One of Westminster’s biggest hitters in the world of politics has revealed an ambition to become as a big a hitter in in the world of English wine.
Tory peer Lord Ashcroft is involved in a plan to acquire up 150 acres of prime vineyards in West Sussex with the aim of producing 400,000 bottles a year of sparkling wine through an investment from Belize.
Key to the project is the purchase of Halnaker vineyard in Sussex. Benjamin Walgate is chief executive officer of Shellproof plc, which has merged with Shellproof, an AIM-listed cash shell company registered in Belize, to create a prestigious English sparkling wine production, sales and distribution business through the acquisition and establishment of approximately 150 acres of vineyards and the construction of a winery.
Walgate says: “The Halnaker vineyard was attractive for a number of reasons, first of all it is a good site with a proven record for producing high quality grapes. The Halnaker site also offers mature production while our other sites are being established, having this early production also complements our on-going winemaking activity.”
“For me and the team this is tremendously exciting; to work with people who share a passion and enthusiasm for both the product and opportunities that lie ahead is very encouraging.”
As an industry, Walgate considers it is lucky to have a number of top consultants who have experience of growing grapes and making wine in the UK.
He says: “Stephen Skelton has a great understanding of our industry and is one of a number of consultants who have contributed to the project during the research and planning phase.”
While the Rathfinny estate is an equally significant project, it has not directly influenced the move to develop this project.
He says: “I do think that the industry is buoyed by the presence of dynamic businesses both established and new entrants. The Rathfinny project is certainly very exciting, but one can also draw inspiration from any one of a number great vineyards whether it be the continued success of Camel Valley or the recent triumphs of Gusbourne’s first vintages.
“While people have been investing in English sparkling wine for well over a decade, one would argue that if it wasn’t for the vision of pioneer figures such as Mike Roberts of Ridgeview, we wouldn’t be where we are today. We are now at the stage where there is an accelerating consumer and media awareness and interest in English sparkling wine and after over a year of planning and research we believe that this is an opportune time to invest in this exciting and growing market.”
The vineyard will contain or be planted with grape varieties suitable for English sparkling wine such as Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. The 150 acre target is expected to come from the13-acre Halnaker vineyard freehold property, of which 10 acres are planted with mature vines; a further tenancy of 27 acres; and other sites locally, up to a further 110 acres, which are expected to be on long term farm business tenancies. During the early years, in order to meet its production plans, Shellproof PLC will continue to buy in grapes and process these in other local wineries on a contract basis. Shellproof PLC currently has stocks of approximately 25,000 bottles.
Julia Trustram Eve, from trade body English Wine Producers, is excited at the prospects the investment represents. She says: “I think these are exciting plans and another illustration of how the industry is growing and expanding. This business investment is certainly continuing to build this vibrant and exciting industry and emphasising how much the commercial producers are looking to the future.”
A brand name or names are yet to be chosen though the directors believe that branding will be assisted by the perceived quality of the region’s “terroir”. The region benefits from an attractive setting with particular soil and climatic conditions which have already produced a number of award winning sparkling wines.
Distribution of the wines will include cellar door sales via a visitor centre, other local direct sales, online and mail-order purchases, export sales and selected national distribution.
For sale: one vineyard
The Halnaker Vineyard in West Sussex was on the market for just over a year with a guide price of around £450,000. Situated on the outskirts of Halnaker between Petworth and Chichester, the vineyard was originally planted in the spring of 2006 with almost 12,000 vines consisting of a combination of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier vines.
The first significant harvest was in 2009 resulting in 11.9 tonnes of fruit followed by 21.1. tonnes produced in 2010. Another significant crop is expected from 2011’s harvest.
Lat year, selling agent Daniel Clay said: “There is a certain caché with owning your own vineyard and it may well appeal to those looking for an escape from high flying jobs.”