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Kenton Park Estate "The Rebirth"

At the beginning of 2017, my family and I moved into what we now call ‘Kenton Park Estate’. It was previously known as ‘Kenton Vineyard’, as the name suggests, the place was a successful commercial Vineyard that produced some award-winning wines. The most notable achievement was a gold medal and challenge cup for the best dry white from a commercial Vineyard in 2014. The Vineyard was planted back in 2003 and grew Pinot Noir Précoce, Rondo, Ortega and Bacchus. Whilst the Vineyard was known for its wines perhaps the thing it was most known for was the absolutely stunning location in which it sits. On the west side of the Exe Estuary, nestled in the foothills of the Haldon hills and surrounded by sweeping countryside the Estate lays just a few miles away from Powderham castle. My mum first saw the house around 5 years ago when she visited the place to buy some of the wine and she was completely blown away by how beautiful it was. She said that if that house ever came on the market it would be an amazing place to live. 2 years later we moved in.

When we first moved in I was a little sceptical, I had been away travelling when the rest of the family moved in, so I actually hadn’t even seen the house before living there. Arriving back from Thailand was certainly met with an element of the unknown as I wasn’t sure what to expect. Now, however, every day we look at the view surrounding the land and Vineyard fields and find it hard to believe how outstandingly beautiful it is here. The gentle rolling landscapes allow for some spectacular early morning sunrises and evening sunsets. With a clear night sky, the view of the stars is staggering. The Estate is also certainly no stranger to wildlife either. It’s not uncommon to see wild deer walking elegantly through the fields, pheasants strutting around the orchard and a magnificent white owl is always there to watch us, curiously waiting to see what the new owners have in store for the place.

It’s not long now until we plant just over 14,000 new vines here at Kenton Park Estate. We are planting Bacchus, Pinot noir, Reichensteiner, Pinotin, Solaris and a small amount of Chardonnay and have spent the last 12 months in the Vineyard fields preparing our soil to the best it can be. In viticulture terms, we are actually very fortunate here as the quality of our soil is excellent for growing vines.

A lot of people ask, why get into making wine? The reason they ask is that we have absolutely no experience or knowledge in winemaking or viticulture. My response is always the same, it’s a new adventure, something we’ve never dreamt of doing so why the hell not. Personally, for me, I’ve always dreamed of owning my own drinks brand. From a young age, I was excited by the things big drinks brands were doing such as Red Bull. As an outdoor enthusiast and a bit of an adrenaline junkie, I am inspired by the way in which Red Bull market their drinks. All the sports events and adventure opportunities really excite me and I hope that one day I can do something similar with my own drinks brand, the wine is one of the first steps toward this goal.

Our adventure started when we hired a French consultant from a Vineyard in Bordeaux to inspect our land, he gave us some solid advice from which to build on and a lot more that was lost in translation. One thing that did stick though was his belief that champagne will always be better than English sparkling wine. We proceeded to give him a few bottles of the sparkling wine that had previously been produced here. With a smug satisfaction, I think we can say that we might have swayed his opinion, as we found 4 empty bottles of the stuff in the morning. We now have one bottle left which is one of the very last bottles in circulation, and we are keeping it as a benchmark for our product.

Our first major task, as advised by the French consultant was to strip the land of all the old vine roots once the land had been ploughed in case there was any disease present, therefore minimising the risk of contamination when we come to planting the new vines. This was a task to be done by hand and left to myself and a few of my friends, it was a mammoth task and between us, we pulled up thousands of old vine roots. It’s safe to say my friends weren’t too happy when the realised actually just how hard of a job it was. This being said however, we were all pleased when we were rewarded with large quantities of cold beer to end the day with.

Once all the vine roots had been removed we planted a cover crop to raise the nutrient levels in the soil, in particular, the nitrogen levels. The cover crop proceeded to spread like wildfire and was an indication as to just how good our soil was. By the end of September, the cover crop was so high you couldn’t walk in the fields. It was a mass of yellow flowering mustard seed.

The cover crop was then harvested and the second one planted in its place to keep the nutrients in the soil over the winter period. In the midst of all this, we had a little piece of magic… our first apple harvest from the orchard we have on site. Whilst it was the smoothest of harvests, it was certainly an experience. At the time I had a broken hand through a rugby incident which didn’t make harvesting apples the easiest of tasks. I was having to climb and shake the trees with one arm out of action. We had a guy come with a mobile apple press and mill to press our apples into a delicious juice on-site before it was taken off to undergo fermentation and become our very first batch of cider ‘Hardcore Cider’. Since then, I have been to the Cider and Perry Academy in Gloucester and learnt a hell of a lot more about cider production ready for the next harvest.

Back to the wine… I have recently been studying at Plumpton college. Plumpton is famous worldwide for being a leading academic institution for the study of wine production and viticulture so switching back and forth between studying and a real-life Vineyard project has resulted in a very rapid learning curve and of course lots of wine tasting in between. We have also had our consultant Duncan McNeil down to firstly analyse our soil and then aid us in deciding what grape varieties to grow. He has been extremely helpful and with his help, we came up with the varieties that are perhaps the best suited to our climate. Much to my Dad’s disappointment, Duncan advised that we didn’t grow Chardonnay because it would be difficult to grow in the conditions we have in this part of England. Chardonnay just about ripens in Kent in some of the other vineyards Duncan manages. Still, we yielded to Dad’s requests and agreed to plant a small experimental batch of Chardonnay. So now that we’ve decided what we’re going to grow all that remains is some final soil preparation. The solid is a little low in lime so this needs to be boosted, the fields will need to be flailed and power narrowed to create a planting bed, and then we are good to go.

Amidst all this activity, the shooting season started in earnest as our land is surrounded by Powderham Castle Estate. The shooting season is a big business and taken very seriously around these parts. It amuses us, however, that all the pheasants and partridges seem to run across the fields, over the road and up our front driveway and take refuge in our land. There have been many times when I have been late and mum has been late for the school run due to being stuck behind hundreds of pheasants and partridges that stubbornly refuse to move out of the way and instead insist on plodding along down the drive with us. The abundance of pheasants that we have here on the Estate is something that his inspired our labels. We have managed to establish relationships with other vineyards around the world who have made wines for us so that we have our own label wine to start putting Kenton Park Estate “on the map”.

We have our own house red “Flying Start” an Australian Shiraz, we have our own house white “Great Escape” which is an Australian Chardonnay and our own house rosé “Grape Escape” which is from California. Each one features our pheasants on the label, and they are what will hopefully set our wines apart from others on the shelves.

Of course one of the main things we want to stress is that Kenton Park Estate is not all about wine. There is so much more we have to offer. We now have our Cider, as well as our own label olive oil and coffee which can be served in our wine bar ‘The Motley Cru’ that has panoramic 360-degree views over the Vineyard. Yes, it hasn’t all been wine and coffee tasting for our own enjoyment. We spent 6 weeks converting the old winery building into a beautiful space for all sorts of events to take place, (The Motley Cru). It will serve coffee and cocktails and play host to many a wine night. The interior is themed along the lines of a traditional Alpine wooden French chalet with a contemporary twist, reminiscent of all the years we spent in the French alpine town of Chamonix. At the end of the winery building, we have also created a lifestyle emporium. We will install the fermentation tanks into another building here on the Estate in stage two of our development plans once the grapes have really started to establish themselves.

One example of the use of this building would be that we are now hosting the Torbay motor club, who frequently bring an array of classic cars here for coffee mornings, and we are hosting a rally here in March. For the drivers, it will be a fantastic chance to see all the scenery the area has to offer before coming back to enjoy some lunch and a G&T or two.

As I mentioned before it is not just wine we are exploring here, there are numerous projects on the go as we speak. Work is underway on the herb garden to bring it back to life with the aim to produce some botanicals that we can use in our very own Artisan Gin in the future. We have a mobile Gin distillery lorry coming later this month to create our first batch of Gin and although the Gin market has exploded as of late, it will be awesome to have our own recipe as a small trial.

Another project for the next few years is to create a “Herbal Tonic” so watch this space for our own health and energy drink brands. We have also begun work on producing our own honey “Kenton Nectar” featuring another humorous illustration of one of our pheasant characters. And our olive oil “Liquid Gold” is currently in production.

Our vision is for Kenton Park Estate to become much more than a Vineyard but a real Mecca of events and to be seen as the place to be this side of the estuary. We are full of so many ideas and the trick is to really develop a couple of them so that we provide an experience here that is quite unique and hopefully inspiring to others. We may be the current owners of this land but it is our duty to be the best possible guardians we can so that we can pass our land on to future generations so that they can continue to share the magic of what we have here.

Ben Oliphant-Thompson

Kenton Park Estate

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