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The man who planted 40 vineyards across Kent over four decades, Stephen Skelton, says the industry is healthy but may not make you rich

By Chris Price

Stephen Skelton has not lived in Kent for 17 years but feels like he never left.

The viticultural consultant – responsible for planting Chapel Down vineyard in Tenterden in 1977, among many others – has trips planned to farms in West Peckham, Staplehurst and Chilham in the days after our interview.

It is not surprising he is busy, given the growing appetite for English sparkling wine.

Viticultural consultant Stephen Skelton at Sandhurst Vineyards

Viticultural consultant Stephen Skelton at Sandhurst Vineyards

In the past eight years, the amount of land covered by vineyards has more than doubled in England to nearly 5,000 acres.

Production is expected to grow from five million bottles a year in 2015 to more than 12 million by 2020, spurred on by a string of international awards being won by UK wines, particularly in Kent.

“There’s more of it, so more people have heard of it,” said Mr Skelton, who has planted about 40 vineyards in the county during his career, including Hush Heath near Staplehurst, Squerryes near Westerham and Sandhurst near Cranbrook.

“When there’s a small amount, it’s difficult to make an impact on the market. When I started, the acreage was about 500. Now it is about 5,000.

Chapel Down vineyard in Tenterden. Picture Visit Kent

Chapel Down vineyard in Tenterden. Picture: Visit Kent

“It has grown 10 times in 40 years with the help of climate change, a focus on high-quality sparkling wine and the technical nature of production.

“Also, climate change means we are growing wines people recognise rather than the less well-known German varieties. We grow varieties we couldn’t when I started.”

One of Mr Skelton’s recent projects was at Domaine Evremond in Chilham, near Canterbury, which is significant because it is backed by Taittinger, the first French champagne house to invest in an English vineyard.

Yet for all the glamour of being a wine producer, Mr Skelton knows the harsh reality of turning winemaking into a business.

Chapel Down planted another 95 acres of vineyards in 2016

Grape varieties grown today are different to those grown in Kent 40 years ago

What is now Chapel Down vineyard – which he describes as one of Kent’s “success stories” – began life when his then father-in-law bought Spots Farm in Tenterden in 1976 with the hope of growing grapes there.

Mr Skelton returned from two years working in Germany to plant about five-and-a-half acres of Muller-Thurgau, Reichensteiner, Gutenborner and Seyval blanc vines in 1977.

The first crop came in 1979, and its 1,250-bottle vintage the following year – Spots Farm Seyval blanc – won the Gore-Browne Trophy for the English Wine of the Year.

Mr Skelton grew the number of vines planted, opened a shop, a tasting bar and functions room, but the family decided to sell the business as a going concern in 1986 to two businessmen, Bill Garner and Derek Todd.

"Climate change means we are growing wines people recognise rather than the less well-known German varieties. We grow varieties we couldn’t when I started..." - Stephen Skelton

The bank manager had wanted the deeds to Mr Skelton’s house if he was to extend the company’s overdraft and he felt that was a step too far.

“Farming is a struggle, especially for a one-man-band, which I was, and I only had five-and-a-half acres.

“Today it is 60 to 70 acres. It’s bigger than I envisaged possible in those days.”

After a series of different owners, the farm was bought by Chapel Down in 1995, a company which had begun life on the Isle of Wight before moving to Burgess Hill.

The company is now quoted and has run two successful crowdfunding campaigns worth nearly £6 million to raise cash for new vineyards in Kent and to build a brewery in Ashford for its Curious Drinks beer range.

Vineyards in Kent have shifted growing towards grapes varieties which produce sparkling wine in recent years

Vineyards in Kent have shifted growing towards grapes varieties which produce sparkling wine in recent years

Yet a growing brand and big sales do not equate to riches in wine, according to Mr Skelton, who remains a small shareholder in Chapel Down.

“There are a lot of people growing grapes who do not make much money out of it today,” he said. “It’s fairly speculative but has a lot of attractions to some people.

“Most people involved have made their money in other industries.

“Few people go into it using bank loans. It is family money or inherited money because it is a very long-term process.

“It takes 15 to 20 years to establish a sparkling winery and start making money.

“Look at Chapel Down’s sites in Blue Bell Hill and Detling Hill. It’s a very long-term process to plant, manage and get a crop.

Chapel Down has vineyards in Tenterden, Blue Bell Hill and west Kent

Chapel Down has vineyards in Tenterden, Blue Bell Hill and west Kent

“It’s taken a few years to get those sites up and running. They had to absorb that cost.”

Mr Skelton does not think there will be a slowdown in demand for English wine any time soon.

The UK drinks 170 million bottles of sparkling wine a year but is only producing about two million, which will double over the next decade.

Mr Skelton said: “We will still be producing a small amount compared to the amount drank in the UK.

"There are a lot of people growing grapes who do not make much money out of it today..." - Stephen Skelton

“The fall in currency has given our wine an advantage. The drop in the value of the pound means champagne is more expensive.

“I don’t see the planting slowing down because most people in it are well financed and can withstand a bit of up and down.

“Sparkling wine does well in good and bad economic times. We have a reputation for high-quality and there’s a big market out there.”

Mr Skelton lives in Fulham, having lived in Kent for more than three decades – from 1968 to 2000 – in Headcorn, Loose, Tenterden and Smeeth.

He said Kent is “the county I know best” and where he feels “at home”.

All three of his children went to The King’s School in Canterbury.

Along with planting vineyards, he has made contract wine for 30 growers.

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