Taittinger has bought land in Kent with the plan to produce high quality English sparkling wine. In a deal signed on 18 November, Taittinger has purchased 69 hectares of farmland orchard at Stone Stile Farm, near Chilham, from the Gaskain family who are established Kent fruit farmers. It’s estimated that between 35 and 40 hectares of the farm,
located on a sheltered site just to the west of Canterbury, are on suitable, predominantly chalky soils to plant the classic Champagne varieties Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Before clearing the land or planting any vines, the initial investment in the project is around £2m, it is estimated.
After years of speculation around the Champenois investigating suitable sites in southern England, with Louis Roederer and Duval-Leroy known to have spent time visiting already established vineyards in Kent and Sussex, Taittinger, in a joint venture with its UK agent Hatch Mansfield and private British investors, is the first major champagne house to take the plunge. The deal was announced on Wednesday by Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger, chairman of the eponymous house and Hatch Mansfield MD Patrick McGrath MW, at Westminster Abbey. The new wine estate is to be called Domaine Evremond, after the French 17th century writer, epicurean and literary critic Charles de Saint-Evremond, who is widely considered the first true ambassador for Champagne in the UK and who is buried in the abbey’s Poet’s Corner.
Advised by leading UK viticulture specialist Stephen Skelton MW, they have been
looking for a suitable site in either Kent, Sussex or Hampshire over the past two years. As Skelton explained at the launch press conference, the site on the North Downs in Kent, just to the south of the A2 between Faversham and Canterbury is on chalk with a loamy, silt topsoil and below 100 metres high. “We were looking for a sheltered site and thinking a fruit farm would be ideal. They [the Gaskain family] have been growing Braeburn apples here and that is a very late ripening variety in the UK sometimes not being picked until November. And we see that as a good sign [for ripening grapes].”
Apart from recognising the huge strides forward in quality that have been evident in the wines of both the main established English wineries – Nyetimber, Chapel Down, Ridgeview and Camel Valley in Cornwall to name four — and some notable newcomers like Hambledon, Herbert Hall, Henners and Exton Park, one of the main attractions of investing in southern England rather than in Champagne is both the availability of land and the much lower price.
While very little grands crus vineyard in Champagne ever comes up for sale on the market, the price of a good mid-slope site is at least €1.8m per hectare (£1.3m), while suitable farmland in Kent costs between £10-000-£15,000 per acre (between £24,600 and £37,000/ha). And, said Taittinger managing director Damien le Sueur who has also been involved in the project from the early days visiting sites in southern England with Taittinger vineyard manager Vincent Collard, the price roughly doubles if you include the cost of planting. So that makes planted vineyard land in Kent move than fifteen times cheaper than vineyards in Champagne.
The first vines are unlikely to be planted on the site, still covered in apple trees, until May 2017 though it is possible, says McGrath, “some vines will be planted in May 2016”. Decisions on suitable clones to use have not yet been taken, and there are also issues about getting hold of the appropriate rootstock once they have. The aim is to produce what Pierre-Emmanuel describes as a “top, top quality sparkling wine” with production growing to around 20,000-30,000 cases a year (300,000 bottles) in time.
Whether the company will go down the vintage route or produce a multi-harvest blend is not yet decided. McGrath and Taittinger both talked about a “range of sparkling wines”. Nor has a decision been made about building a winery. It terms of the projected price of a bottle of sparkling wine from Domaine Evremond – the name of the wine hasn’t been agreed yet — it will be pitched at around the level that established brands like Nyetimber are likely to be selling for at the time, says McGrath.
With the initial fruit from the site unlikely to be harvested before 2020, it’s going to be at least eight years before the first release from Domaine Evremond.