Wine and Family
A winning combination at Chartham Vineyard
Our writer, Louise Tomlin visits an East Kent vineyard to take a look at how a family run business, established only a decade ago, has allowed them to, not only safeguard their family’s heritage, maintain and encourage links with their local community, but also do something worthwhile with the family’s farm and land that is creating a lasting legacy for the next generations.
Nestling in the gentle sloping downs south west of Canterbury is Burnt House Farm. The farm, which has been long established in this picturesque spot for hundreds of years, has some very fine barns and out buildings that are least four hundred years old, one of these; the old dovecote has caught the attention of English
Heritage and been cited as a rare remaining example of an early version of ‘vertical farming’. The structure, although in need of some renovation is still in pretty good condition despite its age. It has two low arched doorways on the ground floor, which indicates it was used to house pigs. The next level was where the chickens lived, with ample space on the top story for roosts for pigeons and doves. The old farmyard conjures up an evocative scene of farming in times gone by and is delightfully attractive. Today the hundred or so acres of farmland are given over to a tenant farmer and mostly sown to wild flower meadows.
The current owner, Roz Waller, a retired local GP and Richard Goodenough, who has 25 years of lecturing in Environmental Sciences under his belt, inherited the farm in the early 2010s when Roz’s parents, who had purchased the farm in the 1950s, sadly passed away.
The couple, at this point was tasked with coming up with a plan for the farm, which was Roz’s childhood home. They were approached by developers, however the thought of the old place being carved up and redeveloped, no matter how sympathetically it was done, wasn’t something they could live with. Inspiration eventually came for them in the shape of wine. As lifelong fans and having visited many vineyards around the world, they hit on a plan to establish a vineyard on ten acres of the land, whilst a tenant farmer utilised the remaining ninety or so acres. This would allow them to do something meaningful with the land and create a business they could become immersed in through their retirement years. It would also satisfy their desire to protect the farm and its history, which would be good for the community, whilst sitting well with their consciences.
It was an inspired idea indeed; research showed that the gentle slopes to be planted with vines were remarkably similar terrain to the famous Champagne region. The chalky soil, aspect and microclimate all stacked up to a very favourable ecosystem for viticulture. In fact it turns out there is a long history of vine growing in the area. Records in the archive at nearby Canterbury Cathedral, dating back to 1300, bear this out, with details of a vineyard in Chartham at Deanery farm. The wine produced then probably wouldn’t have been suited to our modern taste and would have been very sour, needing to be sweetened with honey.
Chartham Vineyard has flourished, and today is very much a family affair. Richard’s son Andy is the vineyard manager, daughter Rachel is also involved in the business and is well placed with her work for Wine Tours of Kent who offer guided and bespoke wine tours of English vineyards. The next generation is also represented, granddaughter Arianna helps out in between her studies, and Jack helps Andy in the vineyard hoping soon to take an apprenticeship with an English vineyard. So there are three generations of wine enthusiasts in the family. It’s not only been good for the family but very beneficial to the local community of Chartham, the Vineyard is open to the public every Saturday when there are regular tours, wine tastings and sales. Visitors are encouraged to book a tour prior to visiting, with wine lovers coming from far and wide, not just the local Kent area but all over the country, including Europe and further afield, recently they had a party of over forty tourists from Norway.
Diversification is a must for many farmers these days and the need to add value, create more interest and engagement has not been missed here. Throughout the year the Vineyard hosts regular art and craft exhibitions along with other events in the cow barn gallery, workshop studio and Great Barn within the beautiful historic courtyard buildings. These have been sensitively renovated whilst taking great care to retain their important historic features and rustic charm. They are regularly used not just for exhibitions but also hired for functions and events. This is a perfect way of bringing the ancient buildings back into a meaningful use in the present day, and serves the local community well.
All of this, of course is the product of the germ of an idea over a decade ago to grow grapes on the land. Having recognised the similarity of their chalk downs to the ‘terroir’ of those around Reims that is famed for producing sparkling wines, Roz and Richard chose two champagne varieties of rootstock to suit the location, with its cool maritime climate and chalky-soil, these are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Their full selection of four grape varieties of Chardonnay, Bacchus, Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris allows them to produce six types of wine including sparkling rosé and white, still red wine and still white, by using traditional methods, that’s as long as the weather gods smile on them.
The last ten years has been a journey of discovery regarding the cultivation of grapes and winemaking for the whole family. They have developed a company philosophy, with distinct principles they adhere to. Quality over quantity is paramount, their wine is produced solely from grapes grown on Chartham Vineyard that are harvested by hand, they don’t take short cuts and recognise that there is no substitute for time and patience. They respect their land and see themselves as its custodians, which means employing traditional practices, whilst taking a modern approach to winemaking and paying careful attention to sustainable methods in cultivation and processing to reduce the environmental impact and promote biodiversity.
Embedded in this ethos are their deep-rooted beliefs in family values and the business’s position in their community. They rely on volunteers to help pick their grapes in the autumn. There is significant interest from the local community, with forty plus volunteer pickers, mainly locals but some from as far away as Medway over 35 miles away, happily turning up for each harvest. They start at 8.00am, fuelled by coffee and homemade cakes at break times, working on until every bunch of grapes has been picked, which is usually by early afternoon, ready in time for the lorry to take them to be crushed.
Louise decided to take part in one of the harvests to see for herself how the process worked and admits “I thought I would have to ‘suffer for my art’ but no such thing occurred. I was surrounded by enthusiastic pickers, many of whom come back year after year to help out. Everyone, including me, seemed to be thoroughly enjoying the work. The first coffee and cake break came just at the right time to take a breather and offered an opportunity to chat to the throng of willing workers to ask the question, why they were there? Responses were unerringly similar and can be distilled into a few lines: they enjoy it, they like doing something useful, they like meeting people, the cake’s delicious and most importantly they like the vineyard, the people who run it and their wonderful wine. Everyone receives a thank you bottle of wine at the end of the day and, once all the harvests are finished the family hold a big hog roast in the Great Barn to say a proper thank you to everyone that has participated.”
It’s a great way of getting engagement from their local community. That takes care of the harvest, which as predicted is a bumper one this year at nearly double previous years. But how about actually making the wine? The grapes are taken off to Litmus Wines in Dorking to be crushed as soon as they are picked, which has proved to be a successful relationship since 2015. They must be doing something right and have hit on a recipe for success as their wines have won multiple awards in recent years, Roz and Richard say that they find it reassuring to get recognition of the quality of their wines in national, IEWA and Wine GB, and also international competitions, Decanter and IWC.
It is truly a tale of success, for Chartham Vineyard. Louise asked the couple what they consider the best thing that has come out of their journey to create their business? “Our Rose de Noir sparkling, Pinot Noir 2022 and Pinot Gris 2022 and how wonderful it is to have three generations of our family involved. That’s our biggest win.”
Chartham Vineyard, Burnt House Farm
Station Road, Chartham CT4 7HU