In contrast to the distant views of Felixstowe port, Shotley Vineyard is beautiful, peaceful, award winning and locally focussed. The outstanding beauty of the site first attracted Charlotte Davitt-Mills to the plot of vines that are now lovingly under her care. When Charlotte and her husband Craig Mills purchased it in 2017 the original four acre site of Shotley Vineyard was already planted with vines. “I used to walk in the field regularly and when it came up for sale I felt that I always wanted to be able to walk in this spot,” Charlotte explained and so the journey of Shotley Vineyard began.

 “This is an older more mature vineyard and I am working with what I have taken on, I have not planted anything,” explained Charlotte. “When we bought the field back in 2017 it was just weeds and brambles you didn’t look at it and think about the vines,” she added. In 2018 Charlotte decided to leave her job in the insurance industry and take on the task of reinvigorating the vineyard. 

Charlotte did not have an agricultural background but had returned to Suffolk after working in India. Of her experience there she said: “Living in this metropolis that was a little crazy and very populated, it really made me appreciate the English countryside.” 

This passion for the countryside then became a passion for the English Wine industry. After the birth of her first child whilst taking maternity leave from her full time job in the insurance industry Charlotte explained: “There would be nights where I was up late feeding my baby and researching the English Wine industry and I started to feel that it was an exciting thing to be involved with.” 

Charlotte is a busy mum to Henry five, and Edie two, and runs the vineyard with the help of a small team. It has been a steep learning curve though. For example, Charlotte explained that in the early days she had received a request from another grower for half a tonne of Bacchus. Having allocated the rows and made a yield estimate Charlotte sent the fruit to the grower but it ended up being nearly a tonne. What happened next highlights how the wine growing industry in England is a community that works together. The grower made 300 bottles with the additional fruit and returned it to Shotley Vineyard enabling Charlotte to have a limited edition release. 

The small knit team also receive help from an unexpected source. “My son Henry and I were walking through the vineyard together pulling off some leaves to have a look at the bunches and he said ‘I am going to get rid of this one this looks dead’ and he knows that you have to get rid of the water shoots that are coming from the bottom of the vine,” said Charlotte with a proud smile. It seems Henry is literally walking in Charlotte’s footsteps.

Having lost her apprentice to the lure of a job in the USA (“I could not really compete with that,” Charlotte said smiling), the team now consists of three local people. For harvest Charlotte relies on local people for picking. “I actually went on Radio Suffolk and said I was looking for pickers. The people who responded, now come back year after year and harvest has a really nice feel here,” added Charlotte.

The vineyard grows Rondo grapes and Charlotte has found a long term buyer for these. Rondo is the first variety to ripen in this vineyard and are grown for another producer for a sparkling red wine. Just like daffodils are welcomed at the very beginning of spring so the first variety to ripen in a vineyard is always met with a sense of anticipation. “I don’t have to green harvest it and I don’t have to worry too much about disease,” she said. 

The day Vineyard visited, Charlotte was due to spray the vines after leaf stripping had taken place. The site at Shotley is particularly windy which brings its own problems when undertaking any spray regime but this season the downy pressure has been quite high so Charlotte will spray every 7-10 days. “When we first took over the site there was no handover and the vineyard had been left and, because of that, mildew had got in so the next few years we really had to stay on top of it,” explained Charlotte. It became clear how well Charlotte knows her vines as she continued “there are houses around here and people have got trees which has created little hot spot areas that I have to keep a really close eye on.”

Many newly planted vineyards will not experience the quirkiness that is present at Shotley Vineyard. For example Charlotte explained: “Some rows will change from Ortega to Pinot Noir half way down a row. In one field there are two bays at the top that are each Bacchus and the rest of the rows are Rondo, you would not plant it like that now.” 

The position of the site means that frost has not been a problem. On one side of the vines is the River Orwell and the River Stour is located on the other side, providing natural frost protection and giving Charlotte one less job to do. 

Whilst frost may not affect Shotley Vineyard Charlotte stated wasps as her biggest problem. “The wasp traps are in the vineyard already,” she said. “There are also badgers in the vineyards but they tend not to damage the vines, if anything they dig up the wasps nests so that I know where they are,” Charlotte adding laughing. 

Adjoining the initial four acre plot that Charlotte and Craig first bought is a ten acre plot that Charlotte rents. This was planted around 2010 with Chardonnay vines. Two further acres are planted with Bacchus and Reichensteiner bringing the total area under vine that Charlotte manages to 16 acres. “I think that there is a little bit of pride locally that this peninsula has got a vineyard,” Charlotte said. 

There are eight different varieties: Rondo, Bacchus, Reichensteiner, Pinot Noir, Ortega, Chardonnay, Auxerrois and Seyval Blanc. Charlotte sells roughly half the grapes on to others in order to maintain cashflow. “I am not a winemaker so I focus on growing the very best grapes that I can,” said Charlotte. When grapes are sold to a winemaker they determine the exact ripeness levels and flavour profiles they require depending on the wine style they want to make. 

The soil is a free draining clay loam and the Chardonnay vines are planted on a sandy ridge. “When we took over the vineyard the Chardonnay part was the most in need of TLC,” said Charlotte. The Chardonnay vines were in need of such care that Charlotte enrolled on a Simonit and Sirch course at Plumpton college. Instead of grubbing the vines up Charlotte has nurtured them back to health, “for two years I applied what I had learnt and it did really help, everything you do with vines is not just about this year, it is about the architecture of the vines and looking ahead to the future,” she said. 

The very first wines from Shotley Vineyard were produced in 2019 these were a still Bacchus and a Pinot Noir. Since these first wines Shotley Vineyard has extended the range of styles that are produced. The 2021 Bacchus was reviewed by Matthew Jukes in January 2023 edition of Vineyard where he describes this wine as having a “persistence of fruit and volume of flavour that trails on for minutes.”

Talking about the creation of a sparkling wine Charlotte said: “I like to keep things single vineyard and I was looking at the varieties. We took over 1,100 vines of Chardonnay and that was not going to yield high enough to go into tank on its own, so I thought about the other varieties that were in that field.” The first sparkling wine was made at the vineyard in 2020 and is made from Auxerrois, Reichensteiner, Seyval and Chardonnay. 

When deciding what varieties to include in the Sparkling Charlotte included Reichensteiner for its aromatics and Auxerrois for its flavour profile that would complement the chardonnay. “They are not the traditional varieties for Sparkling Wine so I thought perhaps we should not do traditional method,” she said. Charlotte continued. 

It is a field blend Charmat method and all the fruit is picked on the same day “so the Auxerrois and the Reichensteiner will be super ripe and the Chardonnay and Seyval Blanc will have the acidity,” Charlotte continued. On the morning Vineyard visited Charlotte had sold the last two bottles from the latest vintage which consisted of 3,500 bottles. The 2022 Sparkling wine was due to go into tank during the last week in July. 

“I love the sparkling,” Charlotte said. “ I love the different varieties and that it is a mixture of the oldest and newest plantings here with some of those less familiar grape varieties.” 

For 2022 Shotley Vineyard released 1400 bottles of Pinot Noir Rosé. “This is my first rosé,” said Charlotte. The label reflects the beauty of the vineyard and its surrounding area and in keeping with the local feel at Shotley, this hand drawn design was a collaboration with a local artist. 

Shotley Vineyard is now working with winemaking experts at Defined Wine. Charlotte explained: “ Defined visit me and the site and we talk about wine making styles and what I want to make.” This allowed Charlotte to discuss the production of the new rosé such as “the taste profile and when to pick it, what to pick, whether we do whole bunch pressing.” The rosé has been so popular that it is 50% sold after only a few months.

The weather conditions for 2022 caused the yield for the Pinot Noir to be down on the five tonnes that is typical for the well established vines on this site. “In August we had just 4ml of rain,” explained Charlotte, however the ripeness levels in the fruit were excellent. “I managed to get the ripeness to just over 90°Oe and we were able to put 25% in oak. It is the first time we have used oak. I think with the mature vines there is a translation into the wine.” 

The small vineyard is open for cellar door sales Friday to Sunday 10am to 2pm. Shotley Vineyard has been offering tourist experiences since 2021 with tours and tastings and offering afternoon tea in the bespoke building on site. “People love afternoon tea,” said Charlotte. The tours can accommodate 30 visitors and on these busy days Charlotte has the help of Suffolk based Graham Addison of ahead4wine. “We get on really well. Graham does the tour and then I join him for the tasting part and afterwards I do all the food,” explained Charlotte. 

Being in an AONB has created its own problems though. For example, the size of the building was reduced before planning approval would be granted and the amount of car parking space was limited to 10, but this has not stopped Shotley collaborating with other companies to put on events. One of the popular events is ‘Pizza in the Vines’ taking place on several occasions throughout the summer. This fun evening allows guests to take in the beauty of the vineyard accompanied by the fantastic taste of wood fired pizza and of course a glass or two of excellent wine. There is also a collaboration with Que and Hollar a food truck that emulates authentic American Smokehouse cuisine. It is great to see such imagination in the tourism and hospitality offering at Shotley.

Shotley Vineyard is also available as a wedding venue. Charlotte explained that being responsible for such a special day brings a lot of pressure. Charlotte really wants the very best for every one of her visitors and is so passionate about her business that whether it is a bride and groom or a group booking for afternoon tea they will get the very best service and the experience will be nothing short of extraordinary.

Plans for the future include replanting some areas of the vineyard. “When I drive round there are little gaps here and there,” said Charlotte. Both Chardonnay and Ortega are varieties that Charlotte would like to increase in the future. However Charlotte has many plans for the future at Shotley Vineyard. “I would like to produce a traditional method that would be ready for release in 2027,” she explained. This would be a fitting way to mark the 10th Anniversary of the purchase of the vineyard by Charlotte and Craig and will be a literal celebration of the continual development of this land and Shotley Vineyard. 

In front of the café area is a glamping bell tent that is currently used for weekend camping trips by Craig and Henry. This really emphasises the family feel at Shotley Vineyard and sounds like an idyllic way to spend a weekend and it is great to hear that next year there will be four new tents available on site for guests to become fully immersed in the vineyard experience. “People that come out of London for the weekend are looking for something to do, so it will be nice for them to be able to stay and enjoy the local area for the weekend,” said Charlotte. 

A vineyard is enthralling even in the rain; the life cycle of the vines, the grapes and the end product captivates the imagination so a glamping experience amongst the vines here in this corner of Suffolk would be nothing short of inspiring.

Shotley Vineyard will make a lasting and warm impression on all those that visit. The setting and the view are a source of deep contemplation but Charlotte Davitt-Mills and her family are working incredibly hard to ensure that all those that call in and spend any time here leave with a love not just of the English countryside but of the English Wine industry and its unique story. A story that like Shotley Vineyard itself continues to improve with time.   

Photos: ©Martin Apps, Countrywide Photographic

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