In 2012, Charles and Ruth Simpson purchased 30 hectares of prime viticultural land in an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in Kent. The land lies in a hilly valley at Barham, beside Canterbury, and their dream was to make the very finest English sparkling wine.
But they are starting with an advantage, as they have been making wine at their Domaine Sainte Rose estate in the Languedoc since 2002; and nearly all their wine is sold in Naked Wines, Majestic and Waitrose. So they know their onions.
Ruth Simpson, explains: “We chose Kent for the site of our UK vineyard as it has the highest sunshine hours in the UK. This, we think is vital, as it gives our grapes time for the all-important process of photosynthesis, even in poorer summers. In particular, we selected Barham due to its proximity to the coast (8 miles), its altitude and its south-facing, free draining, chalky limestone soils. These factors are perfect for adding complexity to the grape varietals we grow – the famous trio from Champagne.”
Charles Simpson adds: “For some years we had been keeping an eye on developments in England and have always believed there to be an enormous opportunity to create top quality sparkling wine. In 2012, we were ready for our next challenge and felt excited about the idea of bringing our learnings and experience from France back home so that we can make wine in England. Our dream is now becoming a reality for us.”
The Simpsons have learnt a lot during their years making wine in the Languedoc. They cite adaptability and willingness to change plans or strategy as key to their success, coupled with planning for every eventuality. Both Charles and Ruth come from business backgrounds where they were used to being able to mitigate risk. Agricultural based businesses are different, as the weather so often intervenes; but they overcame this by planting several different grape varieties so that, in the event of a difficult harvest, they could still produce a consistent and attractive style of wine.
The Simpsons planted their first 10 hectares of Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir beside the Roman road at Barham in 2014. The sites occupy glorious positions on the sunny, sheltered slopes of the North Downs of Kent: And the initial plantings have been so successful that their French team from Domaine Sainte Rose will arrive to plant a further 10 hectares of the same varieties in 2016, and the final 10 hectares in Spring 2017.
Charles continues: “The finest wines convey a rich sense of provenance, firmly rooted in the characteristics and exquisite nuances of their terroir. This was front of mind when selecting the land in Kent on which to plant vines for our Simpsons sparkling wine. On our French wine estate, in the Languedoc region, we have always pursued the cleaner, truer flavours of each grape variety, and we are now bringing this savoir faire to southern England.
“We are both great proponents of the two red Champagne grape varieties. Whereas some English wineries are focused on Chardonnay to produce beautiful Blanc de Blancs, we will be looking to use our red grapes, the Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, to create elegant, rich, complex Blanc de Noirs. That is where our passion lies.”
In addition to the vineyards, the team are about to embark on the restoration of two barns they have purchased in the village, equidistant between the two vineyards, turning them into a state-of-the-art winery and modern tasting room. DEFRA funding is imminent and once it is confirmed, the conversion will be full steam ahead, with the winery due for completion around Autumn this year, when the Simpsons will hand harvest their first grapes. Their first bottles of Simpson’s Sparkling wines are due to be released in 2018 and expected to sell for around £35.
Talking about plans for the future, Ruth says, “Our goal for the Simpsons Wine Estate wines is to sell not only to the home market, but for export as well. We have the advantage of having established
clients and a fixed route to market in many export markets; and we intend to be ambassadors for this new and exciting wine sector in the countries where it has not yet been discovered.
“Once our Simpson’s brand is established and we are selling all of our potential production, we might consider purchasing more land if appropriate sites became available.”
To sum up, the Simpsons have the following advice for others keen to follow their lead: “When we first had the idea of entering the wine industry, the advice we received was to go & lie down in a dark room until the thought passed! But we didn’t; and we are really enjoying being part of this great movement.
“Our advice? This is an expensive industry with intensive initial investment and start-up costs, before seeing any return on that investment. So do your cost research well. Make sure you have a long term investment plan and focus. And find a way to set yourself apart from the crowd. It’s hard work, but it is immensely rewarding when you are able to sample the fruits of your labour! And, come 2018, I shall be able to say: Now where’s my bottle of Simpson’s?”