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Sparkling English wines; HELEN SAVAGE chats to Frazer Thompson, the Geordie boss of Chapel Down - England's biggest wine producer.: Geordie Frazer is aiming for sparkling English winesales.


ON A sparkling spring morning I drove through the lanes above Romney Marsh to meet Frazer Thompson.

Frazer is managing director of the English Wine Group, far and away the biggest producer of English wine. He's also a Geordie, brought up in Ponteland, where his parents still live. After Newcastle's Royal Grammar School and university in London, he began a career that soon took him into the drinks industry.

As director of marketing for Whitbread he headed the hugely successful promotion of Boddington's bitter as "Cream of Manchester", complete with its widget cans, and then in 1995 moved to Amsterdam to become global brand director of Heineken.

A few years later he was at a party. He was served a sparkling wine. "I bet you pounds 10 you can't guess where this is from," someone wagered.

"I lost my tenner," he admitted. "It was English - Chapel Down Vintage Reserve Brut. The next day I was asked if I'd like to become the English Wine Group's next MD. It meant a 75% pay cut, but it was a challenge I couldn't resist.

"I worked hard, and I mean really hard, for three or four years, but it's been fantastic. I always felt that the product would come good, and would be helped by the rise in economic patriotism and by global warming."

He agreed to move to Kent on November 4, 2001 (a date he feels should be tattooed on him somewhere). It has proved a great place to bring up a family (he has three sons) and a wonderful place to live: he and his wife Sue own Sissinghurst Castle Farmhouse, where they offer five-star B&B accommodation.

"A run down to Bamburgh beach is nice," he admitted, "but this is fantastic. I work in a vineyard and live in a castle."

While we talked, Frazer took me through a range of his wines, beginning with the very same Chapel Down Brut that lost him his tenner and changed his life.

It's available widely (for example, it's pounds 16.99 in Waitrose) and is always good: a quality wine, by any standards, with a fresh, slightly floral aroma with just a little yeastiness and a deliciously clean, crisply dry, apple-like flavour.

It's made in just the same way as Champagne, with a second fermentation in the bottle. Just over a third of the English Wine Group's production is sparkling wine, but this is set to rise to around two thirds by 2015. The winery, where I met Frazer, is at Small Hythe near Tenterden in Kent.

It is surrounded by surprisingly extensive vineyards which were first planted in 1977. A second, large, established vineyard is at Lamberhurst, bought just before Frazer was appointed and then in 2008 a new site was acquired and planted at Bluebell Hill, Aylesford. There are about 30 hectares of vines there, with more to come.

Frazer is very excited about this piece of chalk Downland. "It's just such a beautiful slope," he told me. "We got folk over from Champagne to take a look. They confirmed that the soil type is identical with what they have over there. It's perhaps not the warmest site around here, but we should have no problem ripening the grapes there."

It's mainly planted with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, just like Champagne, with three different clones of each. Vines are propagated vegetatively by means of cuttings. A variety of clones in a vineyard is an important way to make more interesting wine by ensuring that the fruit has a range of different characteristics: aromatic quality, acidity, sugar levels and so on.

The Chapel Down Brut on the market today has about 18% Pinot Noir in the blend. The rest is from two, much earlier-ripening though less interesting varieties, Reichensteiner and Muller-Thurgau. "There'll be much more Pinot Noir - and Chardonnay in it by 2012," Frazer promised. The trend to premium French varieties is gaining speed in England and is good news.

The possibility of being able to ripen Chardonnay commercially in Northumberland is still a distant dream, but global warming had made the switch possible in the south, along with increasingly early harvest dates.

The aim of the English Wines Group is to continue to grow around 30% of the grapes they need themselves and then to supplement this by long-term contracts with other growers and occasional spot purchases. This is pretty much the same mixed economy as the big Champagne houses - a model Frazer is quick to endorse. As a marketing man, he also admires the way in which the big Champagne producer.s have created strong, recognisable brands, and he wants Chapel Down to gain similar recognition. Chapel Down wines are made from grapes in Kent, Sussex and Essex, the fruit of about 400 hectares of vines, which given the lower yields common in England, gives it a similar production to some of the smaller famous names in Champagne. But Frazer is quick to insist that despite the success of English sparkling wine, his group will continue to make still wines. He admitted, "I know it's unusual to want to do both still and sparkling wines unlike Nyetimber and Ridgeview" (the two other producers of consistently high-quality English bubbly), "but we're still expanding our production of still wine too." He poured me a taste of the newlybottled 2009 Bacchus, one of Chapel Down's most attractive and bestselling lines. It was the first English wine I'd tasted from last year's harvest and I was impressed by its exotic, peachy, floral scent, with a clean, juicy flavour, with a satisfyingly dry twist. Frazer liked it too. "If this doesn't convince people to drink English wine," he said, "then I don't know what will." It's already on the shelves at Waitrose (pounds 9.49). The 2009 vintage came as something of a relief for English winemakers. Crops were small in 2007 and 2008 and rot was rife in many vineyards. According to Frazer the vines, "were knackered". But the sun that eluded us last summer shone generously on Kent. "It was a great summer here," he affirmed, "with a wonderful end to the season. It gave us some great choices in the winery." Another newly bottled 2009, the entry level Flint Dry, made from a fairly eclectic mix of grapes, which Frazer says changes from year to year, but which included 30% Chardonnay in 2009, was also excellent. It had clean fruit, reminding me of ripe apple and peach and quite a creamy taste. The (attractively set out) vineyard shop attracts around 50,000 visitors per year but accounts for around just 8% of wine sales - a much lower proportion than many English vineyards, but evidence of the serious approach to marketing that Frazer had brought to the group. Don't get me wrong, he's rightly proud of what he sees as the "brand home" and it's a great place to go, with proper tasting facilities, the most welcoming and knowledgeable staff I've ever found in an English vineyard, a seriously good restaurant upstairs, and the opportunity to wander through the vines. There's even a flock of alpacas grazing peacefully. But sales are dominated by 60% to the "modern food trade" (supermarkets to you and me), including Waitrose, Morrisons and Majestic. Frazer is delighted to see his wines in small, quality shops like Rothbury Wines (they have by far the best selection of the Chapel Down range locally - and at very competitive prices) and is keen to trumpet the endorsement of his wines by top chefs including Gordon Ramsay and Gary Rhodes. And exports are going well to the Far East and the States is looking promising. It all looks pretty rosy. So what next? He is surprisingly cautious. "We're in a transitional phase," he says. "We've got to a point where expansion just for the sake of it isn't what we do. We want to keep Chapel Down special. We need to produce great wines and build a great brand." If anyone can achieve this, I suspect Frazer will. The English wine industry needs keen business minds if it is to be taken seriously, without any special pleading. It should no longer come as a surprise that an English wine is worth drinking.


AN ENGLISH COUNTRY WINERY The Chapel Down vineyard at Small Hythe near Tenterden in Kent, with a herd of alpacas grazing in the background
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:May 7, 2010
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