ON PLANTING VINES AND WRITING BLOGS
Not sure if any of you have set up your own business recently, but one of the first things you must do is create your own online presence. That means a website, of course, but not just that. Social media handles, activity, just general noise. Most websites supply as part of the package the opportunity to create a blog. In fact it comes as such a standard thing that to avoid blogging involves some quite serious permanent deletions.
Why do people blog? Either because someone asks them to, usually their employer, or because they are mildly narcissistic. A lucky few, like me in my day job, get to indulge their narcissism in an official capacity for their employers. But with the best will in the world those corporate blog posts are never quite the same after they have been through a few layers of editorial, brand and risk review and wordcount reduction. I start off with an enjoyable ramble but end up having to make it about something, ideally with a punchline and something people can buy at the end. Which rather takes away some of the romance.
So being able to blog unedited is nice. I get to indulge my own authorial voice whenever I fancy. Though blogs are I suspect rather like those other things that share the same enthusiasm curve: holiday homes, boats, wood fired pizza ovens, soda streams and elected positions on the PTA – much fun to start with, but a mental burden after a while as the need to keep them refreshed and recent weighs ever more heavily. What shall I write about in year 5 after we’ve already had a couple of harvests, the wine is sitting in storage and blog logic tells me I should be posting every couple of months? Take a look at a few well know English wine producers’ websites to witness the slow decay curve of blog activity.
So I’m writing a blog because I can. But why on earth have we decided to establish an English vineyard? Why does anyone? Well look at it, with its little curvy path and sunny lower slopes. Why wouldn't you?
But beyond that, there is something unique about wine. I don’t know why that is so, but it is. No other food or beverage is so written about, read about, studied, so central to so many people’s lives, such a focal point for tourism, such a trigger for career changes as wine. Yes we love beer and gin, we do our highland or Islay whisky pilgrimages, if we can afford to we delight in Caspian caviar or alba truffles, but add together all of the biggest selling magazines about all of those products and they’re not even touching the circulation of Decanter. And Britain has been at the heart of the global wine trade for centuries.
But we didn’t make our own. Or rather, we (they) did but it was decidedly uncool. I’ve been a fan of the idea of English wine since my teens – it always seemed a quirky industry worth giving some support – but it wasn’t real commercial wine. Growing up in the 1980s and 90s we lived through a global wine oligopoly dominated by international grape varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc) or famous regions (Bordeaux, Chablis, Chianti, Rioja). English wine used weird varieties nobody had heard of. What’s more, they sounded German with endings like steiner or rebe, and German wine had fallen temporarily out of fashion. English wines could be pleasant enough but back then we wanted strong, fruity and robust. Not 10% alcohol and a taste of hedgerows and elderflower. English wine was never more than a novelty.
Then England discovered it could make sparkling wine that actually tasted rather like proper champagne. In doing so our industry learned what so many others had learned before. That imitation is a precursor to innovation. By copying the best of what the established industry does and achieving acclaim on their terms, we win the right to experiment later. It’s what a newly industrialising economy does: you start by making affordable copies of the big boys, then over time you steal their IP, and their talent, and then you start to improve on it, and finally you achieve world domination. Or in English wine terms, a modicum of respect as a tiny niche producer in the big wide wine world, and half-decent yields in some years.
So we decided to become vignerons because we love wine, always wanted to make the stuff, and because now it’s possible to make a high quality product without embarrassment in our gently warmed climate. But first we had to find some land. It’s not easy in Southern England.
The best way to find good viticultural land is by having it already. This seems to be story of many established vineyards: that parched sun trap of a South facing slope that the sheep shunned: one day somebody suggested it might be good for growing grapes, and hey presto a business was born. Failing that you want deep pockets and contacts, either ones you pay for (if your pockets are profoundly deep) or ones you just happen to know because you’ve been hanging around the farming world for decades and know that old Jack’s planning to sell some of his pasture next year.
With shallower pockets and few contacts you end up surfing property websites and calling agents. Little comes up that isn’t either too small (and destined for building), too boggy or cold or North facing, too flat (and ideal for a horse), too big, or too far away. To find the right sized plot at acceptable altitude with a decent aspect, well-drained soil and road access takes luck and patience. It ultimately requires compromise too.
We looked at a couple of other places before landing on Little Bursted. One was a similar sized field upslope from Chapel Down’s Kits Coty vineyard near Maidstone. Kind of a Hautes-Cotes-de-Kits-Coty. No frost up there, but a bit too haute at around 120-150m and very exposed to Westerly winds. Another looked like very good terroir: 50m up, a South facing 20 acre chalky slope in Brogdale near Faversham, where until 2019 the hottest UK temperature in history had been recorded. But it was right next to the M2 and frankly a bit too noisy to be a relaxing place to spend the day.
The land we finally bought has some great attributes but its own compromises too. It has wonderful flinty soil on chalk bedrock that looks and drains just as it should. It’s 80m above sea level, perhaps a tad above the absolute ideal but not bad at all. It’s in one of the warmest and sunniest parts of the country right in the East of Kent close to many other very successful vineyards. It’s very pretty. On the flip side the aspect is ESE where due South would be ideal, though climate change may alter that equation; it’s a little steep in places, so we’ll have to be careful not to turn over the tractor; but most of all it is in a frost pocket. A serious one, in a dry valley with impeded air drainage. We’ll almost certainly have to invest in prevention measures of which an air sink may well be the best option as the issue is radiation not advection frost (it’s well sheltered from cold winds). The bottom of the field is routinely 2C colder than the top at night. As I write it's 9C at Little B and 12.2C at a nearby vineyard at exactly the same altitude. It remains to be seen whether this final compromise is a fatal one. Graham at Gorsely vineyard up the road shares the same topography and has had two successful harvests already with just a little frost damage in 2020 and none so far in 2021, so there is hope. And that wide diurnal range: good for acids and phenolics...
Before I run out of inspiration for blog posts I have a few more topics I plan to write about between now and the first harvest. These include climate change, and planning for it, which is possibly the biggest challenge to vine growers worldwide and no less an important subject in England; the dilemmas and ethical minefields of vineyard sustainability, organic vs conventional farming and doing the right thing by nature; the many fun and frankly silly experiments we are planning (and already doing) on the land; and of course a running commentary on the progress of the vineyard.
Until then, keep an eye on our Instagram and Twitter posts to hear about the latest goings on or just see some more pretty photos of Little B through the year.