cheap, what are your thoughts?
A: We personally don’t mind people calling our wine British Fizz, as long as they’re drinking it and talking about it we can't complain. To confuse things slightly the term British wine is also used for wine made in the UK with imported grapes! In the UK we have a PDO for English Sparkling Wine, this is a mark of quality to look for on an English wine.
Q: From picking the grapes to bottling, how long does the process take and what goes in to creating the finished wine?
A: For still wine it can take as little as 6 months, but we generally bottle the wine after 10 months of aging in tank.
For sparkling it takes a lot longer, a minimum of 3 years but it can be a lot more. The Chardonnay grapes that goes into the Blanc de Blancs are picked in October and it can take over 4 years after the picking of the grapes before you get to pop the cork!
Q: Do you think we will start seeing more and more vineyards springing up in the UK with entrepreneurs hoping to make their fortune in the industry?
A: Yes I think more vineyards will be planted in the next few years, in fact we have two new vineyards that have been planted just a few miles away. At the moment there’s plenty of room in the industry for new comers, and we especially welcome our neighbouring vineyards and try to support them if we can. I think the tourism industry around wine in the UK has a lot more potential and to have neighbouring vineyards which will potentially welcome visitors could turn our little area in Kent into Wine Country!
Q: The Wine industry sometimes come across as a bit pompous in the way people talk about the heritage and nose etc, However, the producers I have met and spoken with are very down to earth and explain things with passion rather than pomp. Why do you think people use such pretentious descriptions when reviewing wine?
A: Ha, well we definitely like to think of ourselves as down to earth. My husband does all of the tours, and he is very passionate about the vineyard and the wine, he loves meeting people and sharing his knowledge. I imagine the producers with pretentious descriptions are hoping to impress their visitors, depending on the guests they may prefer one approach to the other.