There are a few ways to maintain a large wine estate in England. The most obvious is simply to accrue enough capital elsewhere to be able to bludgeon weather, yields, labour costs, competition and price pressure into submission. If you can afford not to have to turn a profit for…well, decades, when it comes to sparkling wine, then the whole enterprise takes on a kind of conceptual shift. Talk of ‘custodians’ or ‘thinking in generations’ sounds a bit like kicking the can down the road sometimes, although that’s nothing to complain about if the work, and the wine, is good.
Simpsons Estate is different, though. Whilst Charles and Ruth Simpson certainly have a successful business behind them in Domaine Sainte Rose in the Languedoc, their English ‘project’ feels like it has made its way through the rocky first few years of vineyard establishment in the UK not just thanks to deep pockets, but through experience, pragmatism and just a little daring. One thing, above all, has proven to be their trump card; the Roman Road vineyard.
Still and Sparkling, Hand In Hand
I met Charles Simpson at a vineyard site that looks as good as any you’ll see in England. The Roman Road vineyard, one of their three sites in the Elham valley south of Canterbury, boasts a perfect, even southerly slope, with neatly-arranged shelter from the winds that run up the valley and an altitude range that is low enough to be warm yet not so low as to attract the very worst frosts (more of that later). Then there’s the soil – pure chalk, with the classic 30cm topsoil.
The Simpsons echo some of the emerging Essex growers in believing ‘East Is Best’ in the UK. Even with this confidence, still wine was not part of the original plan. Here is where open-mindedness came in handy; in addition to a multitude of different Champagne clones, the Simpsons planted a few Burgundians just for a spot of diversity – 548 and 96 of Chardonnay, 115 and 777 of Pinot Noir. It was Chardonnay 548 which first switched the light on:
“In 2016 we fermented everything separately to learn all we could about the site. We tasted Chardonnay 548 mid-ferment and we couldn’t get over the varietal honesty. I was blown away. We picked for base wine, though, so we took a little out, chaptilised it to 11.5% and bottled a few hundred as a still wine. I took a bottle to the Colorado Springs Wine Festival charity auction, where there was a blind tasting. Someone paid $750 for it, thinking it was Premier Cru Chablis. That was the moment when I realised the potential of the site.”
You get a sense that the success of the sill wines has been critical whilst the business matures. Simpsons chardonnays won both tender spots for export to Norway’s state alcohol retailer this year, and Charles claims they will be sold out of all their 25,000 bottles of still from the 2019 vintage before hospitality even kicks in post-Coronavirus. Although it is only 1/3 of their production, they are tempted to do more.
Their secret? Beyond having a top vineyard site, it comes down to bravery at harvest time. I asked Charles how they got on with still wines in the late, cool 2019 season when others were inching over the ripeness line even for sparkling wine;
“Success favours the brave, and we’ve been doing this for 20 years; you see the same mistakes being made over and over again. People panic. They worry about disease pressure. We did an extra botrytis spray, and just hung on – we were crushing for others in October and they were asking “where’s your fruit”?. We finished at the end of the first week of November. People said we got lucky in 2018, but we were able to do it again in 2019.”
Easy On The Accelerator
There are no rose-tinted glasses here when it comes to making commercial sense of viticulture in England, and the Simpsons have used all their experience to make sure they are producing wines they can sell. From the start, 50% of their sparkling wine output has gone to Naked Wines as ‘Beora’ cuvées, which have proven so successful that they will be replacing champagne in the Naked Wines Christmas cases this year. The Naked Wines deal has enabled them to go easy on the accelerator with their own labels, upping their own production of sparkling wine from 20,000 to 60,000 rather than 120,000.
Frost, too, has slowed things down. The 2017 harvest went from 90 tonnes to 20 with the air frost of May 2017, since when Simpsons have been fighting it with frost fans. These have turned out to be the only practical option on sites this size, although keeping both the vines and the residents of the valley happy has not always been easy.
Another 2017 could have been terminal, but thankfully the glorious summer of 2018 proved ample compensation. Beora 2018 was stacked up in the winery ready for disgorgement as we talked, sensibly awaiting a full six months post-disgorgement in order to be at its best when the corks are popped. Others preparing such a youthful wine might have tried to sneak in another three months on lees, risking the wine still being closed at Christmas – another sign, perhaps, of a wine producer that has gone around the block a few times.
There is ambition to push the lees ageing times of their own cuvées, but this will take time to achieve. In the meantime, successful still wine production is proving a very useful way to support the massive investment that its finicky sparkling sibling demands. This interdependency, embodied by Simpsons but not unique to them in the modern English wine landscape, casts doubt on two old adages; firstly that a vineyard cannot be successful both for still and for sparkling wine, and secondly that the best sparkling wine outfits are always specialists.
The most remarkable bit of kit in the Simpsons cellar is their impressive Bucher inert press. This enables pressing under nitrogen – banned in Champagne – as well as more conventional pressing. The theory is that this can help preserve delicate flavours, although many sparkling winemakers choose to let their juice oxidise at pressing in order to avoid uncontrolled oxidation of certain compounds later in the process. Despite the naysayers, Charles Simpson sees this simply as a tool that can be used as much or little as they choose. He points out that “a prominent Champagne house” he was crushing for – you can probably guess which, as there aren’t that many about in East Kent – actually preferred the results of inert pressing to those from more standard oxidative pressing.
Simpsons didn’t use as much inert pressing for the 2017 vintage of the Chalklands Classic Cuvée as was used in 2016, and Charles explains that the resulting wine has a more oxidative style.* The 2017, composed of 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay fermented in steel and aged on lees for 20 months, pours a notably golden hue, with an inviting vein of almond and set honey running through farm-shop apple juice (the posh stuff). It wears a light and bright texture beneath this open stance, with some delicacy and a fine, appetising almond-skin substance on the close, unimpeded by difficult acidity or dosage – a sign of good fruit in England.
The oxidative surface here speaks of more than just pressing, to me – this is a wine that has been deliberately given a shot of maturity beyond its years. It could really land with anyone wanting a change from the frank, LED-bright styles we sometimes get at entry level. I get the sense it is all about exploration and range-finding for Simpsons at this young stage, though, and that a settled stylistic ‘fit’ is close at hand (if not already resting in the cellars).
With new vintages of the excellent Flint Fields Blanc de Noirs and an exciting Blanc de Blancs in the pipeline, we can all be sure that this smart and nimble estate will tread its way to the top table of English Sparkling Wine production in much the same way as it has for still.
* It does indeed, although I would add that juice oxidation at crush is practised by many producers without ending up with oxidative wines; the oxidative style in sparkling wine so often arrives later in the process.