The famous Champagne house of Taittinger, together with other investors including one of the UK's major wine merchants, Hatch Mansfield, will establish a vineyard and winery in Kent to produce English Sparkling Wine. This brave move on the part of one of France's oldest wine companies - founded in 1734 - and still run by members of the original founding family - reinforces the position that is building for English Sparkling Wine as one of the world's finest bottle-fermented sparkling wines.
The vineyard will be planted with the three classic Champagne varieties - Chardonnay, Pinot noir and Meunier - and the project will be managed by Taittinger's long-standing Director of Viticulture, Vincent Collard, and Stephen Skelton MW, the UK's leading viticulturalist. In time, the winemaking will be overseen by Champagne Taittinger in a new facility yet to be built. Some planting will take place in 2016, with the majority in 2017. The first wines due for sale in around 2022. You can download the official press release here (1.2MB DOCX file) and also visit the Website: www.domaineevremond.com
Stephen Skelton with Vincent Collard and Franck Mazy
Most new vineyards start with a telephone call or an email. 'I own some land and have been told it might be suitable for a vineyard' is a typical opener and from that, a site visit is set up and the project starts. Only once in my forty-plus years in the UK vineyard business has it been 'Hi Stephen, I am the MD of a substantial UK wine wholesalers and we are looking to establish a 100-acre vineyard in conjunction with a Champagne house we represent to produce top-quality English Sparkling Wine'. Thus started Domaine Evremond.
The call on 1 November 2013 from a friend and fellow MW, Patrick Mc Grath, MD of Hatch Mansfield Agencies Ltd, part owned by the Kobrand Corporation (owners of Burgundy producer Louis Jadot and US agents for many famous wine and spirit brands) and Viña Errazuriz (one of Chile's largest wine producers) was an interesting proposition. Here was someone deeply involved with selling wine, including one of the world's best known Champagne brands, Taittinger, asking me if I was interested in talking about establishing a UK vineyard. This needed only one reply. YES.
Hatch Mansfield sold the wines from the famous Welsh vineyard of Castle Coch in the late 1800s
Over the subsequent weeks and months, meetings took place, budgets were prepared and discussed; prepared again and discussed some more and eventually put to the Hatch board. Only when the project met their approval did it go to the next stage. Was Champagne Taittinger interested in becoming involved? A presentation on the prospects for English Sparkling Wine was prepared and sent to Taittinger and on 8 April 2014, after a visit and a lunch in Paris, the project receive the green light from Pierre-Emanuel Taittinger and his board. The hunt for land could start.
Over the next 12 months, sites were looked at and discussed and mainly rejected. One site got the partial go-ahead until test holes were dug and the French decided they didn't like Wealden clay. Eventually, on 6 March 2015, some land between Selling and Chilham, around 7 miles west of Canterbury and 6 miles south of the Thames Estuary, came up for sale. This part of Kent really is the 'Garden of England'. It is surrounded on two sides by water and sheltered from the prevailing south-west winds by the North Downs. These run from Farnham in the west to Dover in the east where they emerge as the famous 'White Cliffs'. This region has always had a great reputation for its hops and its soft and top fruit: apples and pears, cherries, plums and gages, raspberries and strawberries. Why? Because the land is generally free-draining, frost-free and benefits from the warming effect of the surrounding seas.
Once again, soil samples were taken and visits were made. This time, the French soil scientist used by Taittinger, Franck Mazy, together with Taittinger's vineyard manager Vincent Collard (responsible for 285-ha of vines) came over and approved the site. Then a site plan marked with copious 'Xs' arrived from Epernay. Could we please dig around 60 holes each at least 1 metre deep and wide enough to climb into? A JCB was hired and holes were dug. More visits, more soil samples. At long last, the site received approval from Champagne Taittinger.
Whilst the hole digging and soil sampling were going on, negotiations with the owners of the land progressed. The site we wanted was in two lots. One was for sale outright. The other was for sale subject to being leased back to the vendors as it had some young fruit trees they wished to take crops from. Negotiations continued aided by a partner from Strutt and Parker in Canterbury. Eventually, after some time, a contract was signed and exchanged on Friday 16 October 2015 and on Monday 16 November 2015 the purchase was completed. (It should have been Friday 13 Nov, but was delayed owing to some superstitious investors). The company that bought the land and will develop the project is majority owned by Champagne Taittinger, with smaller shareholdings owned by Hatch Mansfield and other investors.
Castle Coch today
The plan is to plant around 27-ha (68-acres) in 2017 with a mixture of Chardonnay (40%) Pinot noir (40%) and Meunier (20%). All will be on chalk-tolerant rootstocks such as Fercal and 41B, although Gravesac might be used on some of the parcels where a gravel seam runs through the land. Clones have yet to be selected, but will probably be a selection of clones approved by the CIVC (Comité interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne) and sparkling wine and Burgundy clones used successfully in other UK vineyards. Vine density will be 5,000 per hectare, planted at 2.00 m row width and 1.00 m intervine distance. A six-wire vertically shoot positioned trellis will be used. Additional land is available to be planted on the site.
Domaine Evremond is undoubtedly the most exciting project I have worked on. Typically vineyard owners have no idea of what their establishment costs will be, what their cost of production will be and lastly where they will sell it. Without knowing all of these they also have no idea what their income will be. With this project we have the experience of Hatch Mansfield, an £82 m turnover company with a pre-tax profit of £2.7 m and already selling over 1 m bottles of a top quality Champagne - Taittinger - in the UK; the viticultural and winemaking experience of one of Champagne's best-known grand marques making around 5.5 m bottles a year; and the added bonus of investors with wine business interests and distribution capabilities in both the US and South America. My own contribution based upon 40+ years of growing vines in the UK will, I hope, also be a useful addition to the mix.
The plan is to produce a non-vintage classic cuvée using the three Champagne grapes in both white and rosé versions. Initially winemaking services may be contracted elsewhere, but by the time the first wines are for sale, it is hoped that there will be a winery and visitor centre on-site.
This really THE most important development in the history of modern UK wine production. Apart from the symbolic significance of a top-notch French wine company investing hard-earned Euros in the UK in an enterprise to produce a sparkling wine which is in competition with their own product, it shows a belief in a wine producing region which is barely out of nappies, but one whose wines have been consistently winning awards and medals in international competitions for over 20 years.
Charles de Saint-Evremond
Charles de Marguetel de Saint-Denis, Seigneur de Saint-Evremond (1613-1703, known usually as Charles de Saint-Evremond, was a French soldier of some repute who eventually fell out with Louis XIV and fled to London (via Holland) where he was 'kindly received' by Charles II who gave him a pension. Although he was a writer (mainly of poetry), he never authorised any of his work to be published during his lifetime and appears to have spent much of his time in the company of Hortense Mancini who 'set up a salon for love-making, gambling and witty conversation'.
It was here that Saint-Evremond appears to have been at home. Saint-Evremond was also known as an 'epicurean' and when living in France, had been one of a group who wore the blue ribbon of the Order of the Holy Spirit and gave rise to the term 'Cordon Bleu' cookery. This group considered the wines of Champagne some of France's finest and helped promote them whenever they could.
When living in London, Saint-Evremond introduced what was then a still wine, not sparkling, to several of the nobility and fashionable men in London and helped promote its sale. He was horrified to find the practice in England at the time was to add molasses and sugar to still Champagne to increase the sparkle. However in time he came to appreciate these sparkling Champagnes and before he died described the ideal wine as: 'neither too flat nor too bubbly. It should be slightly cremant with a natural froth which decorates the surface with tiny bubbles.' He is buried in Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey.
Champagne - Still or Sparkling?
It was only following the death of Louis XIV in 1715 that the sparkling version of Champagne became drunk at all, mainly because the French Regent, the Duke of Orléans, enjoyed the sparkling version of Champagne and 'featured it at his nightly petits soupers at the Palais-Royal'. However, sparkling Champagne was not universally popular and at the end of the 1700s, 90% of Champagne was a still pale rosé wine. I have a wine list from a Bordeaux merchant dated 1760 which lists both still and sparkling Champagne. As fashions changed and as wine bottles became stronger and more able to withstand the pressures of the secondary fermentation due to better designs and better production methods - using coal instead of charcoal - sparkling Champagne became a much more reliable and consistent product. This enabled the larger Champagne houses to market their wines overseas as their wines did not deteriorate so quickly owing the preservative effect of the carbon dioxide trapped in the wine.