After a career in the humanitarian sector, Ruth Simpson and her husband Charles bought a vineyard in the South of France and began making award-winning wines. Now, the Scottish vintner is bringing her skills to Kent, as Peter Ranscombe finds out.
Whisky must run through Ruth Simpson’s veins. As a fifth-generation member of the Grant family, the Scotch dynasty behind the Balvenie and Glenfiddich brands, she grew up learning about her mother’s ancestors and their history of making whisky, which stretches back to 1887. But if whisky is in her veins then wine must be what fills her soul. Simpson and her husband, Charles, have owned and run Domaine Sainte Rose, a wine estate in the Languedoc region in the South of France, for the past 14 years.
Now, the couple are bringing their wine-making expertise back to Blighty after buying land in Kent, where they are preparing to make their first English sparkling wine. Within a matter of weeks, they will be harvesting the first grapes from the vines they planted in 2014, with their debut wine expected to go on sale in 2018.
Not necessarily what you would expect for a woman from the Highlands. Born in Inverness and raised in Edinburgh, Simpson attended the now defunct St Margaret’s School in the Newington area of the Scottish capital before studying international relations and modern history on the prestigious course at the University of St Andrews.
Travelling and voluntary work while at university sparked her interest in working in the charity sector, first as a recruitment officer in London for youth organisation Raleigh International and later as a consultant for Relief International and Save The Children in Baku in Azerbaijan, where Charles had been posted as country manager by pharmaceuticals giant Glaxo Wellcome, now part of GlaxoSmithKline.
As well as being familiar with the operational and financial side of humanitarian work, completing a paediatric nursing diploma at Napier University in Edinburgh and working at the Royal Brompton Hospital in London had given Simpson hands-on experience too.
While they were posted in Azerbaijan, they began to realise that their careers were taking them in different directions. They both harboured dreams of working for themselves and so they began to explore what business they could launch.
“Wine making wasn’t an obvious choice, but perhaps there was some alcohol in the blood there,” Simpson smiles. “Being so far from home, we probably had too much time on our hands to navel-gaze and think about the future, but we were both keen wine consumers and when we did take holidays a lot of those were spent visiting different wine-growing areas.
“Then we got a reality check from our families – they told us that we’d been living on our own in Azerbaijan for far too long and that we should come back to the UK and get our feet on solid ground again, which we did. I worked as a grants officer with the charities board of the National Lottery but, after six months, we decided we would stop what we were doing and go out and visit the areas in which we were considering setting up a business and make a go of it.”
Their research took them to Australia – where they visited potential sites – and then onto New Zealand. As part of the homework for her new career, Simpson also completed the graduate certificate in wine marketing from the University of South Australia in Adelaide as a distance-learning student.
“In the early stages, we thought that a couple of Brits coming in and doing things a bit differently would go down better in the New World rather than the Old World,” Simpson explains. “But we were also hearing about and reading about and tasting interesting wines coming out of the Languedoc region in the South of France. So we went down there and spent time speaking to as many people as we could, knocking on doors, making cold calls to people in the industry.”
Old World countries such as France, Italy and Spain have traditionally sold their wines under the names of the areas in which they were made, like Bordeaux, Chianti or Rioja. Wine labels very rarely carried the names of grape varieties leaving consumers guessing about how the wines would taste and building up the complexity and snobbery that often surrounds wine.
All of that changed in the 1980s when Australia and other New World countries began sticking the names of grape varieties on their labels. Coupled with more modern production techniques – such as fermenting the grapes in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks – drinkers were able to buy wines that were consistently fresh and fruity.
One of the first parts of France to hit back was the Languedoc. While the complicated appellation d’origine contrôlée system still prevented many top wines displaying the names of their constituent grape varieties on their labels, the broader vin de pays system for ‘country wines’ was reformed, allowing for varietal labelling. Coupled with the injection of fresh capital, suddenly winemakers in the South of France had the ability to take on the New World at its own game.
One of the people the Simpsons met during their travels in the Languedoc was James Herrick, who is credited with introducing the first branded French chardonnay to the UK market in the 1990s. “By the time we met him, he had recently sold off his business to Southcorp and was then acting as a consultant,” remembers Simpson.
“James was the person who told us to go away and sit in a darkened room until the thought of going into the wine industry had gone away – which we duly didn’t do,” she laughs. “But we went out to lunch and chatted with him and he told us ‘I think you’re mad, because I’m trying to get out of this business’. But he also offered to become our advisor.
“He was our guardian angel, our mentor, the type of person you can never plan for when you’re writing your business plan, but who was really very influential in the early days for us, keeping our feet very firmly on the ground and keeping us very commercially-driven rather than letting us get caught up in the vineyard and the very technically-driven side, which we didn’t have a lot of experience of.
“Ultimately, we were very honest when we came into the industry and said we didn’t have the agricultural skills or technical wine-making know-how but we came into it with business management and sales and marketing skills and an entrepreneurial spirit that said ‘Right, we’re going to do this in a commercial fashion’.
“Yes it’s a lovely lifestyle, living in the South of France, with vineyards on the doorstep, but unless you’re competitive and can sell the product then you can’t pay for the next harvest and you’re not going to last long. That’s how we went about it and why we’re still doing it and doing it all over again in Kent 14 years later.
“We were 29 and 31 when we moved out there – so it was a bit of an early mid-life crisis. We made all of our big life-changing decisions at the same time. We decided to start our own business, move to France and start a family all at the same time.
“On 31 May, 2002, we completed on the property, moved into the domaine, then three weeks later our first daughter was born. We spent the entire summer renovating the winery so we could process our first harvest in August – that was an achievement in itself, considering most of France is on holiday from July through until the end of August. It was a busy summer.”
Domaine Sainte Rose has gone onto win accolades from Decanter magazine and the International Wine Challenge, as well as plaudits from drinks critics. The success of the business has given the Simpsons the springboard they need for their attempt to repeat the feat in the cooler climes of the UK.
Making wine in England and Wales isn’t quite as mad as it first appears. Vines have been grown in Britain since before the Roman invasion and the current revival in wine-making stretches back to the 1950s. English wines in the 1960s and 1970s tended to imitate the popular German styles of the day, such as Liebfraumilch, but as tastes shifted towards fruitier Australian wines in the 1980s, English producers instead turned their attention to sparkling wines.
Trade body English Wine Producers listed 502 vineyards and 133 wineries in England and Wales in 2015, which together produced just over five million bottles. The most widely-planted grape varieties were chardonnay and pinot noir, which – alongside pinot meunier – form the backbone of global sparkling wine production.
The traditional method – which is employed in Champagne, in other parts of France for crémant and in Spain to make cava – involves producing a still wine and then carrying out a second fermentation inside the bottle to add bubbles. The alternative method – which is used to create prosecco in Italy – involves the second fermentation taking place under pressure inside a tank before bottling.
English sparkling wine is made using the traditional method and has been likened to Champagne – with prices to match. But it’s not just the production process that has drawn comparisons; it’s the soils too. The South of England is blessed with similar chalk-based soils to the Champagne region in northern France.
With their eldest daughter finishing primary school and their second daughter not far behind, the Simpsons decided to return to the UK in 2013 when they bought their farm in Kent. They planted their first grapes the following year and added a second wave of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier during this summer.
Earlier this year, Simpsons Wine Estate was awarded a grant from the Rural Development Programme for England, a pot of European Union money designed to create jobs in the countryside. The cash is being used to help turn their former farm buildings into a winery to handle this autumn’s crop. “The total cost of the project is £400,000 and we are receiving a grant of £143,154.08 – that final 8p is very important,” says Simpson. “The grant will enable us to create the equivalent of six full-time jobs and we’ve already had expressions of interest from people in the local community who want to come and work for us.”
The Simpsons have been practising their sparkling winemaking skills since 2012 at Domaine Sainte Rose, where they’ve made a traditional method blanc de blanc from chardonnay, a blanc de noir from pinot noir and a sparkling rosé wine too. The couple will continue to run their winery in France while setting up the operation in England.
“Nothing changes at Sainte Rose – we’re very lucky to have a farm manager who lives on-site and a trusted consultant winemaker who keeps an eye on the winery when we’re not around,” explains Simpson. “To all intents and purposes, Charles and I are still doing just as much work on the business as if we were down there, just less of the day-to-day stuff.
“All the management, the marketing and the sales are done by us at a distance wherever we are. We’re actually now closer to a lot of our main clients here in the UK than we were before so we’re probably more engaged with them in terms of marketing. And it’s easier to get to the States and to other European markets to service them than it was from the South of France.
“We’re lucky that – thanks to our thriving French business and our existing customers in the UK and export markets – we have a lot of people who are already very interested in our product. A lot of our English wine could be pre-sold.”
The new vineyard in England has been raising a few eyebrows across the Channel too. “The sites that we have in Kent are superb,” says Simpson, who also remains a non-executive director of Gordon Woodlands, a 5,000-hectare commercial forestry business that was established by her father and which her brother now manages.
“Even our Southern French plantation team, who came across in 2014 when we planted the first vineyard, were very sceptical about why they were being asked to go to the south of England, but they left very impressed with the quality of the terroir.
“When we ordered vines for that first plantation, we sent the soil samples to the vine nursery in France, but they didn’t believe they came from England – they thought they came from Champagne. The soil isn’t just similar to Champagne – it’s identical.”