All images by Robin Goldsmith, unless otherwise specified
Tim Chafor with his range of wines
North Buckinghamshire is not the first part of the country that springs to mind when thinking of English wine regions, yet in this peaceful rural enclave lies a quietly successful enterprise that reflects the unadulterated passion of its entrepreneurial vine grower and wine maker. Meet Tim Chafor, the inspirational co-founder with his wife Stephanie, of CHAFOR Wine Estate.
The vineyard at Gawcott
Hailing from North Lincolnshire with an IT background and a family farming heritage dating from the 1700s, Tim had never previously been involved in agriculture. However, in 2001, the couple bought a few acres of land in Gawcott, Buckinghamshire, initially with the idea of hobby farming. Having spent plenty of holiday time in Europe, especially France, the allure of food and wine culture began to rub off on them and in 2005/2006, they started to become particularly interested in English wine, as a result of tasting Chapel Down's fizz and still Bacchus. This led to Tim quitting his job so that he could devote his time to making wine, planting vines in 2008 and 2009, thus turning a passion into a business reality. "I wanted to do something agricultural and make it all about the end product. Wine was more interesting to me than anything else and the English wine scene was starting to really get noticed at that time."
Owners and winemakers, Tim and Stephanie Chafor: image by David Blaauw
"We have all the top terroirs of France in one site!"
Tim is a firm believer in terroir affecting the quality of wine and a fortuitous discovery laid the foundations for CHAFOR's burgeoning success. After their German contractors were unable at the last minute to come over to plant the vines, Tim and Stephanie made a call-out to friends and family and within a week, using what Tim modestly describes as "schoolboy geometry" with bale and twine in hand, about 1000 holes were dug in 1½ hectares of land. As the planting continued, they discovered huge differences in soil type across this single south-facing field.
Tim Chafor at the vineyard discussing terroir
With a bedrock of Jurassic limestone/Oxford clay, they found all the top terroirs of France expressed there - "the sand and gravel of Bordeaux, flint of the Loire, chalk of Champagne and limestone of Burgundy in different parts of our site, albeit without clear demarcation lines", as Tim observes with pride. "We started with Pinot Meunier in the lighter pebblier soil at the western end, then gradually moved across to the flintier soils, as we planted Bacchus, followed by Chardonnay and then Pinot Noir. We wanted to grow noteworthy grapes, but weren't sure whether they would grow well and then we discovered that we actually had the perfect soil."
After much research, Tim decided on the Double Guyot VSP trellising system as the most suitable for canopy management and maintaining airflow around the vines.
The vines are now ten years old and are particularly strong and healthy, which Tim puts down to their hand-planting. "We spent much time separating the roots in each hole, making sure they were properly put to bed", he explains, "and our vines are much healthier than many others I have seen around the country. Additionally, we farm sustainably with mechanical weeding, minimising use of chemicals where possible."
Weeding: a hydraulic hoe goes under the vines in the original vineyard, while a harrow is attached to a tractor for mechanical weeding in the newer vineyard on the eastern side where there's no grass.
Then, in 2013 before their first Gawcott harvest, they took over a vineyard in Weedon, near Aylesbury, which had been established in 2002 on more homogenous Kimmeridgian clay soils, thereby adding some older vines to their stock. Over this one hectare site, the same four grape varieties are grown with the addition of Madeleine Angevine and Pinot Gris. A further planting of just over one hectare of Bacchus plus a few Pinot Noir vines were added to the flintier and stonier soils on the eastern side of their Gawcott site in 2016, bringing the total area under vine today to around 4¼ hectares. Originally, their still wine was made at Hoffmann & Rathbone and their sparkling at Hattingley Valley, but in 2015 with their own new on-site winery, they began to vinify and bottle the wine themselves and from 2017, all the wine is made at CHAFOR. Apart from Tim and Stephanie, a horticultural apprentice assists with vineyard work and during the summer, an annual influx of French students comes over to help with canopy management as part of their degree course. Also in 2017, volunteers picked all the grapes at harvest time and the same may happen again this year.
Wines available by the glass or bottle
Tim and Stephanie started selling wine in 2014 from the vineyard and, in addition to a few local farm shops, hotels and restaurants, they supply 14 local Waitrose stores and Waitrose Cellar with their still Bacchus and sparkling Vintage Cuvée. Visitors are welcome to the winery, but are advised to check opening days/times first before going, while private functions and a programme of ticketed public events are hosted at certain times of the year, including the acclaimed 'Pinot and Pizza' nights, featuring Tim's homemade pizza oven.
Tim with his homemade oven, where he makes pizza using flour, tinned tomatoes and yeast sourced from Italy
Apart from indulging Tim's 30-year old passion for making pizza, garlic bread and garlic mushrooms, these events offer another way of bringing people in to taste and buy the wine and then "spread the word" organically.
"Wines reflect the person who makes them, so as a winemaker you impose what you personally like."Tim has a very clear vision of the style of English wine he wants to make and this has certainly helped build CHAFOR's reputation. While many businesses are building up a reserve of wines to be able to produce a consistent non-vintage sparkling house style, Tim has a different approach. "Part of the charm of growing grapes in a marginal climate", he believes, "is to explore the vintage variations and to reflect the conditions the grapes are grown in." This also means not relying on sparkling wine, but making a range of still wines too, with a strong belief in the potential of Bacchus in particular: "It suits the soil, climate and wine style in England, as well as people's palates."
In 2014, when Tim gave his first talk to the Gawcott Women's Institute, most people there had never heard of English wine, let alone Bacchus, or even knew that there was a vineyard in the same village! Four years later, Tim has seen a big change in awareness of the industry with feedback consistently positive. Their still Bacchus remains the most sought-after wine, having developed a good local reputation, but since they supply Waitrose, there is often none available at the vineyard to sell, which is what prompted the additional planting in 2016.
Seating outside the winery: the perfect place to enjoy a glass or share a bottle of CHAFOR wine!
Tim personally likes dry, pale-coloured wines, so makes most of his wines in that style: "Wines reflect the person who makes them, so as a winemaker you impose what you personally like." He's also passionate about ensuring the wine is food-friendly, so achieving balance of fruit and acidity is key to his winemaking approach, blending grapes accordingly. Malolactic fermentation is used for the two sparkling wines and the new red, but deliberately avoided with the two aromatic still whites and the still rosé.
This pale pink rosé is made from Pinot Gris and less than 10% Pinot Noir, the blend carefully chosen to express Tim and Stephanie's chosen style. "There are many different ways of making a rosé, but I like it dry and very pale, so that's what I aim for", Tim explains. "Our Pinot Gris has good sugar ripeness, but holds on strongly to its acidity. Therefore, on its own, it would struggle as a varietal wine, so needs the fruitiness of Pinot Noir to avoid it being too harsh. However, the acidity really helps here, as I see rosés as perfect for hot summer afternoons with picnics and BBQs. The acidity is refreshing and mouth-watering, so quenches your thirst."
Although only having been bottled one week ago, there is good balance in this wine with a defined strawberry and citrus character. Notes of redcurrant and a hint of cranberry develop mid-palate and the finish is clean and fresh.
Madeleine Angevine is an early-ripening grape variety with good sugar levels, but loses acidity relatively quickly, so this wine has a little Pinot Gris (less than 10%) added to achieve balance. Like Bacchus, it can produce aromatic wines with a nose of white flowers/blossom and these grapes come from the older Weedon vineyard planted in 2002.
This is a really interesting wine and one, which Tim says, benefits from ageing. Therefore, it remains eight months in bottle before release to allow the aromas and flavours to develop. There are ripe pear notes on the nose and palate with touches of white peach, melon and citrus that give a richer, rounded, yet still fresh mouth feel, making this wine a good choice for pairing with roast chicken and grilled cod or halibut.
This has just been bottled, but not yet labelled, while Tim waits for the wine analysis to be completed, including ABV measurement. Already, it shows impressively delicate nuances of elderflower, complemented by a touch of tropical fruit and a refreshing minerality, rather than a full-on floral and fruity hit. This wine will benefit from the extra weeks in bottle before release, to allow the zesty notes to fully integrate.
Made from 46% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay and 14% Pinot Meunier, this award-winning, pale gold sparkling wine spent two years on lees, resulting in a fresh, clean character with initial notes of baked apple, peach and a hint of citrus, while golden sultana, dried apricot and toast develop mid-palate.
Pinot Meunier grows and ripens well in England and Tim reckons it's an underrated grape variety. This sparkling rosé consists of 52% Pinot Meunier and 48% Pinot Noir, 10% of the latter being red wine Tim vinified to add colour to the blend, although in keeping with his style, it still has a pale salmon hue. Awarded 91 Parker Points, only around 1000 bottles of this award-winning wine were made, with 2017 being the next vintage release. Aromatic and full of fresh strawberries on the nose, this is soft and fruity with a glorious depth of flavour. Red berries and pink grapefruit fill the mouth initially, while strawberries and cream plus peach and brioche notes build mid-palate leading to a notably long finish. Very good indeed!
According to Tim, the most frequent question customers have asked over the last four years has been whether they make a red wine at CHAFOR, so when in 2016, Tim found out that he could import grapes from Italy, a new wine was conceived to "complete the range". Spending two days in a refrigerated lorry at 2°C, whole bunches of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes arrived fresh, were crushed, destemmed and fermented in an open concrete tank with regular punch down, while the temperature reached 25°C naturally. Free run and press juice were blended, before the wine spent one year in French and US oak. Just over 1,100 bottles were made of the 2016, which have just been released for sale at the winery, but the 2017 vintage will see increased volume.
Like the other still wines, Red Stag has a motif depicted on the front label based on the Buckinghamshire coat of arms (stag and swan), a nod to the local royal hunting ground of Bernwood Forest. Hints of cherry and blackcurrant with vanilla and cedar tones from the oak make this a light and fruity red wine, at only 11.5% ABV, suited to summer BBQs and one which could be served lightly chilled.
There are no more bottles available of the Chardonnay Reserve 2013, so this cool climate still Chardonnay is one to keep an eye out for when future vintages are made. Also, look out for their brandy by Wharf Distillery in nearby Northamptonshire, due to be released soon.
A long finish is a feature of all these wines, which reflects both their quality and food compatibility. Whether light picnic salads or fuller-flavoured meat and fish dishes, they have enough character to cope with a range of different foods, or can be greatly enjoyed on their own.
International Wine Challenge Awards for CHAFOR Bacchus 2013 and 2014.
CHAFOR is a small, family-run estate set in the heart of the Buckinghamshire countryside. Born out of Tim and Stephanie's love of wine and food, allied to an entrepreneurial sense of adventure, they have created a wine business serving both their local area and fans from further afield, remaining totally focussed on the day-to-day commercial reality of running a business of this size. "We want to stay small, artisan, sustainable and without compromising our principles", says Tim "… and we sell pretty much everything we produce." Not a bad result for what started out as a hobby farming project!