England has been described as “the world’s most exciting cool-climate region.” Yet, when leading Kent wine producers Ruth and Charles Simpson talk about England’s reputation for coolness, they’re referencing the word’s other meaning.
English wine is peng, pukka, and primo.
This description came from one of Simpson Wine Estate’s biggest export customers: the Norwegian government wine monopoly. Last November, a Simpsons wine tasting organised by the monopoly completely sold out, with many further hopeful attendees sitting on a waiting list. The previous week, a tasting of a top Italian wine had attracted just twelve guests. “It’s because English wine is cool,” explained the monopoly’s wine buyer.
If you’re from the UK and that surprises you, don’t worry you’re not alone, but you are behind the curve. English wine has achieved far greater acceptance in Scandinavia than it has even in its home country, where many are yet to overcome their cultural cringe.
Charles Simpson explains: “the big difference with state monopolies like the one in Norway is that they have to offer choice. The consumer is the taxpayer and there’s nothing worse than travelling the world, discovering an amazing wine, but not being able to buy it when you get home.
“So as soon as England became recognised, they had to have listings, which gave a totally level playing field on which English wines could compete. The rest of the world is not a level playing field – there are all sorts of biases against us.
The problem is that the still wines are so popular that they sell out long before the following vintage wines are ready, and then the estate is under pressure to release them sooner than they would like. It’s a good problem to have, and one they aim to address as new vineyards come on stream and the sparkling wines become better known in England.
Picking up the award for Best English Sparkling Wine at the Champagne and Sparkling Wine World Championships earlier this year will surely help. That was their 2018 Flint Fields Blanc de Noir – as of writing, there are a few bottles left (we’ve already got our case, cheers!).
On the still front, an exciting recent release was the estate’s Q Class Pinot and Chardonnay. If there are wines more reminiscent of Premier Cru Burgundy currently being made in the UK, we’re yet to taste them. Perhaps it’s lucky that the wine will be made only in superior years – yes in 2020, no in 2021 and (probably) yes in 2022.
So what’s the story? How has Simpsons Estate managed to produce and find markets for both world-class sparkling and still wines, where others are still at the start of their journey with one or the other?
The answer is that nothing has been left to chance.
In an industry where new vineyards are being planted all the time, often by people with little previous experience of viticulture, Ruth and Charles are the opposite. They’re heavyweights with a long track record of successfully producing and selling wines from their excellent Domaine de Sainte Rose estate in the south of France.
The Simpsons didn’t choose the location of their vineyards near Canterbury in Kent by accident – their analysis was that the further east you could go in England, the warmer and drier the summers would be. With the sea just a few miles away on three sides, winters would be mild and less prone to frost. Add in south-facing slopes and chalk-dominated soils, and every box of top-quality English wine potential has been ticked.
And they did their research.
As Charles puts it: “the problem with English still wine is that it has aromatics in bucketloads, but when we first decided to come to England, we found many examples were hollow mid-palate and overtly acidic in the finish. Tasting through what was then being produced, we poured a lot of wine down the sink.
“Since we always planned to make both still and sparkling wines, our goal from day one was to find grape growing and winemaking techniques to fill in the mid-palate and soften the acidity. That starts with having the right grapes planted in the vineyard.”
This meant planting the same types of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir found in Burgundy for Simpsons’ still wines and the same found in Champagne for their sparkling wines (a choice known in the industry as clonal selection). Committing to both still and sparkling from the outset also meant investing in the different items of winemaking equipment most suitable for each type of production.
“We are also systematic about tracking ripeness. We know down to the individual picking bin how ripeness levels vary and track it year to year. We learn and get consistently better and better results. It’s both art and science,” says Charles.
“Our team is diverse: 50/50 male/female and from all over the world. We’re keen backers of social causes and encourage the whole team to get behind them.
“We’re still catching up in the UK in some areas. At our winery in France for example, companies will collect your pressed grape skins (known as ‘marc’) to turn them into industrial alcohol. This doesn’t exist in the UK, so we had to think of other things to do with the marc.
“We gave it to a local farmer for a while, who fed it to his cattle, so that was interesting. As of last year, we now have compost heaps, but grape skins take years to break down, so we had to do something to kick-start the process. We partnered with a local zoo who supply us with elephant poo and after a year, we’ll be able to fertilize back into the fields.” Is that English innovation or what?
There’s one more aspect to the Simpsons’ success that shouldn’t be overlooked, which is that they’re brilliant at telling their story.
Search online for Simpsons Wine Estate, and you’ll notice that many profiles contain the same stand-out phrases like ‘savoir-faire’. It isn’t an accident.
Ruth and Charles are serious about turning their estate into one of the country’s most acclaimed and qualitative brands in its field – a vinous equivalent of Rolls Royce, Princess Yachts, or Paul Smith. It’s quite an ambition but one that, given the quality of their wines, you wouldn’t bet against them achieving.
Reaching those heights will require an unyielding commitment to maintaining quality levels, and a relentlessness in the way they communicate their brand to the market – hence the repetition of ‘savior-faire’.
We should all hope they manage it – not just because we’ll get to enjoy some fabulous English wines from their estate, but also because alongside a select group of high-quality English producers, they’ll bring the rest of the industry along on their coat tails.
Now that would be cool.
Images by Andrew Hayes-Watkins, Dan Wilton and Thomas Alexander
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