Meet the people behind the wines

Richard Lewis must have one of the best jobs in the world. He works in the beautiful, ancient and diverse landscape of the Kent North Downs, and has the privilege of contributing to the legacy of the farmland and local communities. Richard’s role is a busy one but leaves just enough time for his other passion rugby.

What does your job involve?

As Head of Viticulture at Chapel Down I oversee operations at our 10 vineyards across Kent, covering 230 hectares. It is everything to do with producing the grapes, assessing land, designing new vineyards and organising the harvest. I have a great team who work incredibly hard, along with some fantastic suppliers. 

What do you love about your job?

It’s hugely satisfying to create new vineyards, watch them establish and come into production. I love being involved in the creation of something that is associated with celebration and conviviality, and something so many people derive a lot of pleasure from. One of the biggest challenges I have is balancing my time between the office and the vineyards – I have to be strict with myself and shut the laptop and get out into the vineyards!

Why the change of career?

I was 38 years old when I joined Chapel Down in 2009. I trained initially as a quantity surveyor and site engineer and worked on the EuroDisney project in Paris, plus various management roles with luxury property developers. During the credit crunch things weren’t so rosy for property, but the English wine scene was starting to gain momentum – and I wanted to get involved. I had developed a fascination for wine during many family holidays to the south of France and a working holiday to Australia and New Zealand in 1994. When I started my wine studies at Plumpton College, I also started working part-time at Chapel Down and found working alongside studying hugely beneficial. I completed the final year of the degree part-time as I had become the vineyard manager at Chapel Down by then and graduated with a degree in Viticulture & Oenology in 2013 – I haven’t looked back since. 

Future of English and Welsh wine?

We now produce some absolutely stonking wines and have some real trailblazers working in our industry. The pace of change has been breathless and the amount of investment we have seen in new vineyards and wineries has been staggering. We have all seen the shift towards buying local produce over the last few years, so I can only see the demand for English wines growing. However, we are becoming more health conscious and there is a new generation to appeal to, so we are likely to see a move towards ‘buy less, buy better’ – but with the high quality of English wine it is well placed to fill this position.

The importance of sustainability 

Sustainability is an important part of all our lives, so I am really pleased to see how well the WineGB Sustainability Scheme has gone. I have been on the working group from the start, and it has been a wonderful experience working alongside like-minded passionate people. Much credit must go to Chris Foss who has led the group and been instrumental in getting it to where it is today. 

Do winemakers get all the glory?

It used to appear that way. Now there is a massive shift towards provenance, sustainability and buying local. People are seeing a far stronger connection between the final product and the origins of the ingredients. With wine there is an inescapable connection between the product and the vineyard. The winemakers at Chapel Down are the first to acknowledge that the quality of the grapes has a fundamental impact on the quality of the wine. I think those who grow the grapes are getting more recognition for the part they play in the final product – and rightly so.

Favourite wine?

There are so many fantastic wines out there and it seems that every time I try a new English or Welsh wine, I have a new favourite.

Any free time? 

Four children, a dog, two chickens and a large veg plot in the garden keep me busy. I am from a rugby-mad Welsh family. My uncle played for Llanelli (now Scarlets) and my father played at London Welsh alongside Welsh internationals and British Lions players – so I had no choice but to love the game. I don’t play myself anymore, but I have been coaching boy’s and girl’s youth rugby for the last 15 years which has been an incredibly rewarding experience.

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