Nigel Akehurst visits Chartham Vineyard in Kent to learn more about their modern family focused approach to farm diversification and bringing their unique collection of heritage buildings back into use.
Chartham Vineyard is a five acre vineyard, retail and exhibition space located at Burnt House Farm in Chartham, next to the train station and just off the A28, three miles outside of Canterbury. Owned by Dr Roz Waller and her husband Richard Goodenough, they decided to realise a long-held dream by setting up a wine and art exhibition business in 2012, involving their extended family.
“Burnt House Farm, Chartham has been the family home of the Wallers since 1957” explains Rosalind, who inherited the 40-hectare holding in 2011 on the death of her parents.
Her father originally had a dairy herd, pigs, arable and an apple orchard on the farm. Over the years the dairy herd and pigs went, with more of the land being used to grow apples and pears alongside a suckler herd of Sussex cattle. Eventually the farm was tenanted out mainly for arable when her father retired in his 70s.
Keen to continue the family farming tradition with a modern eco-friendly approach – Roz, herself a retired GP in Wye and husband, Richard, an academic and writer, took the decision to take back 3.2 hectares of the land from the tenant farmer to establish a vineyard and tourism business that would encompass wine, art and utilise their beautiful collection of traditional farm buildings.
Perfect location and soil
The vineyard faces south across the valley of the River Stour which drains the Weald of Kent. This aspect makes the most of all available sunshine providing a relatively warm and dry microclimate, whilst allowing frost drainage into the valley below.
The vines are rooted in a dark-brown flinty loam on a massive chalk bedrock, formed over 100 million years ago from shells of sea creatures in a tropical sea. The chalk provides free drainage and the flints have an additional benefit of retaining daytime heat and maintaining the warmth of the soil
Viticulture advice, preparation and planting
With no prior experience of growing grapes or winemaking, Roz and Richard sought advice from renowned viticulture consultant Stephen Skelton. An intense period of planning and preparation involving site selection and soil preparation began. Key decisions were made about the choice of grapes, rootstocks and vineyard design. It was decided to grow vines of the same variety as those approved for Champagne and to choose various clones and rootstock combinations to suit the prevailing soil and climate conditions.
After sub-soiling and harrowing, vines were planted by machine with rows orientated up and down the slope (to achieve maximum sunlight exposure), 2 metres apart and 1.2 metres spacing between each vine.
Stephen organised a specialist team from Germany to come over to machine plant 7000 vines over four acres in a day, with a mix of Pinot noir, Chardonnay, Pinot gris and Bacchus giving them the opportunity to produce still and sparkling rosé and white wines.
Then their metal trellis structures were set up ready for first growth. A further acre of Pinot noir on a Burgundian clone was planted the following year – to produce colour for rosé, or a still red in exceptionally good years.
Education and family involvement
To learn more about how to grow and look after the vines – both Roz, Richard and their son, Andy, have benefited from various part DEFRA funded viticulture courses at Plumpton College. Andy, who is also a photographer does the majority of day to day vineyard maintenance, including pruning and spraying, in the event of downy and powdery mildew.
Over the years the team at Chartham have experienced a number of weather and pest challenges. One more recent threat has been spotted wing drosophila – which affects soft skin red fruits like cherries, raspberries and Pinot noir. It results in bitter grapes – which is why the Americans call it vinegar fly.
“They’ve had problems with raspberries and cherries in this area” says Richard with some growers turning to nets to prevent damage. In Chartham’s case they’ve had good success using biological controls.
“It’s a mixture of cheap red wine, cider vinegar and sugar which goes into a Droso trap – there’s a hole that the fly goes into and it drowns,” explains Roz.
They have around 100 of these which are distributed around the Pinot noir vines. This is just one example of using a more eco-friendly approach to growing healthy vines.
Roz also adds they have started using Cloud Agro pellets which contain a mix of Lucerne and chicken manure to help maintain and improve soil health.
First harvests and involving the community
Grape harvest usually takes place from mid-September through to October. The actual date is set after regular sampling and testing grapes in the field from mid-September, using a hand-held refractometer.
Chartham’s first harvest took place in 2015, yielding half a tonne – around a barrel of wine. It increased to 8 tonnes the following year, it then increased to 11.5 tonnes in 2017 and 23.5 tonnes in 2018 – which was their first full crop and a bumper year due to exceptional growing conditions. The 2019 harvest yielded 18.5 tonnes with some more tricky conditions caused by wet weather.
Harvesting is all done by hand with the help of friends, family and local volunteers. With the vineyard being split into five plots, it takes roughly a day per plot. On average they have around 30 volunteers per day and pick for a long morning fuelled by coffee and delicious cake – made by Roz.
The grapes are then loaded onto a lorry and sent off to their contract wine maker. To celebrate the end of harvest and thank all the volunteers they hold a harvest supper at the end of the season with 80 plus pickers and partners invited for a hog roast in the threshing barn.
Wine making and sales
With no facilities onsite Roz and Richard work with respected wine makers John Worontschak and Mattieu Elzinga from Litmus Wines Ltd, based at Denbies Estate in Dorking, Surrey.
“It’s a real partnership,” says Roz and they don’t have any plans to create their own winery in the foreseeable future.
“Right from the first vintage, the quality of our wines has been recognised through awards including a Gold Medal for our first sparkling Blanc de Blancs (from Chardonnay grapes harvested in 2016),” adds Richard.
Their wines are available at many local hotels and restaurants including Canterbury Cathedral Lodge, Hotel Continental in Whitstable, Angela’s in Margate as well as being served at Michelin starred restaurant Fordwich Arms near Canterbury.
You can also find them stocked in well-known farm shops including Macknade’s in Faversham and Gibson’s in Wingham.
Chartham also offer free wine tastings in their wine shop every Saturday from 10.30 to 5.30. You can also browse art in their vineyard gallery and pre-book vineyard tours and tutored tastings.
Diversifying traditional buildings back into use for wine and art
With an exceptional collection of old farm buildings at Burnt House Farm, Roz and Richard have worked with local craftsmen to lovingly restore the old cowsheds into wine retail, tasting and exhibition spaces. The development of these buildings in tandem with the wine enterprise has been pivotal to the growth of the business.
In addition, Roz and Richard have found there is a growing demand for large affordable exhibition space for the arts in East Kent.
“The Canterbury Society of Art is just one of several organisations currently using our converted buildings for art exhibitions, with regular exhibitions being held in our converted cowshed,” adds Roz.
They have begun restoration work on their large and beautiful 18th century threshing barn which is used for their annual harvest supper and has the potential to be an incredible event space/wedding venue.
Market growth, diversity and seasonality
Wine tourism and art-related activity is increasing the footfall to the cellar door at Chartham Vineyard.
“This is reflected in the number of visitors, volume of sales, attendance at art exhibitions in the vineyard gallery and the number of people taking part in tours and tastings,” says Roz.
Interestingly wine tourists spend on average 80% more than normal tourists although “at the moment, tours and tastings are more popular between April and September when the weather is better and there is more to see in the vineyard,” she adds.
However, they plan to appeal to a wider all year-round audience with additional space being made available in the cowshed and barn to host bigger groups for festivals, art/music and other cultural attractions.
Building a brand and online marketing
Key to bringing all the elements together is the Chartham Vineyard logo explains Roz: “It features the ancient dovecote – illustrating the importance of our heritage buildings, rampant horses – representing the white horse symbol of the county of Kent and the historic phrase ‘Garden of England’ – describing the fertile lands of Kent, famous for its fruit and hop growing for more than 600 years.”
Their modern and user friendly website www.charthamvineyard.co.uk provides a wealth of information about the vineyard, what wines they have available in the shop and upcoming events including art exhibitions. You can also join their priority e-list via the website to stay up to date with wine tours, tastings and other events.
They already have over 700 mailing list subscribers and have found email marketing to be an effective tool to help attract regular visitors to the vineyard. In addition, they have active social media Facebook and Twitter accounts to help promote the business having benefited from attending a NFU run course on social media in the past.
Plans for the future
Roz and Richard plan to build on what they have achieved to date at Chartham Vineyard, continuing to restore and better utilise their collection of heritage buildings whilst growing their wine and arts event space business with the aim of supporting more members of the family in the future. An interesting and inspiring model of a modern-day family farm.