Taking stock of vintage variations

The public listed company seeking to bottle and age a sense of place and time every year.

Charlie Holland has obviously had his picture taken before. The CEO and head winemaker of Gusbourne Estate, one of only two English wine producers to be listed on the London Stock Exchange (LON:GUS), carefully adopted a powerful stance, leaning on one of his wine tanks, hands in pockets with a steely stare; his smart-casual attire, a shirt and jeans combo, the ideal nod to his approachable and down to earth nature.

“We are slowly starting with the harvest preparations, it’s all getting there now,” he said, as we walked round the winery based in Appledore, Kent. “Once picking starts we will operate 24/7 for about two weeks.”

Aside from a dozen or so tanks outside, the winery has an unassuming, agricultural warehouse look about it. Rather like the Tardis, it opens up to reveal a winemaker’s paradise: one eight and two four tonne whole bunch capacity Willmes presses sit on the left hand side, in front on an endless wall of Burgundian oak barrels, with row after row of stainless steel tanks behind, a collection of Foudres hidden away behind a wall of stillages, and there is even space for a neat winery office.

A small door off to the right takes us through to the Nest, the producer’s stylish cellar door facilities. Downstairs has a museumesque feel; wines are displayed in glass cabinets, the walls lined with quirky exhibits with the history of the estate, including images of the original medieval goose crest on which the producer’s current livery is based, interspersed with information about English wine and UK viticulture. Upstairs, there is an impressive tasting room, mainly used for exclusive tastings, with a balcony overlooking the vines.

Taking advantage of the late-August sunshine, Charlie and I head for a table outside next to the tipi-marquee, which has been erected over an outdoor bar and seating area where, visiting on a Friday afternoon, there are plenty of people enjoying a glass or two of the estate’s sparkling.

Sat looking out across the Romney Marsh, and over the first few rows of Chardonnay vines, which I am told, in good years only, go into the still Guinevere, we discuss the estate, its expansion into Sussex, the expression of each vintage and the importance of patience, time and tourism.

“The wind farm you can see in the distance is Rye,” said Charlie, who ended up in English wine “by accident”, joining Gusbourne in 2013 after studying at Plumpton College and gaining many harvests’ experience around the globe before returning to the South East of England to take up the role of assistant winemaker at Ridgeview.

“We are only six miles from the sea, located on the first bit of ancient escarpment which comes off the Marsh. While everyone is heading for the chalky Downs, we are pretty low, the highest point in the Boot Hill vineyard is 45 metres above sea level and our lowest vines sit at 5m. But I think that is really important in a climate like ours to have that shelter, that heat, which helps us to achieve a greater ripeness. There is often a fullness to our wines which I think is from the vineyard, not the winemaking.”

120 hectares in total

Affectionately known by the founder of Gusbourne, Andrew Weeber, as the ‘turnip patch’, the Kent-based estate dating back to 1410 (when it was first recorded under the ownership of John de Goosebourne) was planted with arable and sheep farming crops when it was purchased by the South African orthopaedic surgeon in 2004.

“Kent is the Garden of England and has a rich history of growing fruit, vegetables, crops and hops,” said Charlie. “Andrew was the first person to see the potential in these lovely south facing slopes and there are now 150-acres of vines across the 350-acre estate, with the north facing, unsuitable land being rented out to local sheep and arable farmers.”

Planted on Wealden Clay over Tunbridge Wells sand, Charlie explains that Gusbourne is normally “first out of the gate for picking the sparkling varieties” as the heavier, clay soils get so hot and warm, the fruit really “races through the season”. 

While there is no chalk in sight at the estate’s Kent site, Charlie often hears consumers commenting that “they can really taste the chalk”. Perhaps the saline mineral character comes from the salty sea breeze which wafts through the vineyard; or perhaps people are picking up on the fruit which has come from the producer’s Sussex vines.

“One third of our vineyards are located around Halnaker Park, north of Chichester and we have just taken on another 27-hecatres there too so we will soon be 120-hecares in total,” said Charlie. “The fact that the land in Sussex was on chalk is serendipitous really. We were essentially already making arrangements with the estate, but it worked out hugely in our favour. It is very similar to our Kent site, about eight miles from the sea, similar altitude, maritime climate, with a lovely warm breeze which helps with disease.”

Fruit is not bought in from anywhere else and the team, which includes esteemed vineyard manager Jon Pollard, is very passionate about working exclusively with grapes which they have had complete control over.

“There are no complicated grower contracts; here it is just about quality,” said Charlie. “It allows us to make wines with a sense of place and if you are buying fruit in you lose that. The challenge from a viticultural point of view is that a single estate approach means you have all of your eggs in one basket, so we have to work very hard at mitigating problems with frost and flowering. Having two sites in completely separate locations is a way of reducing that risk.”

Expression of people, place and year

This expression on individuality is also evident in the winemaker’s focus on creating vintage only wines. Currently the estate is straddling 2013, 2014 and 2015 vintages, with the cooler 2013 and 2015 seasons showing backbone, restraint and amazing length, the warmer 2014 is a big, fruit forward, more muscular style of wine.

“Our wines are generally sold by sommeliers or someone in a bottle shop who is there to tell the story and, as well as the people and the place, the year is very important too,” said Charlie. “We want to express each vintage and if that means the wines are different, that is fine. I think non-vintage is a bit of a compromise because you are always just trying to make an average wine. Vintage is about creating the best we possibly can in any given year. They all have strengths and weaknesses, the 2013s and 2015s in their youth can be quite austere, but they have great aging potential, whereas the 2014s are so generous and giving, in perfect condition now, but they won’t last for the next 10 years. I think as long as you can explain that to customers, they actually appreciate it.”

To help maintain a certain level of consistency, all of the blocks will be picked, pressed and fermented separately so that at the end of the process Charlie has over 100 different tank compartments and 200 barrels to blend. A small amount of reserve wine is used to “add complexity” and all of the blending tastings are done blind to ensure that special parcels, such as Boot Hill, cannot live off “previous glory”.

While blending may help the winemaker to achieve a rounded house style, many have shifted over to non-vintage in a bid to create consistent volumes, even in years when the UK climate throws a bit of a curve ball. Working closely with Jon, however, Charlie believes that this can still be done in the vineyard and green harvesting ranks highly on Gusbourne’s viticultural agenda.

“Last year we did drop quite a lot of fruit and sometimes we will drop up to one third for the still wines,” said Charlie, who pointed out that the team had been busy fruit thinning in the Boot Hill vineyard on the morning of my visit. “It was something we started in 2014 and the impact was so dramatic. It is all about the balance and making sure that we are doing everything in our power to look after the vines in the long run. There were stories of people picking at 20t/ha last year but that is ridiculous. Each vine has a finite amount of energy and we prefer to avoid big vintage variations, not only because it avoids the need to head down the non-vintage route, but because we hope the vines will have more nutrition and resilience. It is about not being too greedy.” 

Plenty of potential

With its small tight-knit team, Gusbourne might not have the look or feel of a corporate PLC, and being listed on the stock market has no impact on the way the wines are created, it does however mean that there are certain things Charlie and I can’t talk about, such as how many bottles the estate releases each year, yields or distribution numbers.

On the 2019 vintage, Charlie did comment that although the vines are “tracking about 10 days behind last year” there was plenty of potential with “a good crop level”, not as big as 2018 but “not far off”.

“I have heard a bit of doom and gloom, with people saying that it is going to be a late season and so far it looks like we might be picking at the beginning of October, but some of my favourite vintages came from years where we picked in October,” said Charlie. “It is those blood, sweat and tears years where at the time you are not sure, but they really start to develop with great longevity. Picking into November is difficult because the weather turns, the leaves are falling off, there is more disease and that is undoubtedly more stressful but because you have an extra week or two of ripening you get that extra complex layer of flavour in all the wines. There is acidity and profile but citrus, stone fruit, minerality and the tropical character too.”

On the topic of acidity, Charlie believes that winemakers in the UK “shouldn’t be scared” and while there is a fine line between “being vibrant” and “being brain rinsing”, acidity “shouldn’t be a dirty word”.

“From the winemaking point of view, time and patience are your two biggest friends and I think the problem with a lot of English wines is that they are released too young; they have amazing promise, but are one dimensional,” said Charlie. “Extended lees aging is really important. It can help to round out wines, giving texture, body and weight while developing and providing tertiary flavours. We also use a bit more oak than most people and there is about 8% of that will be old oak to build the mid-palate and 2% new oak to add a subtle toasty complexity.”

Patience can be extremely challenging for new vineyards trying to manage cash flow and get a return on investment as soon as possible, however, once a producer starts releasing wine early, it is a very slippery slope and catching up on aging becomes almost impossible.

“Before you know it, you have no stock, are looking at other stock which has no age and you are not doing justice to wines which have a lot of great potential,” said Charlie. “We took a hit in the early years by not selling as much as we needed, or wanted to, but we now have lots of wine sitting in the cellar with plenty of age on it.”

With this in mind, conversation turns to investors’ expectations of working with a very cash intensive business which needs a lot of money and time before it gets going.

“It is an incredibly long-term investment and we have always stressed that this is not the way to make a quick buck,” said Charlie, “but once the business has matured it will be extremely stable. We have all this land which we own, the vines are biological assets and importantly we have four years’ wine sat in the cellar, so the business model is stable. When it comes to figures, I think it is a very similar story across the industry, it’s just no one else has to publish their financials like we do.”

The future

The success of any wine business ultimately comes down to sales and if this year’s crop is looking not too dissimilar to 2018’s humongous haul, coupled with the increasing number of plantings which will soon be coming online, I asked if Charlie was ever concerned about the market place becoming crowded.

“Personally, I think that it is the people who are late to market, who haven’t established their brand or roots to market, who will find it the most challenging. The domestic market will always be our main priority, but we are looking to spread our net further and are on sale in 14 different countries now,” said Charlie. “Then there is tourism. We are aiming to bring people to us which isn’t just about sales and margins but also engagement and consumer loyalty.”

Looking to the future, as well as planting the additional site in Sussex, the CEO winemaker is hotly anticipating the release of some top secret cuvées in 2020 and is focused on building a global brand.

“We always approach every new year with a blank piece of paper,” said Charlie. “I think we are quite structured and formulaic in how we approach harvest at Gusbourne, but each year we do look at how we can make the wines just that bit better. I am a firm believer that as a winemaker you are not as in control as you think you are; you have one shot, once a year and that is entirely dependent on what mother nature gives you.”

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