Naked Wines recently invited us to join a visit to the flourishing Simpsons Wine Estate in Barham, Kent. I’ve visited many vineyards, but seeing an infant one being planted was a special experience I wasn’t going to pass up.
Charles and Ruth Simpson have built a deserved reputation for producing precise, flavoursome wines from their Domaine Saint Rose Estate in the Languedoc. Since 2002 they’ve been honing their skills, crafting noteworthy wines from their 43ha estate that perform significantly above their noble IGP classification. I’m a big fan of their wines, and especially admire what they can achieve with Rhone varieties. I was excited to meet up with the couple and talk about their ambitious English project.
Kent is arguably the county where the English Wine spotlight is shining the brightest right now. The jury’s out, but conventional wisdom (and millions of Taittinger £s) suggest Kent could be positioned to become our world-renown, standout region. The Simpson’s 2014 decision to invest there was a shrewd one.
Planting is happening in three stages over three years – starting 2015 and concluding in 2017. Each will see 10 hectares planted, taking the total estate to 30ha. By our reckoning this would see the Simpsons become Kent’s fourth largest wine producer, behind Chapel Down, Hush Heath and Gusbourne.
The first part of the visit took us to their first vineyard, planted last year with 50% Chard, 30% PN and 20% PM. This is clearly the premium plot, and it’s not difficult to see why. A notable but farmable gradient on a south facing slope. High chalk quantity. Perfect sheltering from the tree line on every side. You’d struggle to draw up anything better. The vines are thriving and showing lots of promise.
Then we visited the second site where block two (2016) and block three (2017) will share the same vineyard. Less Chardonnay here (40%) with plentiful Pinot. We arrived on day two of a three day planting. A meticulous operation with GPS-calibrated tractors producing row widths accurate to the cm. Everything is perfectly aligned in every direction, like tombstones in Arlington cemetery.
Back at the winery the extent of the project became apparent. The re-purposed farming unit is situated about five minutes in between the two vineyards. It’s a bigger space than that occupied by many of the established players today. There will be no expanding the facility as they grow. Like an 8 year old in a football jersey bought by Dad, they will be growing into it. They’re establishing a set-up to handle medium-scale production with significant storage space. Top of the shopping list is a new press with controllable inert injection to tune the oxidisation up or down.
Unsurprisingly, the focus is going to be on traditional method fizz. Charles spoke passionately about aspiring to do great things with Blanc de Noirs, and creating classic blends boasting a higher proportion of red varieties than competitors. With expected high acidity Chardonnay, he wants to utilise Pinot(s) to achieve a delicate balance. He was somewhat less impassioned when I quizzed him about the potential for still wines, and seems to be taking the sensible stance of seeing what the terroir can deliver.
As ever with sparkling projects, the returns take years to arrive. Whilst the first block will provide a small harvest this year, and the second block next year, there’s no intention to rush out early vintages, so it’s unlikely we will see any English Simpsons wines for a few years.
Perhaps we’ll see a 2018 vintage in 2020/21. Whenever it comes, I wouldn’t bet against the Simpsons making a wave and swiftly building a strong reputation. Watch this space.
Date Visited: Thursday 19th May 2016
Location: Barham, Kent