World class sparkling wine

Features Posted 31/05/17
Charles and Ruth Simpson wrote their winemaking business plan while living in an ex KGB building on the banks of the Caspian Sea.

Just as the finest wines result from a careful blending of the right varieties of grape, good businesses benefit from a combination of skills, experience and entrepreneurial flair.

For Charles and Ruth Simpson, who wrote their winemaking business plan while living in an ex-KGB building in Azerbaijan, on the banks of the Caspian Sea, their latest venture brings together all those things – and more.

And if it seems remarkable that, with a well-established vineyard and winery in France’s Languedoc region, they should choose to grow grapes in east Kent, the move surely represents that other vital ingredient – the business acumen needed to stay ahead of the game.

“There is a huge buzz around English wine at the moment and it is clear that the market is set to grow considerably,” explained Charles, who founded Simpsons Wine Estate at Barham in Kent with wife Ruth in 2012 and planted the first grapes there in 2014.

“This part of the world has the same geology as the Champagne region on the other side of the Channel, with that all-important chalk layer just 30 to 40cms below the soil.

“With the climate in Champagne threatening to become too warm to produce world class sparkling wine, this country has a huge opportunity to make and sell Méthode Traditionnelle wines that rival – or beat – the best. Blind tastings have proved time and time again that English sparkling wine is not just catching up, but has overtaken many of the established marques.

“We also think we will have a slight benefit over vineyards in Sussex because crops tend to ripen from east to west, which may give us up to a week’s grace, either to benefit from extra sunshine or to stay ahead of wet weather during the harvest. When you are growing in a marginal climate, these small advantages can make the difference.”

Charles and Ruth’s confidence in English wine, the local geology, the site at Barham and the changing climate is such that Simpsons Wine Estate is the first large-scale commercial vineyard to have been planted in east Kent.

But they are in good company. No less a giant than French marque Tattinger has now bought land in nearby Chilham, while Champagne Pommery has teamed up with the Hattingly Valley vineyard in Hampshire. “The French have recognised the benefits of this part of the world, which proves we are right to have invested here,” said Ruth. “Apart from anything else, a hectare of land in Champagne – if you can even find one – costs a million Euro. Over here it’s closer to £30,000.”

The French clearly recognise that the UK is a big market for sparkling wine – and they don’t want to miss out on that audience. As Ruth commented: “I think some of the Champagne producers are starting to get worried about just how good English wine is these days – and they want to stake their claim on the future.”

It is, of course, about more than just the ‘terroir’, that combination of aspect, soil, sun, moon, climate and ‘je ne sais quoi’ that the French believe says so much about a wine but is so difficult to translate adequately into English.

What it also needs is experience – but Ruth and Charles have plenty of that after 15 years of successful wine making in the Languedoc – something that will also give Simpsons Wine Estate ready access to buyers who know and respect the reputation they have developed at Domaine de Sainte Rose.

It’s clear that not everyone can simply buy a south facing field on chalky soil and expect to cash in on the growing demand for English sparkling wine, but the Simpsons’ have developed their skills, found the right expert help and proved they know their wine.

They also know that it’s not easy. After almost perfect conditions in 2016, when they had too few vines in the ground to take full advantage of the weather, this year’s late frost has given growers in general a bit of a hangover.

“But that’s to be expected when working in a marginal climate,” Charles explained. “Our business plan includes the likelihood of two crops in ten being hit by poor weather. True, we’d like the first of them to have come a bit later than year two, but we know it’s going to happen and we don’t think our vines suffered too much.”

What is also true, though, is the growing interest in English wine and the potential there is to capitalise on the market.

“In France, something like 98% of the wine they drink is French, whereas over here, at least 98% of what we drink is imported,” said Charles. “We drink a tiny amount of home-grown wine and that can only increase.

“We will never get to 98% because as a nation we love importing food and wine and sampling the best that other countries can produce, but the best estimate is that the potential market is for 30% of the wine we drink to be English– and that’s a huge increase.”

Charles points to New Zealand as an example of what is possible in the world of wine. “New Zealand wine was undrinkable 30 years ago but now has an excellent reputation and is widely exported.

“We can, and will, do the same over here. Ten years ago people would have laughed at us for buying land in Kent to grow grapes on, but they aren’t laughing now – and when even the French growers are following suit it’s clearly a smart move.”

When it comes to supporting the expansion of the industry, it’s not just a question of growing more grapes, of course, but of making the wine, and that needs specialist equipment and – more investment – in buildings.

“There are some good wineries over here that will take in other growers’ grapes and produce wine, but we are used to being in control of the whole process back in the Languedoc and we wanted to stay in control here,” explained Ruth.

“There were two barns for sale close to the land at Barham that gave us a good starting point, but we needed a lot of work done on the site, together with a third building,” she went on.

“Fortunately we found just the company to help us just a few hundred yards away in the shape of A R Davies Farm Services.

“Not only are they so close that they usually find it quicker to walk here than drive over, they have proved invaluable in being able to tackle all the work we needed doing, from erecting an entire new building to building a mezzanine floor, sorting out drainage and electrics and plenty of other smaller but equally vital jobs.”

As Charles added: “When you are in a new area it’s sometimes difficult to know where to go for expert help; to find your neighbours can tackle everything you throw at them and do so efficiently and quickly is a major benefit.”

The couple recently planted 40,000 vines on their third 10-hectare tranche at Barham, taking the total area to 30 hectares, enough to produce an estimated 250,000 bottles of wine at full maturity. They grow various clones of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes on two different rootstocks, Fercal and 41b.

The first Simpsons Wine Estate still wine, released at the London Wine Fair in May, is The Roman Road Chardonnay, made from last year’s harvest and taken from vines planted in 2014. Charles and Ruth make their wines with the support of consultant oenologist Leigh Sparrow, who has worked with the couple in France for many years and is a vital part of the operation.

“We wanted to set aside a small quantity of Chardonnay to make our first still wine from the estate and we are very happy with the result,” said Charles. While the quantity is small - only 680 bottles have been produced – the quality is said to be very high, reflecting last summer’s ‘textbook’ conditions and, of course, the chalk-based Barham ‘terroir’ that adds “minerality and finesse”.

Only those fortunate enough to have tasted it will know if it justifies Charles’ claim that England is currently “the most exciting wine area in the world,” but he and Ruth have probably seen enough of it to judge. Despite both being essentially home-grown themselves, they have spent far longer out of the country than in it, and moving to Barham marked a return to the UK. Even now they split their time between here and their vineyard and winery at Domaine Sainte Rose.

Ruth’s family hails from Scotland, where her mother’s side of the family has been making whisky for 125 years, giving her an insight into the alcohol business even if the process is completely different.

Although born in Sussex of Northern Irish parents, Charles left for New Zealand with his family at the age of 10 and later found himself in the USA working for big pharmaceutical companies including GlaxoSmithKline. Ruth, meanwhile, began a career in humanitarian aid on behalf of international agencies and also found herself in a number of different countries.

After getting together in the UK, Charles was posted to Azerbaijan and Georgia, where Ruth also found opportunities to pursue her career.

It was in 1999, recently married and living in an ex-KGB building, that they decided to take stock of their lives and plan a different career together. “We both felt it was time for a change and so we went through the options,” said Charles.

“I’m not sure exactly how we ended up picking wine-making, but having done that we decided that the way to be successful was to do it in a different part of the world, somewhere that was up and coming but where we would have a chance of a head start.

“Our options included western Australia, central New Zealand and one of the less fashionable parts of France, the Languedoc Roussillon, where the industry is less controlled and we felt we had a chance to succeed.

“We set off on our global due diligence tour of the world’s fringe wine-making areas and when we reached the Languedoc we simply fell in love with it.”

The Simpsons put down roots, learned all there was to know about making wine (“a lot of it’s just about cleaning things,” admitted Charles) renovated the winery and re-planted half of their total 40 hectares under vine at Domaine de Sainte Rose – enough to make 350,000 to 400,000 bottles a year.

Their venture succeeded to the point where they now supply Waitrose, Majestic and Naked Wines with a broad range of reds, whites, rosé and Méthode Traditionnelle sparking wines. “It took about five years to make any money and even then we had to reinvest much of it in replanting vines and upgrading equipment, but the business succeeded and encouraged us to look for the next challenge – wine from Kent,” said Charles.

“It’s a fascinating business because it brings together everything from farming and science to production, marketing, logistics, sales and a whole range of other skills. It’s rare in farming to take a product all the way from plant to shelf – but that’s what we do, and we love it.”

In 2012 they saw the Barham site advertised and became owners of two plots, now named the Roman Road site and Railway Hill. “It was the first land in the UK that was actively marketed as suitable for viticulture, which was a smart move – although we didn’t fall for the premium price,” recalled Ruth.

A year later they began work on the vineyard and moved to the UK, leaving the site in France in the safe hands of a full time estate manager while continuing to return regularly.

They planted their first 10 hectares on the Roman Road site before taking on the barns in 2014 and beginning work on the winery – supported by a helpful Rural Development Programme for Europe (RDPE) grant - ready for the first harvest in 2016.

Both the second, and the more recent third tranches of new vines were planted on Railway Hill, completing the planting of the 30 hectares now under vine and setting the scene for what Ruth and Charles are convinced will be outstanding English wines.

As well as oenologist Leigh, they have the backing of New Zealand-born estate manager Darryl Kemp, Italian cellar hand, Andrea Bontempo, sales and events executive Ashleigh Keech and office manager Helen Power.

“It’s quite a team and together we are determined to make Simpsons Wine Estate a force to be reckoned with,” added Ruth.

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