Back in mid-2018, Josh fired off an email asking to interview a stranger for a podcast on English wine. He didn’t know how to edit audio or what making a podcast would really entail. That summer, Josh travelled around the country interviewing winemakers for what would become ‘An Introduction to English Wine’. It would also turn out to be the best summer on record, and a great year for wine.
As Josh writes in Issue #34 of the newsletter, ‘I initially set out to discover if regional styles existed in England, in the way that Bordeaux and Burgundy exist in France. I quickly discovered that that wasn’t to be the case - instead the individual sites, vineyard managers, and winemakers were the real heroes of English wine.’
In total, sixteen people were interviewed for the podcast over six episodes focusing on a different area of the country. From the point of view of February 2021, the summer of 2018 feels a long way off. The idea of travelling across the country to wineries and vineyards far and wide feels like a novelty of a pre-pandemic world.
Over a series of blog posts, we’ll be revisiting the conversations Josh had in ‘An Introduction to English Wine’.
‘An Introduction to English Wine’: Episode One, Part Two: Kristin Syltevik (East Sussex)
As Josh explains in the podcast episode, he used to work for a public relations agency where one of the co-founders, Kristin Syltevik, sold her company shares to pursue a different kind of career. With the money from the sale, Kristin bought a farm near Rye in East Sussex in 2009 with her partner, Paul Dobson.
This farmland now makes up Oxney Organic Estate where, in the relatively short space of time since they first planted their vines in 2012, Oxney has become a recognised and well-respected winemaker. As Kristin explains to Josh, however, for all the awards and accolades Oxney has received, the amount of support she received as a newcomer from the industry has been important.
“When you’re joining an industry that’s moving and on the up, and progressing and everyone’s learning, it’s an incredibly welcoming environment.” The willingness from others in the industry to share advice is something that surprised Kristin, and was refreshing, even, having come from a less-than supportive world of public relations. She recalls one particular occasion that stands out as being demonstrative of the industry’s generosity.
“One year, we were bottling our first sparkling wine and because I had miscalculated the number of bottles, our consultant winemaker called a neighbouring vineyard and they said ‘Yeah, we have a couple of 100 spare bottles. We stopped using that shape. Come round and get them.’ And I did, they gave them to me and we finished our bottles.”
That first vintage of sparkling wine was well-received in the industry; it’s “elegant profile” reflected in a similarly elegant bottle. The quiet sophistication of Oxney’s brand is something to be admired; there’s the 'cohesive message' that trickles down to every aspect of what Kristin stands for. The importance of producing organic wine, for example, is captured in the minimalist simplicity of the Oxney bottle label.
Being organic from day one was of the utmost importance to Kristin, but as Josh points out in the podcast, “[while] there are nearly 600 vineyards in England and Wales, just a small fraction are classified as organic.” For one, the climate over here doesn’t necessarily lend itself to organic growing. “It’s a niche within a niche,” Kristin agrees. “The chaps in London who help sell our wine, one of the guys went to Spain to see some organic growers and they can’t believe that we have an organic vineyard in England because of course it rains so much.”
As Will Davenport mentioned in his conversation with Josh, the mildew plays a big part in making organic winemaking difficult in England. As is “dealing with all the weeds, the grass, because everything grows so much. In England, which I didn’t know because I’m Norwegian and I’ve always lived in cities, it even grows in the winter.” The sometimes-adverse growing conditions over here for organic winemaking aren’t necessarily a deterrent.
Organic winemaking isn’t a massive trend in England, Kristin points out, something she finds surprising given the rise of organic produce in other industries. “England is doing quite well when it comes to, [things like] the Soil Association [reporting] that the trend for organic eating and buying is going up. But amongst the vineyards of England, it’s not kind of a very popular thing at the moment.” Of course, trends change quickly and in the two and a half years since Kristin spoke to Josh, the popularity around organic winemaking in the country has increased. So much so that a report from Soil Association from last year noting that the demand for organic wine is growing.
Even amongst non-organic certified winemakers, Kristin has noticed that many are using methods that are “actually very closely associated with organic growing” - things like under vine cultivation. “And obviously I implore that. So there are ways. I don’t think necessarily a tonne of them are going to get certified overnight, but they are probably taking on ideas from the organic movement which is great.”
Though going organic may not be at the top of the agenda for many winemakers in England, as it was for Kristin and Oxney, small actions in that direction make the difference. As Josh says, “The number of pure organic purchases are very very few, but everybody, bit by bit, has become that tiny bit more organic.” That crosses over into wine buying too, with consumers likely to notice terms such as ‘organic’, ‘natural’ and ‘biodynamic’ which might align with their food philosophy.
Kristin agrees: “Yeah, I mean a lot of vineyards in continental Europe are organic, even biodynamic, without necessarily shouting about it on the label. And they do it because they can grow better grapes, more flavoursome grapes, a better product, make better wine, and that’s why they do it. But it is interesting, the slowly and surely, the consuming audience is thinking about certain aspects of their shopping basket, they’re thinking about being organic - which is a brilliant thing isn’t it?”
The journey towards a wholly organic English winemaking industry may not be here yet, but Kristin, Paul and Oxney are definitely part of its vanguard. As the header on the Oxney website proclaimed, “English organic wine at its finest”.
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