24 April 2023 The Times

Why beginners are buying up Britain's vineyards

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Forget hobby farming: amateur winemakers are intoxicated by the success of homegrown wine

Peter Came describes himself as a “compulsive doer” who gets up at first light without fail. So after selling his insurance business in 2016, the father of two realised he desperately wanted something else to do.
The 59-year-old is a cricket obsessive — his son Harry plays professionally for Derbyshire and his grandfather Walter Robins captained England. But rather than spend his retirement playing and watching the quintessentially English game, Peter decided to indulge in a passion that was once considered anything but English: planting vineyards and producing wine.

Came lives in the Hampshire village of Silchester. When his elderly nextdoor neighbour fell ill, Peter and his wife, Corinne, purchased 20 acres of his land, which he was told by experts provided excellent vine-growing conditions.

“‘All the gear, no idea’ is what you usually say when somebody comes out at cricket with a brand new bat and new helmet, but then gets bowled first ball. I was the equivalent in viticulture terms,” Came says. “I bought the tractors and the kit but in terms of experience I just had to learn on the fly.”

The Cames are among a surge of recent investors — from enthusiastic amateurs to seasoned French giants — in the burgeoning British wine industry.

With temperatures rising due to global warming, viticulture experts say wine- producing conditions in parts of southern England are now similar to those in the Champagne region of France 30 years ago. Also, the chalk seam that runs through
East Sussex and Hampshire provides ideal drainage for vineyards.

As a result, the acreage of vines in England and Wales has more than quadrupled since 2000, according to WineGB, the national wine association.

There are now 9,286 acres of vines in England and Wales, with 897 vineyards and 197 wineries — all but two are in England — while the industry employs more than 10,000 workers, with commercially successful vineyards found as far north as Ryedale in North Yorkshire.

So how do you go about setting up a vineyard when you know nothing about winemaking? The answer, in Came’s case, was to go back to school.

“The first thing I did was to go on a course at Plumpton College in Lewes on the first Monday of every month for seven months,” he says. “We would spend four hours in the classroom and then in the afternoon we would go to work on their vineyard. I really enjoyed it. And I got a distinction — and I’ve never got a distinction before in anything.”

After working for a few months in other local vineyards, picking and pruning, Came planted a vineyard on his new land in 2019, with the grapes made up almost entirely of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. This classic trio of champagne grape varieties do particularly well in England’s chillier climate — sparkling wines are easier to produce than still ones in colder temperatures; about
seven in ten bottles of wine produced in this country are sparkling.

The Cames named their vineyard Calleva, after the Roman settlement that once existed in Silchester. Came manages the vineyard himself, having no permanent staff and using only temporary workers — “wonderful Romanians who come to pick, prune and do the other labour-intensive jobs”.

Last year Calleva’s 20 acres yielded 1,500 litres of grape juice. The batch is being stored to ferment and will produce Calleva’s first organic (the vineyard does not use pesticides) sparkling wine in 2027.

Upmarket estate agents say they have become so inundated by approaches from enthusiasts like Came that some have devised their own computer programs to work out which properties might have wine-growing potential.

The most sophisticated such program is run by Knight Frank, where analysts can overlay multiple datasets on a Google Earth map to show sunshine hours and land fertility.

“Existing wine businesses in the UK are selling more and more wine and they urgently need to secure more land,” Ed Mansel Lewis, the agent’s head of viticulture, says.

“If you secure a piece of land today, you then have to wait perhaps eight years until you actually have a bottle of sparkling wine to sell. So the very moment they see
an uptick in their wine sales, a smart producer will think, ‘Right, we’ve got to secure more land.’ ”

If the program reveals fertile land within 5km of where a wine producer is based, Mansel Lewis looks up the owner online and cold calls them to inquire about a potential sale or a long-term lease.

He says that “really good land in the best counties” for winemaking — Kent, Essex, Hampshire and East Sussex and West Sussex — rents for £300 to £350 per acre per year.

Another passionate hobby buyer is Richard Asman, 55, from Johannesburg, South Africa. He and his wife, Sarah-Jane, 51, bought Hidden Spring vineyard in Horam, East Sussex, in March last year — their next step after Richard’s successful career in the pharmaceutical industry.

“When someone told me that they were making wine in England, first of all I laughed. I thought they were nuts,” Asman says. “But then we started looking into it, and it looked like a really exciting part of the world and a really exciting business opportunity.”

The couple also had the benefit of inheriting a ready-made winemaking business. Hidden Spring was established in 1986, when it already had vines covering 13 acres. The vineyard won silver at last year’s WineGB awards for its 2021 Bacchus Fumé (still) and 2019 Classic Cuvée (sparkling).

Asman describes the business as “a lot of fun” but says it does not pay for itself — he subsidises it. “It’s positioned neatly between a hobby and a small business,” he says.

Property agents say they have also seen a rise in the number of would-be wine investors approaching them; these agents are paid by the wealthiest clients to use their significant contacts to source the perfect land, much of which is sold off-market.

One such buying agent, Philip Harvey of Property Vision, brokered the £7.4 million purchase of Nyetimber, in the village of West Chiltington in West Sussex, for the Dutch businessman Eric Heerema. He married his wife, Hannah, in the medieval barn on their estate in 2013.

Since Heerema bought Nyetimber, in 2006, it has grown to become Britain’s biggest wine producer, and is credited by many amateur viticulturalists as their inspiration for investing in the sector.

When he bought Nyetimber, Heerema had already planted his first small-scale vineyard in a farm he owned nearby, but he wanted to buy more land with the aim of investing in the industry to create a significant brand. “I had confidence and trust in the potential of English sparkling wine,” he says.

Harvey called Nyetimber’s owner, the record producer and songwriter Andy Hill (Hill wrote Bucks Fizz’s 1981 Eurovision-winning hit, Making Your Mind Up), and discovered he’d be interested in selling it. Harvey knew Hill from a previous transaction and eventually sealed the deal.

Nyetimber’s sparkling wine was already the toast of the winemaking world, thanks to Stuart and Sandy Moss, an American couple who owned it before Hill and planted its first vineyards, in 1988 — Nyetimber’s 1993 Classic Cuvée won multiple awards and was served at the Queen’s golden wedding anniversary lunch
in 1997.

However, by the time Heerema bought Nyetimber, it was in need of serious work. He has renovated its historic Tudor buildings and infrastructure and expanded the vineyards from 35 acres to what will be 1,000 next year, buying ten more vineyard sites in Hampshire and Kent in the process.

Unlike the vineyards run by keen amateurs, Nyetimber is big business — it employs 400 to 500 pickers at harvest time (after the pandemic, following the exodus of EU workers, Nyetimber struggled to find seasonal workers, but things have now improved).

The vineyard’s head winemaker, Cherie Spriggs, won the sparkling winemaker of the year award in 2018 at the International Wine Challenge, which Heerema describes as the “Oscars of the wine industry”.

“They [Spriggs and her husband, Brad Greatrix, also a winemaker] have a team and they are extremely knowledgeable, dedicated and passionate,” Heerema says.

Imitation, it seems, is the best form of flattery. After years of being rather snooty about Nyetimber’s sparkling wine, the French have arrived. Pommery, the champagne house, bought about 100 acres of land at Pinglestone in Hampshire in
2016, while Taittinger invested in Chilham, Kent, in 2017. Both houses will
produce sparkling wines from their English estates from next year.

“Other French producers have been looking around,” Heerema says. “But we are very happy with what we are doing — we don’t intend to sell.”

Back in Silchester, Peter Came’s winemaking adventure did not have such a happy ending. Having suffered a heart attack at the beginning of last year, he had a congenital defect diagnosed which prevented him from doing any manual labour.

“The doctor said to me, ‘Peter, you shouldn’t be doing what you’re doing because you’re not going to last very long. You’ve had a warning. You’re not going to be able to march around the vineyard all day.’ ”

He and Corinne are reluctantly selling their farmhouse, with the vineyard and winery, for £5 million. They plan to move abroad for a gentler life.

“The one thing I can’t bear to do is stay here, watching someone else carry on what I’ve put my heart and soul into for the last seven years,” he says.

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