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Organics in England with Kristin Syltevik of Oxney Organic Estate

When it comes to visiting vineyards across Britain, you'll often find they're not always the most accessible places to visit. Most of the winemakers enjoy it, though. It's often a pilgrimage of sorts where you feel an other worldly being is secretly assessing how much you'd like to taste the wines and observe the picturesque landscapes for yourself. When I visited Oxney last year, there was a point where I questioned its existence, travelling down a single track road for a few kilometres, north of Rye in East Sussex, reading signs which seemed to be saying "we promise it's not much further"!

Though, I love being in the back of beyond. There was a moment of serenity talking to Kristin last year, tasting the phenomenally pure, driven wines whilst hearing absolutely nothing but the birds of East Sussex around us. I'm pleased to finally find a home for Oxney at Cépage. We started stocking them in September, and they've gone down a storm, featured on the lists of a number of restaurants and frequently shown at tastings with me, too.

Vines were first planted in 2012 with a further fifteen acres planted in 2015, across Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Chardonnay and Seyval Blanc. The vines are situated on a sheltered southwesterly aspect, sitting only six miles from the English Channel. Despite being a young estate, the wines are highly regarded among critics, and in our opinion, absolutely phenomenal value. This is quite amazing, since Oxney is also the largest single organic estate in England, too. It's rare to be wholly organic (and, I might add, to produce such high quality fruit) due to the cool, often wet climate here, promoting much disease pressure.

Hat's off to Kristin and Paul though, for the wines are a step above, hence their featuring on Cépage - there is a little note on the specific cuvées we stock, below. We always love our existing and prospective clients to become closely acquainted with the people behind the bottles, where and how they are grown, and of course, just how much they will be enjoyed. We took an opportunity (post harvest, of course) to ask Kristin a few questions about the ins and outs of organic viticulture, and the exciting journey with Oxney Organic Estate so far!

Oxney Estate

Site selection is so important in Britain, what drew you to your vineyard site?

We already owned the land and the buildings, so synchronicity really. I had a chat with Stephen Skelton and the Soil Association and thought, let’s go for it!

Did you work organically from the get-go, or was it something you moved into?

We have been organic from the get go, it is something I am passionate about. The land was already certified so that helped, but I believe that organic farming is the way forward to truly be sustainable.

Could you explain organics in a nutshell for those who might not know precisely what it entails, and also explain why organics are important to you?

In a nutshell, Organic farming means we farm without chemicals at any stage of production. No artificial chemicals, no synthetic chemicals, no herbicides, no pesticides. The key to organic farming is creating healthy soil, we prefer to work with nature. Composting and cover crops attract beneficial insects and create biodiversity in the vineyard. To keep diseases like powdery and downy mildew at bay, we use sulphur and copper sprays that coat and protect the vines instead of systemically treating them. Organic farming is important because you are feeding the land not stripping it from its natural form and leaving a list of chemicals behind in your path contaminating watersheds.

Are there any aspects of the certification that you believe need reviewing?

Not specifically.

Did you have an epiphany moment with a particular bottle which made you think you’d like to get involved in the wine industry, and move away from PR?

It wasn’t necessarily a ‘bottle’ that made me want to get into wine, it was more and ‘experience’. My partner, Paul, and I went on a road trip to France in an old red vw camper van. We came upon some stunning vineyards and brilliant wines and I thought to myself, this look like fun! The PR business had already sold, so I dove in without a thought, and though it has been an incredible challenge, the results have been very rewarding.

Are you practicing any or working towards any biodynamics at all? Biodynamic farming has been floating in the back of my mind for sometime. There are many intriguing steps to take to get there, I will have to wait and see how my feet feel at the end of this harvest and let you know ;)

Are there any French, Italian, or vignerons elsewhere that you draw inspiration from in your work?

I am fond of Champagne Fleury. They are pioneers in the world o biodynamic farming in the Côtes des Bar region. I love that they are a family run business with an attention to detail in the vineyard which shows in their exceptional wines.

What’s your biggest personal achievement at Oxney Estate so far?

Proving that award winning sparkling wine can be made with certified organically grown grapes!

How is the Sussex wine community as a whole? Is there a collective of like-minded growers which share ideas and experiences, or is it still relatively solo?

Solo is a lonely word, and I am definitely not alone in this journey. I tend to surround myself with people that are like-minded yet I am keen to lett hose not necessarily on the same path know how I feel about being organic. Saying that, the Sussex wine community is collaborative and viticulture is still relatively new in both conventional and organic farming, information is shared and we can each take away a little more knowledge every time we meet.

You have a little Seyval Blanc planted like Peter over at Breaky Bottom. It’s a variety we quite enjoy at Cépage - why did you decide to plant it?

It is a reliable disease resistant varietal that buds late and ripens early with decent crop loads that tastes great in our Non Vintage wines, what’s not to like!

Is there any vinification or maturation in oak at all?

Yes, we love barrel ferments using mostly old oak, the subtle complexities and texture can be sublime. Some of our stills are being treated to a new barrel or two. Our style is elegance so not too much influence on the nose or palate, but just enough to say, Hello.

Lastly, how would you describe the style of your wines at Oxney Estate for those who have never tasted them?

We love our wines on the drier side, and with our sparkling wines, we strive for fresh, balanced, distinctly English fruit flavours along with mouthwatering acidity and elegance with the bubbles playing with your tongue with each sip.

Our still wines are evolving and I have to say, our 2022 Rosé and 2022 Chardonnay exceeded my expectations. Freshness is the mantra for our still wines and they tick all the boxes with unadulterated fruit flavours and aromas and that lovely salty savoury finish, yum! An easy pairing for most foods and easy drinking without… I think it’s time for a glass of wine!

Kristin Syltevik in the winery at Oxney

The Wines

Currently, we stock two of Oxney's wines at Cépage, and they're both sparkling rosé wines. The first is the Estate Rosé NV, a wonderful introduction into Oxney's range. It features all the varieties grown on the Estate, including Seyval Blanc. It's a versatile bottle without a doubt; we've tried it with everything from an Asian noodle broth, pink lamb to sipping it on its own.

The Classic Pinot Noir Rosé 2019 is a different bottle entirely. A sophisticated, celebratory bottle from 100% Pinot Noir, a reflection of a good yielding vintage with exceptional quality fruit, but that goes without saying. A real touch of the proximity to the coast, with intense Pinot characteristics. A real show of just what Oxney are beginning to achieve. A steely precision and aromatic intensity; the Classic Pinot Noir will be even better in 5-10 years time.


The Vineyards of Britain: Cellar Door Adventures With the Best of Britain's Wines by Ed Dallimore

If you'd like to delve even deeper into the world of English wines, it's definitely worth checking out Ed's book, The Vineyards of Britain. With a combination of incredible photography from his travels around Britain, anecdotes, tasting notes and stories, we find this the most insightful and comprehensive guide on British wines.

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