Perhaps it’s his ‘can-do’ Kiwi attitude, but Charles is seriously upbeat about prospects for the English wine industry, placing it in the position that South America, New Zealand, and Australia found themselves in the early 80s – about to experience explosive growth and take a major market share.
It’s exciting stuff – yet Charles tempers this positive mindset with the carefully-does-it approach of an experienced farmer. This is not an estate that dreams of being a flashy big-budget Champagne-style brand. At Charles Palmer, it’s all a bit more authentic and down to earth and, most importantly, it’s all about the family.
Of course we followed the sign, and a few minutes later found ourselves at a converted barn-tasting room in the courtyard of a stunningly beautiful 16th century manor house. With the warmth of the 2020 summer and sand-coloured stone of the buildings, we could have been somewhere in Burgundy. Unfortunately, being 2020 in England, the oasis turned out to be a mirage, because like everywhere else at the time, the tasting room was closed.
But then we noticed some movement inside the tasting room – it was Sally Palmer, wife of Charles. She couldn’t open the tasting room to us, but since we were in the wine business and business meetings were absolutely allowed at the time, we could certainly have a chat outside, a look at the vineyard, and perhaps they could offer us a few bottles of their wine to try.
Six weeks later the lockdown was lifted, and we returned to Charles Palmer to meet the rest of the estate’s workforce: Charles himself, son Robert and daughter-in-law Chantal. And that’s it. That’s the entire permanent workforce at Charles Palmer – which is even more astonishing when you find out that the 35 acres they have planted with vines is just part of an overall 120 acre farm leased from the National Trust.
Fortunately, the growth in their vineyard has coincided with a reduction in their other farming activity. As Chantal explained, there’s a choice to be made with deciding whether to get bigger, which would require employing additional staff, or focusing on what they’ve got and doing it as well and authentically as they can.
“You won’t find us building a pizza oven here, it just wouldn’t fit with who we are. After all, the house here is older than the USA.”
Instead, the estate leans into the French vibe that we felt when we first visited. Chantal herself is part-French, and rather than trying to be flashy or hip, she prefers to entice visitors down to the estate for long lazy lunches. It’s not a totally French feel since lunch can sometimes be accompanied by group playing sea shantys, but with the English channel just a few hundred metres away, it all makes its own kind of sense.
The wines also have this maritime profile, with a distinct saline minerality across the range – especially obvious in their deliciously-Chablis like 2018 Chardonnay. This flavour profile is understandable since the vineyard sits on Chablis-like Kimmeridgian clay pushed up from the seabed. With the vineyard so close to the sea, it has never needed frost protection, and the team even uses a seaweed spray as an anti-fungal. How’s that for terroir?
Instead, Charles takes a truly sustainable long-term view of winemaking with three key principles: First, they must be able to make a living. Second, what they do has to fit into the landscape (hence the seaweed sprays). Third, they want the vines to thrive throughout their life – and sometimes that means that they’ll sparingly use non-organic sprays to prevent the vines being ruined by diseases.
But they have a sympathetic, minimal impact approach to cultivation. They don’t think it’s right to constantly be disturbing the soil, even to apply ‘green’ formulations. Ultimately, it’s about working with the landscape and not taking more than it can give. In fact, the only thing they take out of the vineyard is the fruit at harvest. Everything else gets mulched back into the vineyard, from leaves to cuttings.
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