Monday, 20 September 2021

Pair's £2m dream of wine to rival champagne

A COUPLE are hoping to produce a sparkling wine in South Oxfordshire of the same quality as champagne.

A COUPLE are hoping to produce a sparkling wine in South Oxfordshire of the same quality as champagne.

Stephen and Fiona Duckett planted their first grape crop at Bank Farm in Pishill last year after receiving planning permission to convert it into a vineyard and winery at a cost of £1million.

They hope to start production next year if South Oxfordshire District Council approves some minor changes to the original plans, meaning their first wine could be ready for sale by 2019 and they could be producing 125,000 bottles a year by 2025.

The couple, who have consulted experts from the Champagne region of France, say their land is one of few places in this country that will result in a high-end product.

They plan to plant more than 67,000 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vines at the 50-acre farm.

Up to 10 full-time jobs will be created, including an agricultural manager, a winery supervisor, a chief winemaker and an assistant winemaker. Casual labour will also be needed at harvest time as the grapes will be hand-picked.

Mr and Mrs Duckett bought the farm in February 2013 after selling their house in Oxford.

Their business will be called Hundred Hills as it is located in the former Pyrton Hundred, an area of land recorded in the Domesday Book.

The couple are funding the venture themselves and will be in charge of sales and marketing. They will sell wine to specialist retailers, restaurants and individuals buyers, although there will not be a shop on site.

They also plan to offer tours and wine-tasting sessions and hope to host community events.

The Ducketts, who expect it will cost them £750,000 to bring their first crop to harvest, plan to keep the Grade II listed 18th century farmhouse, restoring the original windows and chimney stack as well as a barn and granary which are also listed.

They want to demolish several modern extensions and outbuildings and build the winery and a second house, where they will live, with a chalk cellar and a series of barns for hospitality, storage and administration.

The farmhouse would be used as temporary accommodation for staff and visitors.

The entrance to the site will be landscaped with two courtyards, a car park, a pond, lawns and shrubs. Mr and Mrs Duckett, who have been married for 20 years, met while studying at Oxford University and previously worked in the IT and pharmaceutical industries.

They decided they wanted to create a vineyard about five years ago and visited more than 100 places before choosing Bank Farm.

Mr Duckett, 47, whose family run a dairy farm in Somerset, said, “We were very taken with the idea of trying something different.

“It’s certainly a big risk for us but we are in it for the long run. We are thinking at least 20 years ahead.

“We hope to create something that will eventually rival the grands crus of Champagne but that’s very much a long-term ambition.

“There are some really great English sparkling wines on the market and the climate here is not too dissimilar from the Champagne region.

“People here only became aware of that in the mid-Nineties but now some English wineries are winning international awards. We are very influenced by what’s been happening in the Napa valley in California. With real energy, care and investment, it has gone on to create some of the world’s finest wines.

“It struck me that, given the right approach, it should be possible to achieve the same thing over here.

“The past few years have been the warmest on record and last summer was a fantastic time to be planting our first vines. In fact, the conditions were better over here than they were in Champagne.

“Only 50 out of more than 60,000 vines didn’t survive and that means they’ve laid a strong root system for future years. The best grapes always come from the limits of where they are able to grow and southern England is now at that point.

“We’re feeling as good as we can about it at this stage. There will be good and bad years and there are a lot of things we need to get right.

“However, we are working with some great advisors and with their help I believe we will be able to create an extremely high-quality product. I never thought I’d be able to do this in England in my lifetime but the conditions are perfect and I’m sure we will see many more vineyards springing up in years to come.

“We’re very excited about the future but realise success will happen slowly.”

Mr Duckett says the venture will bring benefits to the community, especially employment and tourism.

“Much of the process must be carried out by hand so we will need a lot of people to do a lot of different jobs,“ he said.

“It will also attract more tourists to the area. We already get a lot of walkers departing from their routes to have a look at what we’re up to.”

He says the couple have received support from locals.

“Some have even sent unprompted letters of support to the district council,“ he said. “About 200 people came to watch us planting the first crop so we gave them a glass of wine and talked to them about the process, which they really enjoyed.”

In their first planning application, the Ducketts said the winemaking process was “essentially silent, largely relying on gravity to move the wine from pressing to bottling”.

The business would generate “insignificant“ traffic movements because the grapes would be processed on site.

Dr Michel Salgues, the couple’s consultant, said the soil was as good as the best sites in Champagne as it had just the right mixture of chalk and lime and the weather had been similar to France’s in the past decade.

The farm was also sheltered from frosts and winds because it lies in a shallow valley.

Dr Salgues said, “Experts who have looked at the proposed site are excited at the prospect of what they believe will prove to be one of the very best sites in the world.”

Nathaniel Lichfield & Partners, the Ducketts’ planning agent, said, “These proposals cannot simply be developed anywhere and it is unusual to find such a site in South Oxfordshire.

“Once operational, the vineyard will be one of the largest family-owned single vineyard winemaking operations in England.

“It will enable world-class specialists to come to the area and train local people, bringing highly-valued skills and expertise.”

Pishill with Stonor Parish Council has recommended the latest plans are approved, saying the business would be “a good asset“ for the community.

The district council was expected to make a decision by the end of last month but this has been delayed due to the recent fire at its offices in Crowmarsh Gifford.

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