The Sparkling Wine phenomenon turning the UK into a world viticulture hotspot
Vineyards appear to be popping up on a near-monthly basis across the south of Britain, with Champagne houses now getting in on the act. Falstaff spoke with Patrick McGrath, managing director of Hatch Mansfield, about Domaine Evremond.
It was around 70 years ago that Major-General Sir Arthur Guy Salisbury-Jones planted an acre of vines in Hambledon, Hampshire, the former head of the post-World War Two British Military Mission in France having developed a love for all things Gallic. It produced its first crop in 1954 and is seen as the first commercial vineyard in England.
Fast forward to 2023 and there are now more than 50 wineries in Kent alone, and it’s not just England producing high-quality wines, with Wales weighing in with their fair share of award-winning beverages; only recently, Velfrey Vineyard in Pembrokeshire was named Small Drink Producer of the Year in the prestigious Wales Food and Drink Awards 2023.
One of the newest additions to Kent’s viticulture scene is Domaine Evremond: in October 2015, Champagne Taittinger joined forces with wine distributor Hatch Mansfield in the purchase of around 70 hectares of land in the garden of England near Chilham, with the first bottles of their English sparkling wine expected to be on the shelves in time for Christmas 2024.
Falstaff chatted to Patrick McGrath (PM), managing director of Hatch Mansfield, about the project, and how teamwork is key to a development that has seen Taittinger become the first Champagne house to plant a vineyard in a region whose chalk soil has the same geological structure as the famous ‘Côte des Blancs’ in Champagne.
Falstaff: How important was it to locate the vineyard in Kent?
PM: We focused on Kent to buy land because it is the garden of England in terms of fruit, and that is where we wanted to be. The soil was particularly important; we wanted to plant on chalk because it’s the same soil as they have in Champagne. But it is still a marginal climate, so you have to be really selective in terms of where you plant; you have to be below 100m [altitude], you have to focus on south/south west facing slopes, so you can’t just plant anywhere. And, as well as being the garden of England – the best fruit in the country is grown in Kent – there is also the benefit location-wise: it’s close to the Channel Tunnel which is helpful with the Taittinger team coming back and forth.
How did the project come about?
We’ve been the UK agents for Taittinger since 1998 so we have a very strong friendship with them. The project was an idea between myself and Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger – we are very good friends and it came from there. It’s worked pretty well, we’re all on a learning curve. The Taittinger viticulture team come over pretty regularly and the Taittinger viticulturist Christelle (Rinville) has a very strong relationship with Mark Gaskain, who we bought the land from, and who looks after the vines. It’s a real joint partnership.
Climate change seems to be high up in everyone’s thoughts – what effect has it had on the wine industry?
We are all very worried about climate change but English viticulture is benefitting because our summers are getting warmer. There’s been some very good [English] wines made in the last 20 or 30 years, but even 20 years ago people didn’t really take it seriously, but the turning point was probably 2003 when we had the very warm summer and we’ve definitely seen a change in climate. Champagne is probably benefitting from climate change, at the moment, in that there are fewer frosts, although the frost risk can go up, but the warmer climate is definitely benefitting the English wine market. Sparkling wines especially, but there are some very good still wines being made in England and Wales.
Does the weather keep you awake at night?
From November to the end of March, you don’t have to think about it – it’s cold and the vines are asleep and you don’t have to worry about it. Around April when the buds burst and there may be a frost about, I become a bit of a weather bore. But now, across the whole of Europe the frost risk has become much worse because we’re getting much warmer Marches. Traditionally, it would be cold throughout the whole of March, but now you can get a warm spell in March, the buds start to develop and then you get a cold snap. Europe had a terrible frost in 2021 and France [vineries], especially the south of France, were devastated by that frost.
There are already several vineyards in Kent – is there a healthy rivalry in the county?
We invited all the wineries in Kent to come up to the Evremond launch and that was the catalyst to set up a group – the Wine Garden of England group – and we have eight wineries all working together: we have tastings, go on visits together, and it’s a very strong collaboration and friendship. It is definitely friendship rather than rivalry.
How soon will the new winery be open?
I’m there [on site] at least every two weeks now that things are hotting up. The building project is underway and the winery should be finished by November. We were hoping to have it finished for this harvest (October) but it won’t be so we’ve got a temporary winery and we’ll be doing the 2023 harvest in the temporary winery again because we’ve had various delays due to the weather and things like that … it’s just due to bad luck we’re missing it by about 3-4 weeks but its fine, our temporary winery has served us well for the last three years.
Is it all hands to the pumps during harvesting?
The farm was formerly a fruit farm – apples and pears mainly – so there was already a big labour force. They start on the pears, the apples, then go to the grapes, then back to the later apples, so we are fortunate there is already a labour force at hand. The apple harvesting is going on all around us, but there’s a team of about 50/60 picking grapes and we all get involved. Some of the team from Hatch Mansfield come down and get involved. Once they are harvested, all by hand, the grapes go to our winery where they are crushed and then they are fermented – the fermentation takes 10-12 days – they are bottled and we add a tiny bit of yeast and sugar into the bottle to create the secondary fermentation. They are left for two-and-a-half/three years.
Have the community been supportive of the project?
We’ve had great support from the community of Chilham. The locals have set up a wine bar in the centre of Chilham and because we are based in the area, we’ve given a small contribution which is great because the Tudor Peacock [wine bar, opening October] will be selling English still and sparkling wines; we are very much part of the community so we made a small investment in it. We have become close to the people who run it, we’ve become mates, and we’re happy to support them. The Tudor Peacock will definitely be selling Evremond wines.
And is everything on course for the first production?
September/October 2024 has always been the planned date. It’s a non-vintage blend so it will be 2020 grapes with a small amount of 2019 in it.