I’m asking this of Susannah Ricci, owner of north Kent vineyard Yotes Court, as well as a stable of winning jump horses trained by WP Mullins.
“Oh, racehorses for sure!” she answers. “I hadn’t really considered it before but there are so many similarities in making either of them a success, both required the juggling of a huge number of variables, but a racehorse has a limited number of opportunities to race, and few become stars”
Horses are famously a gamble – perhaps the gamble – but still, I am surprised by her answer. Yotes Court may have been described by English vineyard guru Stephen Skelton MW as “the best site I have ever planted,” but this is still a vineyard in England. Vitis Vinifera likes a short, flat course, and growing vines in our marginal climate can be more like entering the Grand National.
Plus, by her own admission, Susannah knew next to nothing about vineyards before she found herself planting her own vineyard. She is warm, friendly, and incredibly open, almost a paradigm of the Corinthian spirit. At first glance, the whole thing could appear like a bit of a punt.
But then we turn off the road into the vineyard.
It seems to unfurl itself before us, swelling and then flowing down its south-east facing slope, a river of vines. At 75 acres, it is big by English standards. It is genuinely breath-taking and apart from the drizzle and the very English church spire in the distance, it feels like we could be in Tuscany.
We meet Susannah, and she tells us that she bought Yotes Court – the house, not the vineyard – in 2008. “It was a sad, slightly institutional house. I spent 2 years doing it up, replanting the garden. All the flowers in the tasting room come from the garden, and we get fruit and vegetables over summer.
“I had a lovely life looking after the house and garden, just doing my thing over there, and then the farmer next door let me know he was looking to retire. He was very insistent I bought his farm!”
This is Kent, the garden of England, so of course the farm next door grew soft fruits – apricots, apples, raspberries, and strawberries – and the land agent suggested that the farm could grow wine grapes too.
Stephen Skelton was engaged to survey the site and discovered a terroir that varied between limestone-infused, sandy soil at the top of the slope to richer clay towards the bottom. If this was Burgundy, there’d be a Grand Cru or two in there somewhere.
Still, I imagine there must have been a significant element of risk planting such a big vineyard – at the time, England’s largest. What if nobody had bought the wines?
“When we first planted in 2016,” Susannah continues, “we started with 50 acres on some of the lower slopes. Originally this was done in conjunction with Chapel Down, who signed a contract to buy the entire crop. I needed the reassurance that we would have a customer for the fruit.
“I recruited Tony our vineyard manager from Babich in Hawkes Bay, New Zealand. He came over in 2016 looking for a new challenge. We’re so fortunate to have him! Together we built a reputation with Chapel Down for supplying top quality fruit.”
So far, so risks minimised. But it wasn’t all a foregone conclusion. Yotes Court’s first 50 acres were planted with sparkling grape varieties for Chapel Down, yet the newer 25 acres were planted in 2018/2019 with Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Bacchus and experimental Swiss red wine variety Divico. All grapes favouring still wine production.
“Tony felt that the site had the potential to push ripeness levels, and I wanted to focus more on still wines,” Susannah explains. “I love sparkling wine, but it’s something that I drink to celebrate an occasion, whereas I’ll have a glass of still wine any night of the week. It’s a tough economic decision because the grapes must be riper and the yields are lower, but it sets us apart as a vineyard that concentrates on still.
“People are interested in us because of our still wines, and customers are increasingly knowledgeable that there are good quality English still wines. We have companies like Chapel Down and Gusbourne to thank for spreading that message – we’re just on the coat tails!”
The Corinthian spirit of modesty returns.
Yet the truth is that Yotes Court is now spreading its own message via its beautifully fresh, silky, well-made still white and rosé wines, which are labelled in the eye-catching pinks and greens of Susannah’s racing colours.
The red Yotes makes from Divico is deeply coloured, medium to full-bodied, and sells out on allocation despite a £55 per bottle price tag. Estate-labelled sparkling wines are named after Susannah’s race winners.
England is still a country where all its vineyards are situated beyond 49.9 degrees north. Each growing season remains a yearly race fully to ripen grapes over a relatively short, relatively cool summer.
Susannah may seem at first glance like one of the early have-a-go pioneers of English winemaking, but the truth is that the risks she takes are far more calculated. When she decides to buy a racehorse, she’ll be sure that it comes from the best breeding stock, and she’ll employ a champion trainer in search of a winner. When she planted her vineyard, she made sure she had a customer in place for the fruit and she employed one of the world’s leading viticulturalists to manage it.
That doesn’t mean that it was risk free – growing a crop that can be felled by late spring frost, summer hail, autumn disease pressure, and a myriad of other hurdles, never can be. Yet the true joy for English wine lovers is that opening a bottle of Yotes Court is like getting a genuine tip for a sure-fire winner.
Ladies and Gentlemen, place your bets.
‘Best Turned Out’ is a prize given to the most beautifully-groomed horse before a race – the one with the shiniest coat and most attractively-brushed mane. It’s an apt name for this stupendously pretty, pale-pink rosé, made from 100% Pinot Meunier. It’s one of those wines that seemingly evaporates from the glass – it just slips down so easily that you won’t believe how quickly you’ll be reaching for a second bottle. It’s bursting with vibrant watermelon and peach melba fruit and has texture that’s perfectly poised between silky and rounded in the mouth, and then beautifully fresh, crisp and refreshing in the finish. It’s a total sipper!
We built MARASBY to be a trusted place where you can find helpful and interesting content about British-grown food and wine.
Our content is written by humans who love local, sustainable and delicious UK wines. We make every effort to check our content, but as humans, we occasionally make mistakes. If you spot anything wrong with the site, we’d always rather you told us. Don’t be shy!