Editor’s vist: Going against the grain

Turning in to the yard at Giffords Hall Vineyard, near Long Melford, Suffolk, I was instantly greeted by an overwhelmingly delightful English country farm feel.

The courtyard is lined with a beautifully reclad barn, open machinery sheds and various traditional stone buildings, and the inviting views of lush green fields, complete with grazing sheep, visible through the gaps all combine to give an air of authenticity to the family-run estate. It is also a helpful reminder to the wine loving public that there is whole lot more going on behind the scenes in the UK wine industry.

For a medium-sized estate, there is certainly a lot going on at Giffords Hall, which is managed by husband and wife team Guy and Linda Howard, and during my fleeting visit, we talked through as much of their soil to cellar journey as possible.  

A lifestyle project

The Howards ended up purchasing the established vineyard and winery Giffords Hall as a lifestyle project following busy careers in London; Linda had previously worked in marketing and recruitment and Guy spent many years in the City after a stint in the British Army. 

They instantly fell in love the property, and Linda remembers being very fortunate to have caught the beginning of the English wine ‘movement’ at a time when the category was really starting to become noticed, with big brands, investing in marketing and PR, making a lot of noise. 

Situated on a glacial river bed which benefits from light sandy soils, the original vineyard at Giffords Hall was planted by the previous owner in the 1970s and the now well-established, hardy looking vines stand tall and proud like an army of wise old men and women.

“When we bought the place, the whole vineyard was just sitting on the ground,” said Linda. “We posted and re-trellised everything and just focused on growing grapes for other producers to begin with because we had so much to learn about viticulture.” 

With a prevailing wind to contend with, each variety is carefully split into acre blocks divided by shelter belts of Maple, Willow, Italian Alder and Chestnut which successfully protect and warm the site. 

The ‘Marmite variety’

In 2014, Guy and Linda added a parcel of ‘modern’ varietals, including Pinot blanc and Pinot noir, but in the original vineyard you will find typical varieties, favoured by the early English wine pioneers, including Bacchus, Madeleine Angevine, Reichensteiner and Rondo. 

While Bacchus remains the fourth most planted grape in the UK, covering around 200 hectares, the others have largely fallen out popularity. In the 1990s, for instance, there were around 114 ha of Reichensteiner; today this sits at just 66 ha. There is also only 61 ha of Madeleine Angevine – the ‘Marmite variety’ which is either adored or loathed vehemently. 

“When we took on Giffords Hall people warned us away from the Madeleine as it was deemed very unfashionable,” said Linda, “but Guy and I really like the taste. Wines are forever coming in and out of fashion and you could spend your life chasing trends, but as long as the wine is quality, it doesn’t really matter.” 

Today, the distinctive early ripening grape, which grows on the Suffolk estate with great exuberance and is often known for over cropping, is used to produce one of Giffords Hall’s leading wines. 

“In the early days, all our fruit was under contract with Sharpham,” said Linda. “I remember attending a seminar where the speaker suggested that we used the Madeleine for a rosé. Guy wanted to make a Provence style, which not many people were doing at the time, with the Rondo. Not many people in the industry were happy with the idea of the blending method, but we went ahead, and it was absolutely delicious.” 

Sales to the local pub quickly took off and after picking up the industry’s Waitrose rosé trophy for the most outstanding still rosé wine, the Howards chose to continue production and have been making it ever since.

“The rosé is now produced from a field blend,” said Guy Howard, who trained at Plumpton and is now the winemaker at Giffords Hall. “The base is Madeleine and Rondo which is grown, harvested, pressed and then fermented together, with at least one third fermented in oak. Pinot noir is blended in to taste. We can’t macerate the Rondo because it makes the rosé too bold in colour and it is quite tricky because we always aim for a pale shade.” 

The 2018 Rosé, which was bottled in time for the London Wine Fair, is a real summer treat with a nose reminiscent of an English garden, with floral notes and hints wild strawberry, and juicy, delicate fruit following on the palate. 

Expanding operations

Having started out solely contract growing for other producers, before moving on to having their wine contract made, Giffords Hall’s annual production of 35,000 to 40,000 bottles is now carried out on site.

“When we started at the estate Guy was still working and we were only producing around 2,000 bottles of wine,” said Linda. “When Guy decided to retire, we had a decision to make: should we take the business forwards or just grow grapes for other brands? We received some good awards and comments and knowing that we had a good product encouraged us to move forwards.” 

Although there was a winery on site when the couple bought Giffords Hall, Guy and Linda decided to close it down and have gradually expanded their operations in stages, making sure that all the equipment and facilities were suited to their individual needs. 

“If we had fitted the winery when we first arrived here, we would have made a lot of mistakes. We had a quote for 20,000 litres of capacity and looking back at what we had on the list, there is a lot of equipment which we wouldn’t really have wanted,” said Guy. “I am a great believer in using contract winemakers until you really work out your recipes and what you want to do with your wines.” 

Credit to the Howard’s passion and drive to create a diverse range of wines, the current winery, which was constructed in one of the farm’s old grain stores, is now proving to be too small. Work has already begun on a large barrel hall, which the couple is hoping will be finished in time for harvest 2019. 

The barrel hall, which will be situated in the farm’s old dairy, will include a dedicated wash down area and, at some point in the future, one end will be sectioned off allowing for the expansion of the estate’s tasting room. 

“The barrel hall will be pretty unusual because most English wineries are still focused on stainless steel,” said Linda. “We have always been very reliant on oak and have a good family connection to a very generous supplier in Nuits-Saint-Georges in eastern Burgundy. The lovely thing about the oak barrels is that the wine goes into spontaneous malolactic fermentation; we don’t need to do anything. It is almost like the barrels say, it’s ok wine, we know what we’re doing here.” 

Viewing oak as a superior medium in which to ferment their wines, the overall aim is to increase total barrel numbers to somewhere in the region of 100 500-litre vessels, with the addition of a 5,000-litre Foudre which will be exclusively reserved for the estate’s rosé.

“We are also looking at the possibility of using English oak from Castle Howard,” said Guy. “The castle estate planted oak to sell to the Royal Navy, but in recent years they have been finding different ways to generate an income from the woodland, so we are going to experiment with some 400-litre barrels and possibly a tonne barrel. We are still thinking about how we could use it and whether we could send the English oak down to Burgundy for them to play with it first.” 

As more of the UK’s sparkling winemakers are harnessing the power of oak, Guy is also mulling over the establishment of a barrel placement programme. 

“We already need more second hand barrels and once we are up to 100 barrels, we will have to have a turnover,” said Guy. “In the sparkling sector, winemakers are without a doubt getting more into oak, but I don’t think this is the case in the still wine world. It is a shame because I think you can produce incredible still wine as long as you keep the barrels topped up and clean. You don’t need fancy equipment, just hot water and a pressure washer.”

When it comes to winery equipment, Guy’s aim is to make the winemaking as efficient as possible. For instance, as all the still wines are processed through an Evoflow crossflow filter, Guy only needs to rack once before bottling.

“Before going through the filter, the wines go through a partial cold stabilisation process, then the crossflow sorts everything else out,” said Guy. “It has a 0.2-micron filter which doesn’t have an impact on the colour of the wine, but does soften it and will effectively remove tartrate. We bottle small amounts here and anything over 5,000-litres is sent to Halfpenny Green, Staffordshire, where it is contract bottled.”

To ensure that wines are effectively transported, Guy uses Arlington bag in boxes, which he considers to be one of the safest ways to store wine. 

“They really are invaluable and we use them a lot for reserve wine too,” said Guy. “If there was ever a futures market for wine, which I am sure at some point will happen, you would need a standard way in which to store and ship wine and the Arlington’s would be ideal.”

With variable capacity stainless-steel as well as barrels, Guy processes the fruit in very small parcels and has opted for a press which is just capable of processing 3.5-tonnes whole bunch pressed. 

“We have a small team of professional pickers who can bring in exactly 3.5-tonnes per day,” said Guy. “As the business expands, I would like to have a second and a third press in series, with an overhead tipping gantry.”

Delayed pruning

The small team of professional pickers employed by Giffords Hall travel over to the estate each year from Romania. Guy is very passionate about looking after his crew of seasonal workers and as well as ensuring they are paid well, he is also one of the few English vineyards to provide them with on-site accommodation.  

“We make sure the team is well looked after because they have their own vineyards and are very knowledgeable,” said Guy. “They tell me when they want to work, the lead picker knows which fruit is ripe and the team will miss the fruit which is not ready, so we don’t have to sort through it in the winery. They also know the vines and there is a certain amount of trust.”

As well as picking, the reliable seasonal team also come over for pruning and having developed a good relationship with the crew, Guy and Linda have more freedom over when to prune than other growers relying on agency staff. 

“The advantage of having your own pruning team means that you can really delay as much as possible,” said Guy. “All the growers who have to use a team, who are on a schedule, risk being affected badly by frost. We didn’t start pruning until 28 March, finished on 16 April, had bud burst on 29 April and at the end of May we have only just finished tying down.”

Late pruning is particularly beneficial in the estate’s newest vineyard, which was planted in 2014. After extensive research, 3,000 Pinot blanc and Pinot noir, Burgundian and Précoce, vines on 3O3 rootstock were planted on an incredibly low to the ground, double guyot system. 

“A lot of people warned us away from planting like this,” said Linda. “The vines follow the same spacing as Bordeaux and Burgundy. They are only five years old, but we have had phenomenal growth, it already looks so established and the vines are so happy here. We have pruned and tied down really late and I am so glad we did otherwise we would have been toasted by the frosts I think.” 

Flock of Hebrideans 

With the exception of this low to the ground parcel of pinot, Linda and Guy run sheep in the vineyard and find it is the most effective way of managing lower shoots and weed competition. 

“The flock of Hebrideans has been here for over 30 years and they are a real part of the estate’s history,” said Linda. “We used to keep them out of the vineyard, but there was one year where we had no grass at all and instead of buying in hay to feed the sheep, we decided to put them in the vineyard. They did such an amazing job of keeping it all tidy we now only take them off temporarily for lambing and also if we have sprayed something like copper.”

As well as saving on the labour costs of bud rubbing, Linda and Guy have also noticed a remarkable difference on the weed population, have saved money on herbicides and don’t have to mow as often as most.

“The sheep like the vine leaves, but they don’t eat the grape flowers, they will simply hoover everything along the bottom,” said Linda. “We don’t put too much fungicide on anyway and we are very careful with our spraying. This year, however, the weeds are a bit lively and while the sheep are good, I think we are going to put down an application of Shark before the sheep go back onto the vineyard.”

Hard work ahead 

It is not just the weeds which are emerging with intensity this season and the vineyard at Giffords Hall is already showing signs of incredible growth. Following the 2018 miracle year, Linda is starting to predict that 2019 will be a struggle, with vines requiring a lot of management. 

“I have a strong gut feeling that this year is going to be known for disease pressure and I foresee hard work ahead,” said Linda. “We have never really had a problem with Erinose mite before, but it is everywhere at the moment. I think we are going to have to be very vigilant and we will need to work harder to keep the canopy clear to make sure that the vines and the fruit all stay really clean.”

Looking further than the 2019 season, the option to plant a further 15-acres of the site is currently up for debate, and while Guy is keen, Linda is somewhat concerned about the impact this will have on both the labour required and the size of the market for the end produce. 

“I think that the biggest issue the industry faces at the moment is the size of the market,” said Linda. “So far we have been incredibly lucky; when we first started, there were very few vineyards in East Anglia who had created a brand and were distributing nationally; now we have competition. With the amount of plantings, I think it is inevitable that grape prices will come down, so there won’t be an option to just sell fruit if you are having a difficult year and consequently, I think it will be much harder to make any money.” 

Visitors will spend more 

Over the years, the Howards have worked to develop a comprehensive range of quality, saleable wines at Giffords Hall. The estate only started to produce sparkling wine in 2005 and only in recent years have they been able to focus on making it in significant volumes. 

“Deciding what percentage of sparkling and still wine to produce is a difficult one to get right as is what percentage should be sold at retail and wholesale,” said Guy. “Getting the business model right is tricky and I am not sure many people in the industry have that figured out yet.” 

While sparkling and still wine production percentage have been dictated by what’s being grown at the vineyard, there are many factors to weigh up when thinking about where to sell the wines.

Selling wine via the cellar door brings high margins, and wine tourism can also offer an additional source of income and is a great tool for connecting with customers and developing brand loyalty. 

“I think a stand-alone vineyard is very difficult to run as a business unless you are prepared to add tourism, because in any seasonal business you will always be fighting with cash flow,” said Linda. 

However, tourism is not without its complications. High footfall is required to ensure that all stock is sold and means that more members of staff are required, as are additional facilities, which is just not practical for everyone. 

“Retail means staff, which means more wages, and there are so many additional costs to running a cellar door,” said Linda. “Having coach loads of people doesn’t always lead to sales either. We just focus on providing smaller groups with a personal experience because we find that those visitors will spend more.”

When it comes to selling wine to the local market, to keep trade customers happy, producers need to be able to produce good volumes of certain lines, with bespoke blends reserved for retail customers. They should also be prepared to implement an allocation system in place. Restaurants and merchants will soon tire of listing wines only for them to be unavailable in a month’s time. 

Attending trade shows, like the London Wine Fair, and encouraging restaurants and local merchants to take part in schemes like English Wine Week and Suffolk Day have also proved to be instrumental for Linda. 

“With English Wine Week, the more effort you put in, the more you get out,” said Linda. “We phone customers and tell them about it and it gives them something to talk about with the consumers. We have done various tastings; Waitrose invited us to do some events in store and that helps them too because as wine specialists they want to be able to tell their customers that they have a wine producer coming in to talk about the wines. It really isn’t just the producers who benefit, the trade benefit, it just requires a little bit of time and effort.”

When it comes to sales, Linda has also found that carefully named wines can not only help to increase the sense of place, but also avoids any customer preconceptions about varietals, especially Madeleine Angevine. 

“Instead of naming the wines after grapes we have chosen names which resonate with the local area,” said Linda. “I think wine needs to be of a place, they need provenance and when we are selling, being able to talk about Suffolk is a huge bonus.” 

This approach certainly paid dividends a few years ago when the Church of the Holy See, located in the Vatican City, contacted the estate looking to purchase its St Edmundsbury still red.

“The old Cathedral in St Edmundsbury would have at one point been surrounded by vineyards,” said Linda. “They would have paid their tithe to Rome in hogsheads of wine, so it was quite funny when we got the order for the St Edmundsbury to think that 300 years later wine from the area was heading back to the Vatican.” 

A logistical bonus

This overseas order was not just a one-off export for the Howards, and despite producing only around 35,000 bottles per year, the duo consider selling in global markets as one of the key ways to combat any issues surrounding domestic oversupply. Having received a large order from a European department store, last year export accounted for around 40% of Gifford Hall’s total wine sales. 

While many producers shy away from the hard work and the paperwork, being located just off the A14, which goes south straight to Tilbury Docks, certainly is a logistical bonus and for some export orders all Linda needs to do is pick the stock.

“When it comes to export, the way I look at it is that if I have a few restaurants ordering a few times per month, I have to put those orders together and get that wine to them,” said Linda. “Getting a pallet or two ready a few times a year is almost less work. You will need an export certificate and there is paperwork, which is irritating, but it is doable, and we have almost cracked it now.”

In the early days, Linda sought a lot of help from the UK government Department for International Trade (DIT) and she believes that there is still plenty of advice out there for people who need it.

“There is a lot of help out there; I went on a DIT organised trip, met a few people who wanted to order our wine and built up those relationships over the years,” said Linda. “I remember when we first exported to America, someone told me it would be easier to get a gun into Georgia than it would be the wine, but we managed it and that taught me about how to manage the processes.” 

Having a presence in foreign markets also requires finding good importers and distributors and travelling to the markets to present your wines and brand. Again, even as a small estate this is something which Linda and Guy have done successfully, proving that you don’t need an army of brand ambassadors just to send wine across the world.

“We have become great friends with our Japanese distributor and finding someone to represent you can be like finding a needle in a haystack, but there will be someone out there who you can work really well with and who can reflect your wines,” said Linda. “There is a lot of personal involvement in wine too, so you have to be able to provide customers with the marketing materials and you will also need to visit the country, but through forming relationships, some of the orders we have are now huge.”

While many are looking to the USA and Scandinavia for increasing English wine export markets, Linda believes that Japan holds a lot of potential. The Giffords Hall range is widely available in the Mitsukoshi and Matsuzakaya departments stores with sales successfully being driven on by the Asian affinity to English products, with consumers seeing British as synonymous to quality.

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