Contract winemaker

Albourne The springboard to success
Black Chalk The creative collaborator
Bolney The variety performance
Defined Wine The contract-only
Halfpenny The small site’s saviour
Itasca The green dream
Litmus The equipped and experienced
Stopham The still white specialist

Over the next few pages Vineyard magazine takes a look at a selection of new and expanding contract wineries who are open for business. 

Ready to take on clients of all sizes, the services on offer range from the full ‘crate to case’ winemaking process, to the ‘end of production’ finishing touches and storage.

When it comes to choosing the right contract winemaker, it is vital to find someone who shares your vision; someone who you trust wholeheartedly and someone whose wines you admire. Fortunately, just like English and Welsh wine, there is plenty of choice and within this diverse offering there is absolutely no one-size-fits-all policy in sight.

Albourne – The springboard to success

Established in 2010, Albourne Estate is a family run operation headed up by Alison Nightingale. With just over 10 hectares of vines, Albourne considers itself to be ‘deliberately small’ and in its formative years, fruit grown on the estate was sold to other producers, allowing Alison to raise enough capital to invest in her own winery facilities.

Having converted one of the farm’s redundant grain stores, the winery benefits from an extensive footprint and with it a chance for Alison, and Albourne’s esteemed consultant winemaker Salvatore Leone, to help other producers, particularly ones who are hoping to make the same transition from grape grower to winemaker.

“We have an incredible amount of space and can work in partnership with customers to expand our winemaking facilities depending on their individual needs,” said Alison. “If a customer has a long-term plan to build their own winery, we can help them to get started. For instance, to help spread the cost of investment, a contract client could purchase tanks to use in our winery until they have their own. We are open to many options that we’d be happy to discuss with potential future clients.”

Located just eight miles from Brighton, Albourne, continues to sell some of its fruit to others to help with cash flow, is also hoping to give people the chance to take a very hands-on approach to winemaking. While not a substitute for education, Alison and Salvatore believe this would help newcomers to learn, avoid making rookie mistakes and enable them to get a handful of harvests under their belt before going it alone.

With 18 years’ and 28 vintages’ experience behind them, both Salvatore, who has made wine in seven countries, and Alison also appreciate that the UK’s notoriously unpredictable climate makes it one of the most challenging places in which to grow grapes. Those working in partnership with Albourne will notice the flexible approach taken right from yield estimations, to delivery of fruit and throughout the entire winemaking process.

“When it comes to making wine in the UK, every year, every variety and wine style is completely different so there is no ‘copy and paste’ recipe,” said Salvatore. “We know when it is appropriate to push the grapes and when a certain method might not be suitable. For instance, Albourne has an SK Press which can be used with an open or closed pressing system. The closed system can help to preserve fruit primary aromas, and works particularly well for aromatic varieties, but it is not the right approach for all varieties. Winemaking should not be dogmatic; it is important to work with the grapes and the local conditions.”

As the English and Welsh wine market becomes increasingly competitive, there is no room for error. Whether a producer is aspiring to invest in on-site winery facilities, or just in search of a long-term winemaking partner, finding someone who can fully appreciate the nuances of making wine in the UK is imperative.

Black Chalk – The creative collaborator

Following on from the successful launch of its sparkling wine brand last year, Hampshire’s Black Chalk recently revealed significant plans for expansion having secured a £1.5 million investment.

Based near Stockbridge, the winery is currently under construction and is due to be up and running in time for harvest 2020. With an expected capacity of 100 tonnes, the family-run operation is now open for new clients and in a bid to break away from the traditional contract winery model, the team is particularly eager to welcome those who want to take a more collaborative approach.

“We want to establish a creative space, a melting pot for new ideas and innovation,” said Jacob Leadley, Black Chalk’s co-founder and head winemaker. “Winemaking is far too exciting to just become another business transaction. We want to work with people who are focused on achieving the very best quality, but who are willing to push boundaries and experiment with what’s possible in the UK.”

To ensure that all wines produced are of the highest standards, Black Chalk is investing in the best equipment and winemaking talent. A Coquard PAI press will play an integral part in producing quality juice and a range of fermentation vessels, such as stainless steel, foudres and amphoras, will allow for absolute flexibility across a diverse range of both still and sparkling wine styles.

Joining Jacob in the winery will be Zöe Driver. Both have extensive experience in managing multiple contract customers and are passionate about treating every single wine as if it is their own.

“Historically those looking for contract winemakers in the UK have been limited in their options and the majority have made their choice based on geographical convenience,” said Jacob. “The industry is developing, and Black Chalk is here to offer producers a different option. One based on trust, building relationships and providing an open-minded approach to making superior wine.”

Bolney – The variety performance

With a goal of producing somewhere in the region of 350,000 bottles of English still and sparkling wine per year, over the last year Bolney Wine Estate in West Sussex, has been busy expanding its winemaking facilities. 

The new production building, which saw its first harvest in 2019, has created more room for tanks, of which the 270,000 litre current capacity will be increased by one third in 2020; provided a space for the winery’s office and laboratory; and has allowed for the previous winery to be converted into an additional bonded store, with disgorging, bottling and labelling facilities.

Having joined Bolney after graduating from Plumpton College in 2012, head of production Alex Rabagliati not only has many harvests’ experience, but due to the vast array of varieties planted and the number of different styles of wine included in the estate’s own-brand range, the team is capable of accommodating a diverse range of contract clients’ needs.

“The fact that we already produce a lot of unusual blends, like sparkling red wines made with Dornfelder, does give us an advantage when talking to contract clients,” said Alex. “It can be fun to take things in different directions, but at the same time, we also have the knowledge to be able to manage expectations. Our customers trust us to provide realistic and sound advice and it is all about working together to achieve success.” 

As well as providing a full winemaking service to growers, Bolney, whose own-label and contract-made wines have gone on to win many gold medals in a range of prestigious international award schemes, also works with producers who have some, but limited winery facilities. The team take in base wines for tirage and can help with anything from stabilisation, to disgorging, bottling, and labelling.

“Every business model is different and for a lot of vineyards using a contract winemaker, for all or part of the process, is the most practical and economically sensible option,” said Alex. “One of the wonderful characteristics of the English and Welsh wine industry is the number of boutique brands and small producers. It brings diversity to the marketplace, people love to be able to buy local, and for many vineyards that simply would not be possible without access to facilities like ours.”

Defined Wine – The contract-only

Earlier this year, a contract-only winery opened outside Canterbury, Kent, to address the county’s shortage of winery facilities. 

The brainchild of Henry Sugden, Defined Wine now provides growers with a full range of contract winemaking and storage solutions. As well as offering vineyards, who are unable to invest in their own facilities, with a ‘crate to case’ service, Defined Wine is also geared up to provide others with pressing, fermentation, on-lees ageing, storage, riddling, disgorging, bottling and labelling. 

The winery and temperature controlled bonded store is based at Highland Court Farm, Bridge which is conveniently located just off the A2. Being on an agricultural site, the team were able to operate 24/7 during harvest, allowing them to process all fruit on the day it was received, whether hand or machine harvested, in DOLAVs or picking crates, whole bunch pressed or de-stemmed. 

Alongside Henry, the team skilfully combines knowledge of the UK wine industry, in the form of consultant winemaker Owen Elias; with the experience of working for a large, Australian producer, in the form of head winemaker Rob Merrick; and finally an eagerness to learn, in the form of assistant winemaker Poppy Seeley.

Facilities have already been expanded since the project began, with the number of tanks for instance having more than doubled from 30 to 64, in part to manage ullage. Taking the most professional approach possible, Henry has also invested in state-of-the-art technology. Everything is monitored, tracked and recorded via a cloud-based winery management software called Vintrace and a crossflow filter will soon be added to the line-up, to not only care for and respect the wine but reduce losses. The laboratory also benefits from a FOSS wine analyser, which helps inform winemaking decisions. Future investment will include spectrometry, in-house heat and cold stability testing, as well as managing dissolved gasses to bottle with the testing of dissolved oxygen and CO2 prior to, during and after bottling.

“Our winemaking approach is still very much focused on taste but having the data and lab work to back this up is vital,” said Henry Sugden. “We don’t have any of our own brands, so clients know that everything which comes into the winery will be treated equally and we are able to dedicate all our time, equipment and facilities to supporting our customers.”

Up and running in time for harvest 2019, Henry and the team processed 17 different grape varieties and additional tanks allowed them to cope with the larger than expected volumes for all 24 customers.

Halfpenny – The small site’s saviour

Since the first winery equipment arrived at Wolverhampton’s Halfpenny Green Wine Estate in 1994, owners Martin and Clive Vickers have developed a sophisticated, reputable contract winemaking offering for producers of all sizes across England and Wales. 

With some 70 growers now on the books, the ever-expanding list of contract partners has been driven by continual investment into the winery; the estate’s central geography; the family’s willingness to advise and help; and the winemaking knowledge and experience which is reflected in the estate’s own award-winning range.

Alongside recent investments into fruit handling equipment to make harvest deliveries more efficient, a wireless peristaltic pump, four riddling giros and three 4000-litre red winemaking tanks, in the coming weeks, work will commence on a new 8,000 sq ft building. The facility has been designed to house 60 tanks which will be divided into two aisles, separated by central drainage and double-stacked, with 2,000-litre capacity vessels on the bottom and 1,000-litre on top.  

“This set-up will help us to make more small batch wines,” said managing director Clive Vickers. “We have plenty of large wine tanks too, but we also understand that people have vineyards of all sizes and some of these may be planted with six or more varieties. We want people to be able to choose to blend, not be forced to put everything in one tank and we also allow growers to bring in as little as 500kg. We have every single type of customer and are happy to work with growers whether they just want to deliver the fruit and taste the end wine, or want to be hands-on and call into the winery whenever they are passing. It is still very much their product and we have even invested in a cloud-based software system which will allow them to keep up-to-date with the journey of their wines.”

The winery, whose team of eight is led by Martin’s stepson Ben Hunt, can take care of the entire winemaking process across a full range of still and sparkling, white, red and rosé styles. At harvest, the Vickers also run an efficient grape brokerage scheme, sourcing fruit for producers who have either had unavoidable complications or are simply looking to expand production, and can help those who need it with sugar and acidity analysis, picking dates and logistics.

Itasca – The green dream

Regular readers of Vineyard Magazine will have previously come across the innovative Itasca Wines initiative, offering investors the chance to support a new type of UK viticulture and the development of a contract winery and storage facility.

Penn Croft Vineyard, located in Crondall on the Surrey/Hampshire border, was planted in May 2019 by farmer Simon Porter and business partner Malcolm Walker. The 5.5-hectare site is believed to be the first UK vineyard to be managed under ‘Conservation Viticulture’ methods, which aims to safeguard soil health; protect and promote biodiversity at every opportunity; and provide the least harm to the environment.

Wanting to extend this environmentally considerate approach to Penn Croft’s winery development, the brand-new facilities, due to open in August 2020, have been designed from the ground up to ensure maximum sustainability. The power will be produced by a network of solar panels, the winery waste will be processed through natural wetlands with the ability to reuse filtered water, and in the long-term, the team also aim to have the facilities certified organic and biodynamic by the Soil Association and Demeter. 

“We want to be able to provide a complete grape to bottle contract winery offering for growers of a discerning nature,” said Malcolm Walker, director of Itasca Wines. “At each stage of development, both in the vineyard and winery, we are looking at the best ways to protect the environment while keeping operations efficient. Our philosophy is new and we are looking forward to working with other growers who share this passion for sustainability.”

The winemaking team will be led by Josh Hammond who trained at Villa Maria in Marlborough, before coming to the UK where he has since picked up extensive experience working with English fruit. As well as winemaking facilities, there will also be dedicated temperature-controlled storage for any producers who have run out of space on their own sites.

Litmus – The equipped and experienced

Established in 2008, Litmus Wines is based at Denbies Wine Estate in Surrey and is owned and operated by John Worontschak, Mike Florence and Matthieu Elzinga.

While Litmus is tasked with the production and trade sales of Denbies’ products, it is run as a separate multi-faceted company and utilises the estate’s extensive production facilities to provide a range of contract winemaking services.

“This symbiotic relationship, although unusual, works well for both parties,” said John, who first set up contract winemaking, Harvest Wine, back in 1988 at what was then the Thames Valley Vineyard. An old hand in the industry, John is thought to have imported one of the country’s first disgorging lines and giro pallets to make sparkling wine from Pinot noir and Chardonnay in 1989.

The winery at Denbies, now over 30 years old, is well equipped, benefiting from state-of-the-art facilities including automated temperature control, cross flow filtration, a semi-automated disgorging and packaging line, and a FOSS wine analyser to name a few. Crucially the winery has all the necessary accreditations, is certified organic and biodynamic, and is able to produce other alcoholic beverages such as sparkling cider and mead.

The team’s combined knowledge, the years they have been making wine coupled with the fact that both John and Matthieu have made wines in other cool climate regions around the world, means that there are very few issues which haven’t been seen before. 

“Securing a team with this combined expertise and industry contacts would be difficult and expensive for what is still only a small-medium sized winery by world standards,” said John. “We are also fortunate to have access to the comprehensive staffing and impressive infrastructure in place at Denbies. While smaller operations often require the use of key staff for administrative and organisational matters, which can dilute efficiency and lower service quality, at Litmus we are able to fully concentrate on making wine for our contract customers.”

Dedicated to customers’ and buyers’ needs, Litmus work very closely with all clients to ensure that they are getting the best from their fruit. The approach to winemaking is non interventionalist, unless necessary, allowing the fruit to do the talking.

As consultants to both Lallemand and IOC, Litmus also supply IOC biotech products to the industry. The team is fortunate enough to be able to trial the latest R&D products of both companies before they enter the market so are always at the cutting edge of new developments. 

 Just one example of the open and upfront manner that defines Litmus’ philosophy, contract customers can visit the website and use the winemaking calculator to get a comprehensive understanding of what services are available and exactly how much they will cost.

Stopham – The still white specialist

When it comes to choosing a contract winemaker, it is important to have some understanding of the current wines being produced by the team. Anyone who is looking for a skilled winemaking operation to work with should turn to Matthew Jukes’ column on page 14 and read his review of Oastbrook’s 2018 Pinot Gris, for this raved about wine was made at Stopham Vineyard in West Sussex. 

Earlier this year, Stopham’s own 2017 Pinot Gris was also awarded the Independent English Wine Awards’ (IEWA) overall still wine trophy for the second year running.

Having converted an old dairy into a modern 50,000-bottle capacity winery, estate founder and head winemaker Simon Woodhead, together with assistant winemaker Tom Bartlett, are ready to take on new contract clients who are looking to craft attractive, fruit driven still white wines from a wide range of varieties.

The winemaking style may be simple, but the winemaking expertise and technology is far from simple. Simon has carefully invested in automatically temperature-controlled tanks, so that fermentations can be perfectly orchestrated to allow the fruit to really express itself. As well as providing options to oak, Stopham is also able to help producers bring refreshingly accessible English whites to the market, with the option to finish each bottle with a convenient screwcap.

“We want to focus on working with boutique producers with at least three tonnes of fruit per year,” said owner and head winemaker Simon, who will be embarking on his tenth harvest at Stopham next year. “Both Tom and I have studied at Plumpton College and have over 20 combined harvests worth of experience. Regardless of whether the fruit has come from our vineyard or a customers’, each batch is treated with care and respect and our customers know that we do our best for all the wines.”

As well as full winemaking services, Stopham is also able to bottle and label wines and having redeveloped a collection of redundant farm buildings the Sussex estate also benefits from ample wine storage space for customers.