Stephen Skelton has been involved with UK viticulture for almost fifty years and has been consulting to vineyard owners since selling his vineyard at Tenterden in Kent, now the home of Chapel Down Wines, in 1986. Since then he has made wine for, advised and worked with dozens of different UK vineyards and wineries. He is also unique in being the only Master of Wine to be working as a viticultural consultant in the UK.
Stephen started his career in wine in 1973 when he took an interest in the then very small UK wine industry, joining the English Vineyards Association (now WineGB) and visiting the major vineyards of the day. He then decided to gain experience abroad and spent 12 months working in the vineyards and winery at Schloss Schönborn in Germany’s Rheingau winegrowing region. After this valuable practical experience, he attended the Geisenheim viticulture and winemaking school where he was mentored by the late Professor Dr. Helmut Becker, the well-known plant-breeder and vine geneticist.
In 1977 he returned to the UK to establish the vineyards at Tenterden. There, he developed the vineyards and winery, eventually selling the business, although continuing to manage and make wine for the new owners until his last vintage as a full-time winemaker in 2000. In all, he made wine there for 22 vintages. Wines he made won the prestigious Gore-Browne Trophy for the English & Welsh Wine of the Year in both 1981 and 1991. Between 1988 and 1990 he was also winemaker and general manager at Lamberhurst Vineyards, then the UK’s largest winery, where he also won the Gore-Browne Trophy in 1990.
Vineyard Site Search & Assessment | Soil & Drainage Surveys | Vineyard Site Preparation | Vineyard & Wine Production Business Plans
Vine Variety, Rootstock & Clone Selection | Vineyard Layout (including Site Measurement, Planting Density & Pruning System)
Planting & Vineyard Establishment | Staff Training | Problem Solving in Established Vineyards | Planning Permission Support
Client Vineyards Past & Present
Adgestone, Isle of Wight.
| Mill Oast, East Sussex.
Moorbridge Estate, Berkshire.
Muston Vineyard, Dorset.
New House Farm, Bodiam.
Nine Oaks, Hothfield, Kent.
Old Woodhouse, Dorset.
Oxney Organic, East Sussex.
Painshill Park, Surrey.
Perch Hill, Somerset.
Exton Park, Hampshire.
Fairmile, Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire
Fox and Fox, East Sussex.
Good Easter, Essex.
Groombridge Place, Kent.
Ham Street Wines, Kent.
Harrow & Hope, Marlow.
Hazel End, Hertfordshire.
Heartenoake Vineyard, Kent.
Hendred Vineyard, Oxfordshire.
Henners, East Sussex.
Hidden Spring, East Sussex.
Hill House Farm, Norfolk.
Hush Heath Estate, Kent.
Jenkyn Place, Hampshire.
Kitchingham, Etchingham, East Sussex.
Lakeside, West Sussex.
Langham Estate, Dorset.
Leckford Estate (John Lewis Partnership), Hampshire.
Leeds Castle, Kent.
| Long Wells Organic, West Sussex.
Mousehall Estate, East Sussex.
Martins Lane Vineyard, Essex.
Pheasants Ridge, Oxfordshire.
Pinkmead Estate, Isle of Wight.
Pookchurch, East Sussex.
Poulton Hill, Gloucestershire.
Roebuck Estates, Kent and West Sussex.
Rosemary Farm, Flimwell, East Sussex.
Savage Vineyard, Kent.
Sheephouse Vineyard, Bruton.
Sheerland Farm Vineyard, Kent.
Squerryes Estate, Westerham, Kent.
St. Quentins Vineyard, Mayfield.
Tamar Valley, Devon.
Trentham River Winery, Staffordshire.
Tyringham Hall, Buckinghamshire.
Velfrey Wines, Wales.
Viddal Vineyard, Norway.
Warehorne Vineyard, Kent.
Whittington, Salcombe, Devon.
Windsor Great Park (Laithwaites), Berkshire.
Wiston Estate, West Sussex.
Wodetone Vyd, Dorset.
Wolf Oak Vineyard, Berkshire.
Woodmancote, West Sussex.
Yorkshire Heart, Yorkshire.
Yotes Court, Mereworth, Kent.
Over the last 40 years Stephen has looked at many different sites in the UK and has considerable experience in selecting those which are suitable for vineyards. He also has considerable experience in seeing land which is not suitable for vineyards, much of which has already been planted with vines! Finding land in the UK upon which to establish a vineyard is probably the hardest part of becoming a wine producer, yet it is the first. It is also the ONLY part of the complex algorithm that eventually results in a bottle of wine that can never be changed. Location, budget, availability and a myriad of other factors come into play and inevitably, compromises have to be made. If you are looking for land to plant with vines, let Stephen assist you.
Wherever vines are grown in the world, it is accepted that site is the most important factor in the many that determine quality. All other things being equal - vines, management, winemaking, weather - the difference in quality between one wine and another is the quality of the site. In warm and hot climates, where sunshine is abundant and water can be supplied, differences in site quality can often be overcome, especially if lower priced, high-volume wines are produced. But, in cooler climates, such as the UK's, this is not the case. Sites that have natural advantages will produce more grapes and better grapes. Sites that are at lower levels of altitude, better sheltered, and with a beneficial aspect will always outperform sites without these natural advantages.
Of course there are other considerations which may not appear immediately obvious to the novice vineyard owner. Think ten, fifteen, twenty or more years ahead. Where do you want to be with your vineyard? Whilst you may want - for example - to grow grapes under contract to another winery, your successors, whoever they may be, may want to establish a winery, a visitor attraction and a retail shop. Where will the winery go, what is access like, what about the waste-water disposal? It often pays dividends to think about these before planting.
What does it cost to establish a vineyard? What does it cost to run a vineyard? What are the returns likely to be? Working with vineyards as diverse as small, 0.5-hectare ones such as Pheasants Ridge or Fawley, right up to larger concerns such as Squerryes Estate, Hush Heath and Sandhurst -who together farm over 50-hectares of vines, Stephen has a very good understanding and knowledge of vineyard costings, both establishment and annual, and can work with you on your site to help you run a profitable concern.
The soil of any vineyard is its most precious - and most demanding - resource. It pays to establish what soil type you have, what its pluses and minuses are and how it is to be treated and managed. Using soil and drainage experts, plus profile pits, EC (electrical conductivity) surveys and intensive soil sampling, a plan of soil treatments and preparations can be arrived at prior to planting to give your vineyard a perfect start.
An EC survey using a Veris scanner is an excellent way to see what lies beneath the site, dividing the soil up into a maximum of eleven different soil types - sand, loamy sand through to sandy clay and silty clay - which allows for a better understanding of drainage requirements and rootstock choice pre-planting and a better understanding of vine behaviour, especially towards vigour, during the vineyard's establishment and later cropping. Always remember, in the long-term, what's happening beneath the soil is far more important than what is happening above it and it is only by knowing what's there that this it is possible to see the full picture.
EC soil survey results
Veris 3100 EC Soil Scanner
Drainage machine about
to drain a new vineyard
site in East Sussex
Site preparation, especially with certain soils and when using machine-planting, is the key to successful vineyard establishment and therefore to income maximisation. For each site, a programme of pre-planting treatments - drainage, green-manuring, subsoiling, fertiliser and lime applications - can be specified. Site preparation also covers vermin control - rabbits, hares, deer, badgers - all of whom can damage both establishing and established vineyards.It also coversvinenutrition and correct soil sampling and the use of a soil laboratory conversant with the nutritional requirements of vines will result in a tailored fertiliser programme for both pre- and post-planting.
Many growers plunge into vineyard ownership without really appreciating what they are taking on both physically and financially and the preparation of a sound business plan for both grape and wine production is a must. This will give you a good idea of the capital expenditure involved in establishing a vineyard and the likely income from grape or wine sales and enable you to plan your cash flow effectively.
Selecting Stephen’s experience in vine varieties suitable for the UK is certainly longer than almost anyone else in the business and probably greater. In his book, Wine Growing in Great Britain there is a chapter on the suitable varieties for UK vineyards. This chapter contains full descriptions of the 30 most widely grown varieties in the UK, plus details of newer varieties, clones and suitable rootstocks. This chapter has also been repackaged into a single volume: Vine varieties, clones and rootstocks for UK vineyards. Both books were updated and revised in 2020 and are also available as e-books. Stephen has been supplying vines to UK growers for over three decades and full details can be found here.
Selecting a variety and clone to plant and deciding what rootstock to grow it on is not a straightforward affair and there are many considerations: practical, financial and viticultural. After site selection, this task is the second most important and one not easily (or cheaply) rectified. The selection of the variety will differ according to several criteria. Are you growing under contract and being paid per tonne with price varying according to sugar and acid levels? If so, you want varieties and clones that maximise your income. Tonnes x price less costs = income. Or are you hoping to make your mark with your wines? What wines do you like and would you like to sell? Still or sparkling, red, white or rosé - what are your options? Bottle-fermented sparkling wines - how profitable are they and how much capital is tied up in stock? Young fresh fruity still wines, ready for drinking within 6 months of harvesting? Or oak-aged wines with bottle age? Which offer the best returns? These are the questions you need to consider BEFORE you plant. Three to four years after you have planted is too late.
In some varieties, clones are almost irrelevant. It surprises some people to know that the success of New Zealand Sauvignon blanc was based upon a single clone. Likewise, in the UK, Bacchus shows very little clonal variation and is much more influenced by site-quality, viticultural aspects and yield levels. With the UK’s two most widely planted varieties however, Pinot noir and Chardonnay - and also for Meunier - the selection of the right clone is more critical. Clones vary in a multitude of ways: yield, sugar and acid levels, bunch shape and type, growth habit, skin colour, flesh colour plus many others. Selecting the correct clone for your vineyard, to suit your individual requirements takes an understanding of not only the viticultural requirements, but again, of the end goals of the enterprise.
Having identified a site, chosen the vine variety, clone and rootstock, the next decision is: how many vines do I need? And, to arrive at that answer, the correct size of the site must be calculated. Firstly, the correct layout has to be decided upon, taking into account such things as roadways, headlands, space for windbreaks and shelter belts, and then the area to be planted can be established using a combination of on-site measuring using a Leitz Disto-D5 ultra accurate laser measurer and plotting on GoogleEarth. For larger and more complex sites, I use the services of a GPS surveyor.
Then final question to be answered is vine density, arrived at by knowing the row width and intervine distance. Row width depends on the tractor being used; the intervine distance upon the pruning system to be used. What pruning system should be used and how should the vines be trellised? 0.6-metres or 1.5-metres apart? 2,500 vines per hectare or 10,000? Cane or spur pruning? Single or double Guyot? Blondin, GDC, Scott Henry or Sylvoz? These are all decisions that, once taken, often cannot easily (or cheaply) be changed. A high vine density will allow your vines to start cropping sooner and lead to earlier root competition, a significant factor in controlling vigour.
An experienced consultant can help you answer these questions and make sure your vines produce a profitable crop.
Many vineyards these days are machine planted, taking care of much of the backbreaking manual work in getting a vineyard established. However, with machine planting, site preparation is even more critical for good establishment. With a planting rate of between 12,000 and 15,000 vines per day, it pays to have someone on site to supervise and make sure everything gets planted in the right place and at the right row width and intervals. It also pays to make a planting plan as the work proceeds so that vine numbers, varieties and clones and positions can be recorded before they get forgotten.
Once planted, vines do not manage themselves. The aim must be to get them established at the lowest cost, with the minimum number of failures and with the greatest number brought into cropping as soon as possible. Although in some countries - usually ones with very different growing conditions to the UK's and with added cultural and appellation considerations - vines are not brought into cropping until they are four and five years old. Under UK conditions and with many sites and soils, a small crop can be obtained in the second year with a 30-50% crop in the third and a 90%+ crop in the fourth - all without any harm being done to the long term health and cropping pattern of the vines. How this is done is nosecret. It takes inputs of labour, good weed control and attention to detail, with timely trellising and good disease control. Having an experienced consultant on board will help this happen.
Too often vineyards are established with help from specialist contractors and then, when it comes to looking after the vines in the establishment phase, untrained staff are engaged to do the work. Most vine work is simple and can be taught quite quickly, but only by someone who knows what to do! Looking after the vine in the first three years, as it is growing and forming its fruiting arms, is a vitally important phase. Get the shape of the vine wrong at this stage and it is sometimes hard to get the vine back to where it should be. Stephen has many years' experience of working in vineyards both young and old and with many different pruning systems and can help train you and your staff in vineyard care and management.
Too often, vineyards (and their owners) get into bad habits that require reviewing. If a vineyard is not performing well, if crops are too light, sugars too low, or costs too high, then it is time to step back and consider what can be done. Managing a vineyard requires experience - something new vineyard owners cannot have. Knowing what you costs ought to be and keeping them under control are both part of creating a profitable, and therefore successful, enterprise. It is often easier to improve a vineyard's returns by cutting inputs than it is to increase outputs (i.e. yields).
Obtaining planning permission for vineyard accommodation and for wineries often requires a financial justification report and a functional need report. Stephen has carried out a number of these which have led to successful planning permission applications.