This is a very exciting week for those of us that are interested in horse racing for it is Cheltenham Week! It may also be perhaps the sunniest Cheltenham in a long time, with not bad going at all. There’s something hugely intoxicating about a race day. As someone who loves horses, seeing them at peak fitness doing something they love is just extraordinary. I also can’t help but get more excited about racing since the rise of Rachael Blackmore, who made history at last year’s Festival when she was the first woman to be crowned top jockey. I won’t be going this year as I don’t fancy my odds on crutches with the amount of Champagne I’d be seeking out, but I am looking forward to watching from the comfort of my living room. I am usually drawn to the colours of the Ricci’s horses, the lime green and pastel pink and I have actually won a little bit of money on their horses before. This year, I am looking with a new interest after being introduced to EqWine by Madeleine Waters and consequently, chatting to Susannah Ricci, who it turns out doesn’t just favour good going on the racecourse, but good soil at her beautiful vineyard, Yotes Court, in Kent.
When it comes to English vineyards and I’m sure vineyards in general, you hear all sorts of stories about how people came about acquiring them and inevitably making their own wine. Again, like horses, they say to become a millionaire in wine it’s helpful to start as a billionaire. I was very entertained to hear Susannah’s pre-vineyard-owning drinking habits, “Oh I’m very much a drinker, I just enjoyed it like everybody else, from anywhere really,” she says. “My husband only drinks New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Even when we lived in California for a while it was a battle to find it. It’s actually etched in my mind the trauma of trying to find it.” Thankfully, they ended up back in the UK, in West Peckham, Kent.
“I bought the estate in 2008,” says Susannah. “It took a very long time to restore as it’s Grade I listed. Several years later, the fruit farmer next door said he wanted to retire and sell up and did I want to buy his farm.” The farmer, thank goodness, was quite persistent that this was a decision Susannah should say yes to, and after speaking to advisors, a deal was made. “I got the farm in 2014 and suddenly I had to decide what to do with it. I could have just stuck a tenant in there, or there was the option to get a farm hand in or you could take the full risk and I thought stupidly I would take the full risk.” As you may have already noticed, Susannah is one of those rare delightful people who is very down to earth and extremely honest. With the full-risk option in full-swing, enter Stephen Skelton MW, a man who knows a perfect plot when he sees one. “We planted in 2016, 55-60 acres of Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and Stephen organised a supply contract with Chapel Down,” says Susannah. They are actually one of Chapel Down’s principal growers, supplying 270 tonnes of grapes each year. “Our grapes are very good, Tony Purdie, my New Zealand vineyard manager is so talented and very into the science and sustainability of wine making,” says Susannah. “We had three acres left and I thought why don’t we plant Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Bacchus.” This still wine dream was inspired after Susannah had tried Stopham’s wines, which are fantastic aromatic examples of what can be produced in England. “We have also planted 270 vines of Divico* which is the red holy grail grape in this country,” says Susannah. “We will launch that this year but only have 90 bottles.”
*I hadn’t actually heard of Divico before and incase you haven’t either it’s a red grape pitched in the UK to produce quality red wine. If you live here, you’ll know we only get long hot summers like 2018 once in a blue moon so it’s risky to rely on Pinot Noir for a still red wine and safer to leave it to sparkling. Divico was bred at the Swiss Centre of Excellence for Agricultural Research and first released for planting in 2013. It is reported that with its late flowering and natural resistance to disease, it is going to excel at still red wines after an English summer.
“So that’s basically how we did it,” says Susannah. “I sort of sleep walked into it.” It’s really impressive isn’t it, what can be achieved when you’ve got the right soil and you get the right people in to help. Susannah mainly looks after the accounts but she very much has her head screwed on and most importantly, is very enthusiastic for success! “We’ve taken about five acres back from Chapel Down,” says Susannah. “I have a Blanc de Blancs and a Pinot Noir rosé coming and an early release Pinot Gris sparkling for the summer.” A lot of the sales to date are still done via the cellar door as wine tourism is thriving in Kent. It’s not hard to see why when you can avoid all of the rigmarole of an airport and instead be in the middle of a beautiful vineyard in Kent, sipping on Champagne by 12pm.
Back to EqWine, the reason we were chatting to begin with. At the moment it is at the very beginning of the journey but essentially it’s a wine club for racing lovers. If you join, you will receive a box of all the Yotes Court wines plus some exclusive tips and insights from top racing professionals. The meetings that will be covered include The Cheltenham Festival, Ladies Day at Royal Ascot, Irish Champions Weekend at Leopardstown & The Curragh, and Ladbrokes Winter Carnival Trophy Day at Newbury. I just think it’s the most fabulous idea, you could even split the cost (1 year commitment. 4 payments of £250) with a group of friends and throw a racing themed party each time you get your delivery. Maybe you could even get dressed up at home, who knows, it sounds like great fun.
So there you have it, wine and horses have more in common than you’ll ever know. And people that own horses tend to drink a lot of wine. As we wait patiently for the next release of Yotes Court wines, I was lucky enough to try the very aptly named ‘On the Nod’ Bacchus from 2020. They’re all named after racing terms which is very fun, including ‘On the Bridle’, ‘Hands and Heels’ and ‘Best turned Out’ plus the colours reflect the silks of the Ricci’s, the notorious pink and green, funnily enough, my favourite combination. The wine is perfect, one of those Bacchus’ where you take a sip and go ‘Oh, this is lovely!’ My advice to you throughout your Bacchus tasting career is to get it out of the fridge a good 20 minutes before drinking and let those aromatics notes soar!