Located near the small village of Barham, just a few miles from the cathedral city of Canterbury lies one of the Englands newest vineyards. Founded by Charles and Ruth Simpson, Simpsons Wine Estate is the second of their properties, the first being the successful Domaine Sainte Rose (www.sainterose.com) in Languedoc with it’s 320 days of sunshine a year. You you may have tasted the wines already being available in Waitress, Majestic or via Naked Wines. Choosing to expand their portfolio to the UK with its marginal climate might seem a strange move but one founded on logic and hopefully for them perfect timing.
I had the opportunity to taste a broad range of the Sainte Rose wines after my tour and was impressed particularly with the Barrel Selection Roussanne with its ageing potential (which reminded me that I have quite a few Marsannes from Chateau Tahbilk in the cellar to drink) and the Les Derniers Cepages which is an unusual mix of Petit Verdot and Mouvedre which I loved. Ruth explained that the locals thought they were a little odd in marrying a Bordeaux and Rhone variety together but soon realised that they could complement each other. Their sparkling wines gave an insight of what was to come with two tasted, albeit totally different. The estate Vin de Mousseux Rose 2013 had a wonderful acidity that would be perfect for a hot summers day whilst the white Vin de Mousseux 2013 was softer and creamier and perfect as an aperitif or dare I say it with a curry. From the rest of the range I really enjoyed the Le Pinacle Syrah made to the Cote Rotie style with 5% Viognier added for aromatics and aged for around 12 months in oak barrels.
I was keen to meet the entrepreneurial couple who took the brave decision 14 years ago to sell their London flat, get a bank loan and purchase a beautiful Chateaux in Languedoc to start their own winery. This really is how to live your dream. Of course, it was incredibly hard work to get established and build the business but after 6 years they began to make money and have continued to do so. It would be easy to fall into a life of contentment but being in their mid-forties that really was not an option so the idea of expansion was discussed. They did not wish to do this in the Languedoc as what challenge would that provide? Instead, they chose the UK and through an article in Decanter magazine and a subsequent discussion with the property agents Strutt and Parker they purchased a plot of land in Barham.
Ten hectares were originally planted by the same team they use in the Languedoc as those based in the UK where significantly more expensive making that option unviable. Planted with the three Champagne varietals Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier the first harvest will be in October this year. In addition to the land, the Simpsons also acquired 2 barns which they are in the process of converting to a state of the art winery with a tasting room on a mezzanine floor overlooking it. It will be very impressive once complete and be equidistant between the current plot and another ten hectares they have just planted having witnessed the success of the first. This will further be complemented by a final ten hectares in 2017.
The Simpsons are an understated couple, modest and make no claims as to the exceptional quality they hope to achieve. They are passionate about wine, their business, and their family. They strive to make fantastic wine but are grafters and know all too well that the commercial side of the business is just as important as the romantic wine making side of it. Ruth reminisced a time where they mentor, the pioneer of Chardonnay in the Languedoc, James Herrick pointed out to them when pruning that it was still during the working day in the Far East and they should be making sales calls. Without those they would not be there for the following years harvest. It is this understanding of business, coupled with Charles’ background in marketing and Ruth’s as a humanitarian (she worked for a time at the lottery commission deciding how much funding should go to which charity based on their business plan) that they have every chance to make this a stand out winery in England over the next few years.
We can sit down and intellectualize about a wine and to some extent that is fun (and educational) but ultimately it should be about enjoyment. I am sure you have enjoyed a wine abroad that was very inexpensive and consumed whilst looking out to an incredible vista with a turquoise ocean. That provides an emotional state of mind that is not replicated necessarily back at home where the wine tastes quite ordinary. So by having an emotional attachment be it historical, business, or simply of passion it can play a huge part in your enjoyment of a wine. Just read the back labels of countless bottles if wine to witness them trying to establish this connection and paint a picture. If you can back this up with what is in the bottle and produce wines that are stand-alone good anywhere in the world then you have real quality. This is what I envisage for Simpsons having tasted the Sainte Rose wines. They have the knowledge, experience and the site (not all recent big name start up vineyards have been planted on suitable land I am led to believe) to create an exceptional wine.
I am fortunate to live in Kent and will be following them closely over the next few years with multiple visits to document their journey. It will not be easy running the two estates but with the harvests separated it should be very possible to work both at the same time. It is 14 hours door to door by car or a short hop from Stansted or Gatwick. Flying wine makers indeed.