Interview with Kristin Syltevik of Oxney Organic Estate

It was a pleasure to see the familiar faces of Kristin Syltevik (co-owner) and Ben Smith (winemaker) of Oxney Organic Estate at last month's Sussex Wineries launch. I sampled the latest Oxney Classic 2015 (as featured in my Great British Wine March Round-up) as well as taking the opportunity to put the finishing touches on an interview with Kristin that started during my visit to Oxney Organic Estate last year.

 

What prompted you to embark on your journey into English wine?

Kristin:I think everybody has a unique journey. We started buying farmland as an investment, and my partner decided to become a farmer and farm the land. I was coming out of my career and sold my business – an international PR consultancy called Hotwire, and I decided that doing something with the land was a good idea, and something fun!

What could be more fun than a vineyard? It was a creative moment, and after speaking to the Soil Association, Stephen Skelton and after surrounding myself with people that knew more than me - we ended up doing it.

At what stage did Organic winemaking become the focus?

Kristin: From day one! As a farmer, we are 100% organic, and the land had already been classified as organic before we had planted the vines. I wouldn’t have done it if I couldn’t have done it as an organic grower.

 

Looking at wine as a whole, what was your interest in wine prior to planting a vineyard?

Kristin: I used to work in PR, so had the privilege to taste some good wine. I have always enjoyed the cleaner, fresher wines from Northern France. Those are definitely more to my liking than the southern, higher alcohol wines; that’s probably why also English wine appealed so much. So I went out and bought and tasted loads of different English wines.

So the starting point was to go out and sample a lot of what is being made in England, before deciding on what to focus on at Oxney?

Kristin: Yes. But of course, you then start to pick your own and then you realise what the site and what the individual blocks can give you. And then you’re like, ok throw that out of the window! Then you have terroir, which I didn’t believe existed until experiencing it.

What have been the most significant challenges in setting up the business?

Kristin:I don’t know where to start. The biggest challenges have been growing the grapes, because of the changeable climate and because of my lack of knowledge, and then of course the organic aspect. Those three things together have meant that I have made so many mistakes, and have never learnt so much.

 

So how does it feel after all of that hard work and a steep learning curve to them come out and release wines that have been received so well and gone on to win awards?

Kristin: Well it just makes you incredibly happy, and it’s brilliant for the team. Because like me, we are all facing challenges on a daily basis. It’s absolutely wonderful. But as humans we are always a bit negative aren’t we, so the next month we are battling with the weeds and battling the frost. But no, it’s great! People are happy to buy it and to drink our wine, which is just the best feeling!

 

Looking at the English Wine industry as a whole, which winemakers do you find interesting, concerning the wines they produce or their approach to what they are doing in the industry?

Kristin:I just love that some of our vineyards in England have become successful businesses. I take my hat off to them. It doesn’t matter whether I personally like the style, whatever it is. But from a business approach, it’s brilliant.

I love the fact that we can make fantastic wine in England, that people love drinking it and that we are getting better at marketing and selling it. But of course, it has to be a sustainable business. I’m just delighted to see all those people making it work out, which is what I’m hoping to do too.

For us it is like a multi-step approach. You figure out whether you should do it and if you can do it. Then you do it, you make it, and you’re struggling on with the growing and seasons. And then you’re making brilliant wine and gaining awards, whilst getting your head around marketing and selling it. And then, of course, you have to make it a business.

Focussing on the visitor and tourism side of the business, you have the cellar door where people can come and buy your wine and also you have the beautiful holiday cottages that we stayed in last year. How did that all come together and has it been significant in getting people to visit to the vineyard and discover Oxney?

Kristin: Absolutely. Definitely! I don’t think it’s fully connected yet but we are on the journey. A highlight last year was the brown tourism sign at the end of our lane which will encourage more visitors. Lots of people stay at our cottages and discover that we have a vineyard and then come to the vineyard. Some of them, our fans and supporters, come back several times a year and that works really well. We have tours and tastings at the vineyards and that also helps to encourage people to stay in our cottages.

 

So what’s next for Oxney Estate both as a winemaker and on the tourism side?

Kristin:This year we are launching our shepherd’s huts which are located in the vineyard itself.  We built the huts here at the vineyard last year using oak from the farm and a lot of upcycled material.

In terms of the wine, we are focused on sparkling and have developed two ranges - the Classic range and Estate range. In addition to our Classic regular Cuvée we made a sparkling Pinot Noir Rosé Classic in 2016 which will be released end of 2018.  For the Estate range, we have made a sparkling Rosé with 10% Pinot Noir for launch and release this year. So that’s very exciting.

 

Many thanks to Kristin for taking the time to chat.

For more information on the Oxney Organic Estate wines and to book a stay at the vineyard, head over to www.oxneyestate.com

John Mobbs

Founder of GreatBritishWine.com, John has been a prolific user on wine rating app Vivino for the last couple of years. Now a self appointed Great British Wine ambassador and with a mission to explore all corners of the UK to uncover the best producers and most exciting wines.

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