In 2009, on the hunt for a drastic career change and with a clear vision of creating a sustainable, modern, mixed farming enterprise, golf professional, Paul Dobson, and PR genius, Kristin Syltevik, bought four adjoining farms in the Rother Valley, on the Kent and Sussex border.
Today, Oxney Organic Estate, which was recently named Best Green Company in the 2018 Sussex Life Awards, encompasses a vast 850-acre organic arable operation, the UK’s largest organic vineyard, an award-winning winery and a diverse tourism offering including vineyard tours and wine tasting, shepherd’s huts and holiday cottage accommodation.
When Paul and Kristin purchased the estate, the land was mostly being used for sheep, cattle and rotational fodder crops. However, a Grade II listed square oast house (which has been converted to provide a charming location for the estate’s winery and cellar door facilities) located at Little Bellhurst Farm in Beckley suggested that hops once grew here and hinted that the site may be suitable for viticulture.
“We bought the farm well before we decided to plant the vineyard, so we were really lucky when viticultural consultant Stephen Skelton came to assess the land and told us that we had a really good site,” said Kristin Syltevik. “Admittedly we had a large area to choose from, but we were also very fortunate to discover that the best site, which is in a warm, dry pocket, was located close to existing buildings and a small road for accessibility.”
After mapping the site, having the soil analysed and talking through a vast selection of vine varieties, clones and rootstocks, in 2012 a three-year planting project commenced which would see 20-acre under vined with the classic trio, Chardonnay, Pinot noir and Pinot meunier, as well as some Seyval blanc, a late hybrid variety which crops w
If moving into agriculture and UK viticulture from unrelated careers wasn’t challenging enough, Paul and Kristin were also determined to convert their land so that they could farm organically under the Soil Association Certification guidelines.
“A duty of care for the future generation is certainly something which drove this project,” said Kristin. “Before buying the farm we ate organic food and it was very much part of our lifestyle. I don’t think we would have started farming if we couldn’t have done it this way and I just hope that by doing so we are helping more people to access organic products, from our grain to our wine.”
Over the years, there has been a huge growth in the organic market with the Soil Association reporting earlier in the year that sales of organic food and drink in the UK rose by 6% in 2017 to a record £2.2 billion.
“There are lots of people now adding organic products to their weekly shopping baskets,” said Kristin. “If you are a buyer of organic products then you will want organic wine and yet there are so few organic English wines on the market. We also tap into some really strong, supportive local markets and benefit from being so close to London.”
With demand for the wines growing, in May 2018, Paul and Kristin took the decision to increase the vineyard area by 15-acres, and with 35-acres under vine, they took the lead as the UK’s largest organic grape growers.
“We looked at which clones had thrived here; which had the loosest bunches, exceptional flavour profiles and really suited the site and decided to plant more,” said Kristin. “Ben Smith, our winemaker who joined us in 2015, also suggested that we plant an early ripening variety called Pinot noir précoce.”
Controlling the weeds
The biggest challenge of managing an organic vineyard according to Kristin is trying to control the weeds as they are unable to use herbicides. Instead, like many other English and Welsh wine estates who are trying to reduce the amount of glyphosate in vineyard, Oxney has invested in a top range Braun under vine weeder.
When it comes to weeds on the arable side, Paul has to steer clear of big yielding varieties which are used on conventional farms because the straw is usually too short to suppress the weeds.
With help from a Rural Development Programme for England LEADER grant, the farm has recently invested in a new machine to help alleviate weeds, which Paul hopes to start using from Spring 2019.
“The System Chameleon, which has been developed by a Swedish company called Gothia Redskap, is a seed drill which can turn into an inter-row hoe,” said Paul Dobson, co-founder of Oxney Organic Estate. “It is a six-meter machine which will drill at 25cm rows. Once the crop has been drilled, there is a camera on the machine which can see where the crop is coming up. Hydraulics then move the coulters in between the rows and a fin rips the weeds out of the ground. There are only five in the country at present and it should weed 80% of the field, conditions permitting.”
Protecting the vines
When it comes to assessing the damage caused by insects and pests across the farm, both Paul and Kristin believe that this is kept at a minimum by the balanced ecosystem and natural predators which are allowed to thrive due to their organic approach.
To ensure that the vines are protected from bigger threats, Paul and Kristin have installed a deer and rabbit fence and use kites and a speaker system, which sporadically plays pre-recorded sounds of starlings in distress, Sparrow hawk calls and blackbird warning calls, to deter the local bird population.
“The BirdGuard system works incredibly well,” said Kristin. “We have seen starling flocks come over head and as the noises run through the speakers round the vineyard you can see them turn in the sky. This year I have also netted the hedges to stop the song birds from nipping out. We have to manage the canopy more than conventional growers, so we don’t want nets on the vines, but because we are limited with what we can spray even just a little peck mark can become a big problem.”
Disease is a little trickier to manage on the organic estate, especially in the vineyard where the team employ a lot of dedication to canopy management, a keen eye and targeted use of permitted sprays to keep downy and powdery mildew and botrytis at bay.
“A lot of people think that because we are organic we don’t spray at all but obviously we do because the vines would die otherwise,” said Kristin. “There are lots of alternatives to the chemicals used by conventional growers; we can use products which contain a bacteria to naturally fight botrytis and against the mildews we can use potassium bicarbonate, garlic spray, sulphur and a tiny amount of copper.
“We also have invested in a high-tech Berthoud sprayer which really gets into the canopy and we do a lot of canopy management to make sure that there is good air circulation. Admittedly, we have a higher percentage of disease, but on the whole our management of that seems to be very good.
Yearning for yields?
Depending on the yield, Oxney currently produce about 25,000 bottles per year, although this figure varies. There is no doubt that as organic growers located in the UK, an already marginal climate, Paul and Kristin are aware that they are possibly not going to be able to achieve comparable yields to their conventional counter parts.
“Our vines are young and we are still on a journey to a full crop so it is too hard to say if we will not produce as much because we don’t have the chemicals in our arsenal,” said Kristin. “We are low yielding, but conventional vineyard yields range so much in the UK anyway as some growers focus on loading the vines and others focus on a higher quality product.”
What tonnage they may be achieving by the acre doesn’t seem to matter to the pair, as long as they can continue to run a financially sustainable farming enterprise, while being able to follow an organic ethos which is close to their heart, promotes stronger vines, produces quality wine and leaves a diverse wildlife population for the next generation.
“In an organic system the vines should be healthier and can withstand more,” said Kristin. “Lots of vineyards around the world are also turning towards organics, not because of the environmental factors, but because they want to make exceptional wine and I am convinced that being organic does impact the quality of the wines very positively.”
On the arable side, Paul, who runs a crop rotation of winter wheat, spring wheat, Red Clover, spring beans, winter wheat, spring oats or barley and back to Red Clover, has started to notice a remarkable difference in production since converting the farm to organics.
“It is amazing to see how the soil has changed in structure, fertility, life and health,” said Paul Dobson. “Certainly, after three years we could see improvements, but I had a particularly good wheat variety this year, Zyatt, and after one full crop rotation, I have just noticed a massive yield and quality difference.”
Drawing inspiration from the arable operation’s use of Red Clover, Kristin is now also looking at the possibility of cover crops in the vineyard alley ways, having allowed native grass to return naturally.
“I am really interested in establishing cover crops in the vineyard,” said Kristin. “Red Clover has wonderful nitrogen fixing properties and the roots also dig nice and deep. On the rest of the farm we practice minimum tillage but in the vineyard, because tractors are so limited to where they can go, there is always a danger of creating a pan and the Red Clover could help resolve this.”
With 15 different combinations of clones and rootstocks spread across the vineyard, Oxney’s winemaker Ben Smith has a world of flavour profiles to play with and is just getting to know how the different block behave as the vineyard matures.
“By taking a small batch approach and fermenting everything separately, when it comes to blending, we might be producing on a small scale, but we have a broad palate to work from,” said Ben Smith, winemaker at Oxney Organic Estate. “Since I joined we have been building up our reserve wine stocks so that we can consistently produce high quality wines even if there has been high disease pressure or adverse weather.”
As the estate builds up these reserves, Ben has been able to develop two different tiers of wines. The first, entry level wine is called the Estate range which tends to be non vintage, while the second, premium line called the Classic will be the flagship wine.
“By creating this tiered system we can protect our quality if it has been a tough vintage,” said Ben. “If some of the blocks have struggled there is an avenue for those wines without having to compromise the quality of our premium range.”
Working within the Soil Association guidelines there are of course restrictions to how the wines can be produced and what additions can be made, but Ben believes that regardless of what type of vineyard he was working with, he would still follow the same winemaking principles.
“It is about walking the tight rope between intervention and ensuring quality,” said Ben. “When it comes to the addition of sulphur, we work with lower rates and try to add it only when we feel it is really important. There are lots of products on the market which promise to enhance wine, but actually I think the best approach is to guide wines through a process, rather than trying to artificially manipulate them. If we weren’t organic, I don’t think my winemaking style would change.”
Indeed, the estate now provides contract winemaking services to some conventional growers, a side of the business which Ben is keen to explore following the expansion of the winery in 2018.
“As this year has shown, the number of wineries and tank capacity is an industry wide issue,” said Ben. “While we are happy to work with conventional growers, we are not totally willing to give up our ethos, so potential clients would need to be on board with this philosophy and our organic approach to the winemaking.”
While Ben works with both organic and conventional fruit, he says that it is difficult to say whether the vine growing methods make any difference, as Oxney’s vines were planted in an organic system and sites vary so much across UK.
“I don’t know whether it is just our site or the organic factor but we do get less green, herbaceous character and even in the cooler vintages we have not had to battle with that,” said Ben. “The great thing about organics is that it gives people confidence because they know we are working within set parameters and that what they are consuming has come from a verified and ethical source.”
As well working with distributor Alliance Wines, a lot of Oxney’s wine sales are generated through the cellar door, which has also enabled Ben to experiment with special edition runs and the producer will soon be releasing 500 bottles of 100% Pinot noir rosé from the 2016 vintage.
“As a business these wines give us total freedom to explore and push some boundaries and we can always scale up if something worked really well,” said Ben. “The idea of visiting a winery and getting something which you can’t buy anywhere else is also really appealing to customers and it definitely helps to build that brand loyalty.”
Photos: ©Martin Apps, Countrywide Photographic