Just before harvest 2023, Charlie Holland stepped down from his role as our Chief Winemaker. Having worked with Gusbourne for more than a decade, and nurtured a team of successors, Charlie felt it was time for a new challenge with Jackson Family Wines.
Waiting in the wings were Mary Bridges, our Head Winemaker; AJ Benham, our Head of Wine Operations and Laura Rhys, Master Sommelier and our Global Ambassador. This experienced trio, who came together as a team under Charlie’s guidance, are responsible for Gusbourne’s next chapter.
“It was great working with Charlie; he was a super mentor and incredibly approachable,” says Mary. “We’ve had the same core team in place for three years now; we’ve learned so much together and from each other. Winemaking is a continual conversation.”
This collaborative, communicative atmosphere is fundamental to the success of Gusbourne’s winery. “Although we’ve all got different backgrounds and different approaches to wine, we work really well together,” says Mary. “We all pitch in in busy times and work incredibly hard to make sure what needs to happen happens – and to our high, exacting Gusbourne standards.
“Everyone buys into the ethos and knows what we’re trying to achieve together. That’s key for us.”
This tight, well-drilled team is perhaps the most important part of Charlie’s legacy. When it came to harvest 2023, they hit the ground running. “It was very full on, but always felt completely under control. We had eyes on everything the whole way through,” says Mary. “And it was fun – a really fun few weeks.
“We could see all the fruit coming in and we knew we had great quality in the different personalities of the different blocks. As we started to feel the bones of the wines coming together, our minds were already thinking about how they will flesh out in time. It’s just a buzz – being part of a new Gusbourne vintage is something really special for everyone who works here.”
AJ agrees. “It’s an organoleptic thing,” he grins. “There’s a smell when the fruit comes in. You’ve got the aroma of fresh grapes in the air. To us, it’s the smell of excitement and potential. It’s galvanising.”
What about the actual approach to winemaking itself: has that changed along with the end of Charlie’s era in the winery? “The approach? Absolutely not,” says Mary. “We don’t compromise. On anything. We know what we’re trying to achieve, and we know how to go after it. We don’t cut corners; we’re careful and patient. And we let the fruit and the wine do their thing. We’re there to guide the process.”
It’s clear from AJ and Mary’s conversation, that this ethos of detail and rigour is as much a part of Gusbourne’s DNA as the chalk and the clay on which the vines grow. That’s not to say the team are winemaking to an unalterable script. Things evolve year on year; decisions must be made based on the vintage in front of them. But it’s the reasoning behind those decisions that remains constant.
AJ explains: “We select our yeasts carefully; we select our malolactic bugs carefully. We have barrel producers that we love working with, but we won’t always use the same barrels. This year, we’ve moved to using more puncheons [large-format barrels holding around 500l of wine] because we love the results we get with them.
“A huge part of the craft comes down to these decisions – knowing how to handle the different components. This is where you see evolution. We’re adapting our skills as to the wine we’re making.”
“It’s impossible to predict changes which will come down the line,” says Mary, “because we’re completely invested in the style of wine which we make right now. And I feel a sense of responsibility to stay true to it. Nothing should stay still, but we’re not about to make change for its own sake. Developments will come from our experiments; from pushing the details.
“For example, this year we’ve got more individual components than we’ve had before. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. To my mind, you need to keep everything separate as far as possible because you don’t know what you’re going to like and how that’s going to influence the blends.”
AJ agrees. “Mary and I have different focuses and responsibilities,” says AJ. “But one thing we share is that love of the detail. Picking things apart and trying to discover what it is that makes our sites better than any others in the country.”
This, after all, is the ultimate goal of winemaking no matter who is leading the team. “That's the point,” says Mary. “We want to show our terroir in the best possible light. That’s very much at the front of our minds.”
So, with a new year ahead, there is a sense of optimism and anticipation to see what this team – and the new vintage – is made of. “Everyone is feeling so positive,” says Mary. “We can’t wait to start putting the blends together. It’s going to be so exciting.”