The green fields of southern England may not be famed for their vineyards, but the reputation of the country’s sparkling wines is growing.
Although the variable climate may spoil the odd vintage – 2012 was a washout – warming temperatures and favourable soil have encouraged investment in viticulture. The acreage under vines has almost doubled over the past decade and English sparkling wines have been lauded in high-profile international awards.
Among the vigneurs driving this are Insead alumni Nicholas Coates and Christian Seely.
The two met at the business school at Fontainebleau, France, in 1986, having enrolled on its one-year MBA programme. For Mr Coates, the MBA was a means to advance a career in finance that had already taken him to Hong Kong and India. Mr Seely, on the other hand, says he was much more interested in developing general management skills.
“I wanted to learn how to add up,” says Mr Seely, a sentiment echoed by his business partner. The pair reflect that – perhaps above all – their time in Fontainebleau provided them with the opportunity to “practise the art” of wine tasting.
Upon finishing their studies in 1987, Mr Coates went to Barings Bank, while Mr Seely took a marketing role at L’Oréal in Paris before also returning to London to manage companies belonging to venture capital company Guinness Mahon.
In 1993 Mr Seely was able to combine his managerial training and passion for wine when he joined Axa Millésimes, the wine division of the French insurance group. Having overseen the revival of renowned port house Quinta do Noval, he was awarded overall responsibility for Axa’s wine properties in 2000.
The former classmates remained friends, attributable in large part to their shared passion for consuming fine wine. Mr Seely says jokingly: “It’s been very difficult to keep Nicholas away all these years.”
In the summer of 2007, a year after Mr Coates’ retirement from the City of London, the two committed to their idea of creating an English sparkling wine together.
Geology and climate are the key to making great sparkling wines, says Mr Seely, who remains managing director of Axa Millésimes. “In some areas of southern England, the chalky soil is remarkably similar to the Champagne region.” The cool climate is also substantially the same, he adds.
Following an exhaustive search for the perfect terroir, in 2008 the business partners selected an existing vineyard nestled in the chalky downland only a short walk from Mr Coates’ home in rural Hampshire. Its south-facing slopes were ripe for planting Champagne variety grapes – Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir – says Mr Seely.
To hedge their exposure to the risk of bad weather locally – particularly frost, which can ruin a year’s crop – the two men also source grapes from a vineyard located 25 miles to the south. As well as sharing the character of chalky Hampshire downland, this vineyard is also under their management to ensure quality, Mr Seely says.
The sparkling wine market is a highly competitive one and the pair appreciate the importance of brand. “It did strike us very early on that champagne has one of the strongest brands in the world,” says Mr Coates. “It’s rather a shame that in the UK there is no equivalent.”
Their answer is “Britagne”, which appears on the label of each bottle of sparkling wine produced at their winery. Britagne is made from the three Champagne grapes and uses a traditional method. “We see that in 10 to 20 years [English wine] will be accepted as top world wine,” says Mr Seely.
Since their first vintage in 2009, sales have been strong. Although the domestic market accounts for four-fifths of sales, there is much demand from overseas, says Mr Seely. “The only constraint is that we don’t have enough wine to sell.” That Coates and Seely wine has been stocked in Parisien establishments – including the George V and the Hotel Le Bristol – is “very satisfying”, he adds.
The pair accept that their vision for a winery, although guided by “cold-headed pragmatism”, is also blended with a touch of romanticism. “In the business of making wine, you need a bit of both,” says Mr Seely.