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Grape expectations

04 May 2016

Taittinger has teamed up with UK wine agents to produce premium sparkling wine from a Kentish vineyard.

When it comes to the world of wine, there are few names as prestigious as that of Taittinger; so the announcement that the champagne house has joined forces with wine agents Hatch Mansfield to produce English sparkling wine has been a cause for celebration.

The companies, together with private investors, have bought 69 hectares of land near Canterbury in Kent, on which they will plant a vineyard of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes – the classic combination used to make champagne.

The sparkling wine will be called Domaine Evremond – named after the essayist and soldier credited with popularising champagne in London in the 17th century – and will come with a champagne-style price tag of about £30 a bottle.

The project has come about as a result of climate change – and the chalky soil that has made Kent an ideal place to produce sparkling wines – as well as years of planning and discussions between Patrick McGrath, Chief Executive of Hatch Mansfield, and Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger, President of Champagne Taittinger. Hatch Mansfield has been Taittinger’s agent in the UK for many years, so to develop that relationship further represented a natural progression.

‘Since 2003, changes in climate and the introduction of pinot noir and chardonnay vines have led to a dramatic improvement in English sparkling wine,’ says McGrath. ‘We started talking about the venture three years ago. Taittinger already has experience of establishing an operation – Domaine Carneros by Taittinger – in California, which it set up 20 years ago with the Kopf family of Kobrand Wine & Spirits. So Pierre- Emmanuel said we should do something together in the UK. This is a project between friends.’

Taittinger already had strong ties with Kent; Pierre-Emmanuel’s father, Jean, twinned Canterbury with Reims more than 45 years ago when he was the Mayor of Reims. So together with the suitability of the terroir – the soil, microclimate and topography – Kent was the perfect place to look for land.

It took time to find a suitable site, but the team eventually settled on a plot near Chilham. The average price per hectare was £31,000. ‘We knew we needed to be cautious and take our time in finding the right site,’ says McGrath.

‘Stone Stile Farm was selling several plots that were sheltered, south-facing and, crucially, on chalk. Taittinger feels comfortable with chalk. All of Champagne is on chalk.’

Work is due to clear 40 hectares of fruit trees. The land will then be left to rest before a cover crop is planted. Vines will begin to be planted in the spring of 2017. The remaining land will be home to a visitor centre.

McGrath says soil samples indicate there are small variations across the plot, so the vineyard will use three different rootstocks and nine different vine clones to suit the underlying soil. McGrath says the vineyard will be home to about 5,000 vines per hectare, compared to a typical 10,000 per hectare in Bordeaux.

The vines will produce their first crop in 2019, with the first bottles likely to go on sale five years later, though it will be considerably longer before the venture sees its first profits. The ultimate goal is to produce around 300,000 bottles of Domaine Evremond a year, ‘It’s a long-term project; we’re not expecting to make any money for 20 years,’ says McGrath.

Hatch Mansfieldeld’s history dates back to 1802 and the rights to the name were bought in 1993 by three wine producers: Louis Jadot, Errazuriz and Villa Maria, who wanted to form their own distribution company. Since then, Hatch Mansfield has been appointed, in the UK, to develop the brands and distribute wines of 16 independent and family-owned wine producers, including Esk Valley Estate, Joseph Mellot, Jean-Luc Colombo and Kleine Zalze, as well as Taittinger.

Taittinger and Hatch Mansfield have recruited Master of Wine Stephen Skelton as Viticulture consultant on the project because, according to McGrath, ‘no one knows more about English wine’.

Likewise, Hatch Mansfield has chosen St. James’s Place for its expertise in financial services to provide employee benefits for its staff and directors.

‘John Greening is our “point man” but we talk to all of his team, who give us an excellent service,’ says McGrath. ‘We really enjoy the relationship. John and his team are efficient and helpful; we have total trust and confidence in all the services they provide.’

The popularity of English sparkling wine has soared in recent years, in tandem with the quality, but the fact that one of France’s most renowned champagne houses has chosen to invest in the industry is the ultimate seal of approval. ‘As a team, we have a real belief in the potential of English sparkling wine,’ says McGrath. ‘Our aim is not just to be an English sparkling winemaker, but also to be a significant supporter of the whole English wine industry.’

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