It is now possible to sample English wine in a picturesque spot near to Canterbury Cathedral whilst enjoying excellent Kentish fare. This month Vineyard magazine visits the newly opened premises of Corkk in Canterbury and chats to founder Jonathan Piggins and his business partner Clive Barlow MW about their wine shop that mixes the traditional with the truly unique…

How did Corkk come into existence as a wine business?

Clive responded “Jonathan is the founder and he came to have a chat with me about the idea. Jonathan told me that English wine was really going to go places and lots of people would soon come to love it and that we should get behind what is local. Jonathan had the marketing knowledge and the inspiration.” Jonathan humbly admitted that: “He enjoyed drinking wine but that he was looking for someone with wine expertise.” People suggested Clive Barlow and having bought some wine from Clive in the past Jonathan said: “It was lovely because it was as easy as sending an email saying would you be interested? We met and had a brief chat and Clive said yes I would love to help you. “It has been an easy and pleasant journey ever since,” they both agreed.   

How do you feel about the wine that you are presenting?

“Very confident,” said Jonathan. I want to have the authority behind the wine we are showcasing and Clive knows such a lot not just about the quality of the wine but the story of the wine.”

When did Corkk begin operating?

Jonathan said: “We began online in 2019. At first we did a little bit with friends and family for market research and discovering the reaction and found that people really enjoyed the wines so the initial response was really positive.” 

“People consistently said the wine was so much better than they expected,” Jonathan added with a smile. “In those early days it was the Oxney organic sparkling rosé that people got really excited about,” he concluded.  

Can you describe something about the ethos of Corkk online?

“This was an offering to people who wanted to learn not just about Kent Wine but the English Wine scene with bespoke parcels going out every couple of months. So we would pick the wines and then send them out with the story behind the wine so that the drinker could really understand the background of the wine and then if they wanted to go direct they could. It was really about opening up English Wine to people,” said Clive.  

Did lockdown affect the number of people that were coming to you for wine?

“It was too early to make any judgements specifically for our own business but it was interesting that prior to lockdown the vineyards were very much about cellar door activities. They had not done much relating to online sales and the number of people looking online for wine then increased dramatically,” said Jonathan.

How did you adapt your business during lockdown?

“We offered online tasting experiences,” said Jonathan.

How did that work?

“I was the compare,” said Jonathan. “It was a double act,” Clive added. On a serious note Jonathan said: “It was a good opportunity to see people’s reaction and it was the first time we had the ability to see that; it was really quite exciting.”

Clive explained that it actually works in two ways: “When you are selling only online you don’t get that immediate feedback but online live sessions with people, being able to directly answer questions… that was different and mainly a positive experience.”

What demographic did you have for the online tastings?

“It was a nice mix,” agreed Clive and Jonathan “probably an age range of late twenties to people in their seventies.” 

“The younger age groups were a bit more experimental,” said Jonathan. “If you are less experienced in drinking wine you don’t have as many preconceptions about how a wine should be,” added Clive. 

Do you have any experiences from those Zoom sessions?

Jonathan recounts: “On one occasion there were about 20 people on the screen and one participant took a sip and was instantly unimpressed but Clive was able to turn it into a positive experience for the whole group. Clive asked have you got any cheese? The participant was a good sport and went and had some cheese and tried the tasting again and his reaction was remarkable, he was so impressed with the wine he called it delicious. Without the live aspect of the tasting and Clive’s knowledge that could have been a bad experience for that person but actually it turned out to be a very positive experience not just for the one person but the whole group. They could see that by playing around with food pairings you can get a different experience from the wine you are drinking.”   

After Lockdown how did you move the business forward?

“We had a pop-up shop in Fenwicks Canterbury during the Canterbury Wine Festival (which was founded by Clive) and the response was so good they asked us to stay throughout the summer. We still have a presence there now,” said Jonathan. 

How do customers respond to the shop?

Jonathan answered: “We get two kinds of customers coming in. There are those who know their wines very well and are quite engaged in English Wine. (There is also a movement to natural and orange wines.) We also have customers who say English wine is not for me I like French wine etc… and some won’t change but some will have a try which is what the shop is all about. Showcasing English wines and wines from other countries so that people can just have a try and be adventurous without the risk of buying a bottle for £20-£30; you can have a taste for £1.” In conclusion Clive added that: “Traditional method sparkling is embraced by all and is a product they are familiar with but English still wine requires people to be open minded.” 

You have a Wall of Kent Wine on offer what was the influence behind this?

“There is a strong tie in with the local residents in Kent; this is their wine. They can go to the vineyards themselves. I am a great believer in that sense of terroir. Really caring about the place where you live; supporting the nearby growers and winemakers. We are however, in a new market for wine so we need to feature other areas as well, so we don’t just showcase Kent wines,” said Clive. “We also have a food offering that is all locally sourced to continue the local experience,” Jonathan concluded.   

You are based in a very beautiful part of Canterbury near the Cathedral how has that influenced the customer demographic? 

We opened in November and have already seen a significant number of domestic tourists from London but also even in this short time we have seen visitors from Australia, Thailand, The Netherlands, Germany, France and the USA. 

How many of your customers are international tourists?

“We have not had our first summer yet so that is maybe a question for the future,” said Jonathan. “We will be inviting the local vineyards into the shop to showcase their wines during the summer which will be a lovely experience.”

The shop has added context to Kentish Wine by also including other English Wines and you have added another layer to this context by including wines from across the world why is that?

“We carry Chardonnay from other places in the world and that means it is possible to compare across the continents and then you can see how good English wines are. I feel you should always have a holistic view of wine. The styles will be different but the intrinsic quality of the wine will be the same. They will be different expressions of certain grapes. We also wanted to show the variety of wine that is out there in the world. I have another location where I sell wine but there I am only allowed to showcase European wine so I enjoy showing excellent examples of other wines here at Corkk,” said Clive.

Where do you plan to go from here?

“One floor up,” was the instant response from Jonathan. “The building has two rooms upstairs with fantastic views of the Cathedral from the rear of the property.” (Jonathan showed me these rooms and the view is definitely inspiring between us we decided that it was worthy of a movie scene “Mary Poppins meets the Aristocats”). 

“One of these rooms is already fitted out and Canterbury Wine School will host WSET courses on the premises starting in January. It will be a more conducive environment for learning about wine than a basic classroom,” Clive explained. “There will also be a Kentish wine workshop that will be a two hour experience for tourists. Alongside this there is also the opportunity for businesses and groups to benefit from the space with bespoke tastings and events.

Lastly what is your favourite wine style or grape variety and why?

Clive responded:“Pinot Noir because it is the most terroir expressive red grape in the world. It is sensual and speaks of its origins and fortunately we can grow it in England and here in Kent.” Whilst Jonathan explained: “It depends on the time of year but what can be done with Bacchus is quite exciting. It is a true expression of English Wine the smell of elderflower, the hedgerows I think in the summer it is a perfect English drink.”  

Enomatic machine

When entering the new premises at Corkk there are many things that are striking. The airy space has been beautifully renovated making a lovely connection between the old and the new. 

Dating from 1790 the building is located near the world famous landmark of Canterbury Cathedral. Whilst the décor and colour scheme really showcase the different wine bottles and labels; it is hard to miss the enomatic machine in the centre of the space. 

Corkk provide a card that can be loaded with a credit amount and this is then inserted into one of two machines that have a total of 16 wine bottles displayed. It is then possible to select a specific wine to try but the brilliant part is that the amount of wine dispensed starts at a 50ml tasting portion. The card is then debited a nominal fee of approximately £1, enabling the start of a brand new wine journey. 

The enomatic machine offers three separate quantities, from the tasting sample to a full glass and the corresponding amount is deducted from the card. This is the perfect solution for a group of friends who each enjoy different wine styles or who perhaps want to experience various wines accompanied by great local food. A fun yet practical way to encourage an open minded approach to wine.