LITTLE BURSTED: THE PLACE
A BIT OF GEOGRAPHY
If England can be said to have a wine land, then it is best described as a thin wedge containing the far South and South-East of the country. With its acute point somewhere near the original Kimmeridgian beds of Purbeck and bound by the channel to the South, it steers inland through the South downs of Hampshire, up to the Thames Valley and Surrey Hills before bypassing London along the Southern edge of the M25 then hopping back across the Thames estuary into the Crouch Valley of Essex and ending on the Suffolk coast.
There are of course islands elsewhere, in the rain shadows of the Wye and Severn valleys and the sheltered coombs of the South West, but the bulk of England’s grape production sits within this narrow triangle.
Why are vineyards where they are? Mainly because of climate. These are the lands with the relatively warmest and sunniest summer weather in a country not known for either. Britain's climate is oceanic and marginal for ripening grapes. The sun never reaches that high in the sky; daylight hours may be long but hours of bright sunshine even near the South coast are below those in Northern France or Germany; relative humidity is high especially in early Autumn; consequently so is disease pressure; and even after decades of global warming summers vary from satisfactorily warm and dry to crop-destroyingly overcast, damp and cool.
But it’s not just about the climate. Vineyards tend to cluster in areas of gentle well drained slopes, low enough to catch the summer warmth but raised above the mid century suburbs and poor drainage of the coastal flatlands.
Southern England is etched diagonally by a series of limestone and chalk features: the Jurassic ridge of oolitic limestone that stretches from East Devon via the Cotswolds to Lincolnshire; the chalk ridges of the Chilterns, the North and South Downs. Between these last two are the concentric rings of sands and clays of the Weald with their complex topography and soils. You’ll see vines growing on the lower slopes of all of these features.
The places in between lack vineyards for a few reasons. Some are too high or windy: much of the otherwise suitable land in the downs is over 150 metres above sea level, and a lot of it – especially in the North Downs – is angled the wrong way with steep wooded scarp slopes facing South and the more gentle, rolling dip slopes facing North. We’ll come back to scarps and dip slopes later when we return to Little Bursted.
Then there is human geography. Look at a map of suitable climate for vines and you wonder why there are few major wine brands in Essex, and nothing of note on the Isle of Wight. Wight is too isolated; you need to catch a ferry to get there, so trucking a ripe crop to a winery in October or bringing in vineyard labour for pruning in February are just not very viable. It's also a bit windy. Essex is perhaps the opposite: easy to reach, a centre for some of the best viticulture in the country, but not historically a big destination for tourism away from the coast. Vineyard tours and cellar door sales are an important part of even the large winemakers’ business.
In some regions, notably East Anglia, there are much more profitable ways to make use of the rich, fertile soils. Why grow modest crops of grapes on deep black humus when you can make more money with wheat or lettuces? Along the M1 and A14 corridors and through much of the home counties it’s more profitable to build logistics warehouses or new towns.
And the size of plots makes a big difference. See how many more successful vineyards there are in the folds of the Weald and the Isle of Oxney, where smallholdings and a dense patchwork of country houses and hamlets mean there is always suitable land available somewhere, than along the seemingly ideal scarp slope of the “Cote de Kent”, the line of South facing chalk that runs North of the M20 across the Medway valley and past Maidstone. The land ownership in that patch of the downs is large scale. There are few plots small enough for most vineyard owners. Characteristically it is the biggest of all, Chapel Down, that remains virtually the sole presence along a slope whose altitude, soil, aspect and accessibility, and even resemblance to the Cote D’or or Montagne de Reims as seen from the A6 and A26 would seem to make it ideal for English viticulture.
THE DOWNS OF EAST KENT
But continue East along that chalk slope and you start to encounter small and medium sized vineyards again. As the downs widen and curve South Eastwards their relief gets more complex, the slopes less austere and more prettily and densely populated. On the scarp North of Ashford vineyards hang below the Pilgrim’s way in villages like Westwell and East Brabourne, and they continue almost to the coast at Folkstone.
There are more vines in amongst the hills. This is the old Garden of England. It has always looked like wine country in the Canterbury downs, dotted even now with apple orchards and hop gardens, their linear field patterns viewed from the A2 on a warm day giving an early taste of the continent to those heading to the channel ports in the days before everyone started using the M20.
This far East the climate is influenced by the sea on 3 sides, but also by the closeness of France across the short straits. Summer sunshine hours are high, heatwaves from the near continent can be intense, and in poor seasons the weather is still relatively kind. It’s getting warmer and drier in summer too – climate data show the pace of change is highest along the Thames Estuary into South Essex and East Kent. This is in line with predictions, our proximity to the continent meaning we get less of the Atlantic lag in climate change seen in places further West.
There is now heavy planting on a secondary chalk ridge that runs from Faversham to the Chartham downs. This is where you’ll find Taittinger’s English venture Domaine Evremond, the successful Heppington and Chartham vineyards, and substantial plantings by Nyetimber. In between, a string of narrow valleys, some with rivers and some dry, cut from South to North through the gentler dip slope. Simpsons have planted along one of these, in the Elham Valley, and in the next valley along just beyond Tadpole Vineyard in Bishopsbourne and Gorsley vineyard in Pett Bottom, we arrive at Little Bursted.
LITTLE BURSTED: OUR TERROIR
Our vineyard is little patch of just under 2 hectares, to the side of the Pett Bottom road in one of the most gorgeous folds of a long narrow dry valley. It’s named for the 15th century timber framed farmhouse at the Northern boundary of our land, Bursted Hall, and the rather grander Bursted Manor further up the valley. Just beyond is the cosy hamlet of Lynsore Bottom with its thatched cottages and ancient woodlands. The following description from 1800 of the Parish of Upper Hardres gives a good sense of the locale:
"THE MANOR OF LINSORE, alias LINCHESOER, lies in the south-east part of this parish, in a deep vale, called from it Linsey-bottom, enveloped with woods on the rising hills on each side of it. It was given by Æthelwulf, king of the West Saxons, by the name of the land called Licesora, to Winhere, abbot of St. Augustine's, for seventy marcs in money."
The valley may seem quiet now but it has been a human thoroughfare for millennia. In the farmland beyond the Duck local archaeologists have found Neolithic gold jewellery, and several hoards of Roman coins. One field contains a big concentration of 17th century musket balls and military buttons: people were obviously camping and marching here. And all around, in the ancient soils, the ploughs keep turning up flint tools and arrowheads.
The bedrock of the valley may be chalk but the soil stratigraphy is more complicated. In some places the white upper chalk comes right to the surface in little outcrops or those tell-tale grey-white patches in ploughed fields. The soil there is thin and strongly alkaline. Elsewhere long periods of weathering and deposition have covered the chalk in quite deep layers of mixed soils. On the surrounding hilltops the soil is known as “clay with flints” (what the French call "Argile a Silex"), formed by weathering in situ and deposition during the ice ages.
Here’s that 1800 description again:
"THE PARISH is a very lonely and unfrequented place, situated on high ground among the hills, having large tracts of woodland on each side of it. The Stonestreet way runs along the valley, near the western boundary of it; the soil of it is very poor, consisting mostly of either chalk, or a hungry red earth, covered with sharp flint stones".
In a few spots here and there are deposits of a metre or more depth of what is known as “head”. Head is a periglacial deposit, a mixture of windblown loess and solifluction (landslip of saturated soil over permafrost), that builds up in dry valleys where there is no river to wash it downstream. Although the bedrock is calcareous chalk the topsoil is neutral and can even be slightly acid in places, a mix of sand, silt and clay strewn with sharp flints, occasional chalk pebbles, fossils and archaeological remains. It's that, and the clay with flints, that we have in our vineyard.
By a quirk of topography the slopes here face ESE, catching the morning sun and losing it by mid afternoon. And they are steep, about as steep as it’s possible to farm with a conventional tractor. The base of the valley is at 80m above sea level and the top of our fields just below 100m. It drains easily, the sand and stones in the topsoil guiding rainwater down towards the porous chalk. In summer the top layers of soil get very dry and the pasture on the hills starts to brown off, but the deep-rooted vines will always have a source of moisture from the sponge-like bedrock. This is the magic of chalk: always just enough water, but never too much.
With the steep valley sides and shelter from Westerly winds it can be a stifling sun-trap in the summer and a haven on breezy days, but unfortunately a bit of a frost pocket at the bottom in the winter and spring. With nowhere to drain after seeping downslope, the cold air likes to sit along the Pett Bottom road like a little swirling bath of dry ice. The hedges and trees at the top of the site protect us from downslope advection but not entirely. This spot will always be prone to frost.
As soon as we bought the fields we set up a weather station to give us a good picture of the annual cycle. The data is available publicly – if you own a Davis station yourself you can find it at www.weatherlink.com; if not then it’s also on the weather underground (https://www.wunderground.com/dashboard/pws/ICANTE19). You can see the current conditions at the bottom of this page.
So that's what we know of Little Bursted, but we'll find out more over the years as we get to know the site. It's our little patch of the Kent wine country now, and we can't wait to see what it has in store for us.