LAST Friday the day job took me to visit the vineyards of Chapel Down in Kent. The visit left me with no end of ideas and information and spurred me into action.
I have always been a sceptic about English wine. Let’s face it, we live far closer to the Arctic than the Equator and grapes are simply not meant to grow here to any great size or quantity. I admire English winemakers for their tenacity and determination but, to paraphrase one of Dr Johnson’s more offensive aphorisms, they are rather like dogs walking on their hind legs – you don’t marvel at how well they do it but that they do it at all.
After visiting Chapel Down, England’s largest winery, to meet its genial chief executive Frazer Thompson, I may have to revise my opinions. Located in Tenterden, one of the loveliest corners of England, it has spent the past decade transforming itself from a novelty into a business.
Until he joined Chapel Down, Frazer was a high flyer at Heineken. He arrived to find a cottage industry, selling 25,000 bottles of a passable sparkling wine a year for £5.99 a bottle, with creditors baying at the door. A decade later they are selling 500,000 at £20 a bottle.
“The most important thing we ever did was increase the price,” he admits. “It meant people took us seriously.”
He has steadily eradicated the mildly amateurish quirkiness from the business. The odd middle European grapes have gone, to be replaced by the more familiar Chardonnay and Pinots. The jocular names “Curious Grape” have also been shunted aside.
I tasted a bright Blanc de Blancs sparkling, a fresh and fruity Oakes Chardonnay and, most surprisingly, a Pinot Noir, grown on the rare chalk downs nearby. One of Chapel Down's greatest assets is Kit's Coty, the nearby south facing chalk vineyard where the grapes bake in the summer sun and grow like they do hundreds of miles to the south.
These are all decent, solid wines with some attractive floral notes, but one thing deters me - the cost. The Chardonnay alone costs £20 a bottle, pitching into a league with some Chablis premier crus, where it will (unpatriotic as it sounds) come off second best.
Frazer explains: “There are two elements in how we choose everything we buy. Functional excellence and emotional excellence. The English wine industry has been spending the past 15 years proving it can achieve the first. But the second is equally important and English wine drinkers should have an emotional connection with English wine.”
That means they should be prepared to pay the inevitable premium that comes with English wine due to low yields and intense labour that every bottle requires. But will wine enthusiasts tire of the novelty? “We produce just 500,000 bottles a year in a market of 1.6 billion. The market for people discovering English wine will last a long time.”
There is one smart way to make Chapel Down more affordable however, especially for financially literate readers. The company offers a 33 per cent discount to shareholders, since its shares are traded on ISDX, the smaller companies exchange. This means anyone with a minimum of 2000 shares at 18.5p each, or £370 in all, can get a £40 discount on a case of half a dozen Brut sparkling. And there's always the chance of a profit one day, too.