Tuesday, 17 May 2016

The irrestistible rise of English wines

Something happened a few months ago, back in the dark days of December, something that had been whispered about for years. If you aren’t a keen follower of UK wine trade news you might have missed it, but the fact is that a Champagne house has finally invested in English vineyard land.

Taittinger, one of the most well-respected family-owned Champagne houses, has purchased 69 hectares of land in Kent, which will be planted with the three classic Champagne varieties of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, with the aim of eventually producing 300,000 bottles a year of sparkling wine to be marketed under the name Domaine Evremond. Taittinger is the largest investor in the project, which also involves Hatch Mansfield, their UK importer, as well as other investors.

While the launch of a new English vineyard dedicated to producing high quality sparkling wine is not exactly news nowadays, the fact that the money and expertise behind it comes from Champagne itself is highly significant. For English wine production to gain the seal of approval of a major Champagne name marks an important milestone for the industry.

Overseas investment by the Champenois is not new: Champagne houses have expanded their businesses and extended their brands by investing in the New World over the past decades. For example, Roederer Quartet is Champagne Louis Roederer’s Californian venture; Moët & Chandon has established Domaine Chandon in Australia and Chandon in California. Rumours have swirled around the English wine industry of interest from our friends across the Channel, but, until now, that’s all they have been.

As well as appreciating the boost that outside investment provides for our home-grown wines, we should also recognise the financial realities behind this decision to invest in English vineyards – it’s a pre-requisite that the investors have to believe in the potential to make a high quality product which will be worthy of the Champagne Taittinger name. But it is also true that expanding production via investment in this country is considerably easier and cheaper than it is back in Champagne. There, a hectare of land will cost in excess of 1 million Euros, up to 1.8 million Euros for the very best, Grand Cru, sites. Compare that with an average price here of around £25,000 (a little over 31,000 Euros). Though we don’t know how much Taittinger and the other investors paid for their particular patch of Kent apple orchard, and it is reported to amount to a multi million pound investment over ten years, it will still be many times cheaper than the equivalent in Champagne.

In addition, the currently approved land which is authorised to grow grapes for Champagne is in effect fully planted, so there is just not the same opportunity to buy vineyard land there in the first place. And when a Champagne grower wants to sell up, it’s a seller’s market, hence the stratospheric prices.

So Taittinger’s investment in old Blighty is in part a touching act of faith in the long term potential for English wine – but it is also a hard-headed, prudent way for a growing business to expand in a financially viable way.  As for the wine itself, it will be a decade or more before we get to taste the fruits of Domaine Evremond – sparkling wine is a game that requires both deep pockets and patience.

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