'The Britpack: winemaking Brits in France' - Charles Simpson

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  • Wednesday 15 February 2012

The Languedoc may not have the prestige and grandeur of Bordeaux and Champagne, but it makes up for it with aspiration, value and variety, making it one of 2012's regions to watch. Amy Wislocki profiles four Brits who have moved to the Languedoc to make wine.

Domaine Sainte Rose, charles simpson,
Domaine Sainte Rose, charles simpson, Domaine Sainte Rose, charles simpson,

Producer: Charles Simpson, Domaine de Sainte Rose, Vin de pays de Cotes de Thongue

A career as commercial director for pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline sounds glamorous, but has its drawbacks. ‘I was working across 113 countries and 23 time zones, and spent most of my life on a plane,’ recalls Charles Simpson. Aged 30, he and his wife Ruth, who is fifth generation of the Grant whisky family, decided enough was enough – a complete life change was in order.

“We decided to buy a vineyard, and started looking around the world – we did full global diligence, looking first at Western Australia and Central Otago. But land in Western Australia is very expensive, and there are only really lifestyle plots available. Also, 9/11 brought it home to us that we’d be too far from friends and family.

“What was vital to us was to be in an upcoming area, where we could be part of changing its reputation – it’s boring to dedicate yourself to merely maintaining a reputation. We also wanted to work in a New World way – planting what we want, using modern technology that isn’t necessarily available under AC regulations, and working back from what consumers want. We wanted to build a brand, and to produce consisently high quality every year, minimising vintage variation. If that means using drip irrigation to get certain phenolically ripe, so be it.”

The Languedoc was the obvious choice. “If you’re going to do a New World style project anywhere in the Old World, it has to be the Languedoc.” But where? The Simpsons viewed 40 properties across the length and breadth of the massive region, but found only two that matched their brief. “We didn’t want to be within an appellation, and we wanted good land planted to noble varieties, farmed well and with a winery on site – plus a house of character.” They fell in love with the 16th century Domaine Sainte Rose, and stretched themselves to the financial limits to get it, paying £1.3m for the estate, which included 50ha of vineyards and a three-storey château. They were helped by the proceeds from the sale of their three-bedroom Kensington apartment, which they sold at the height of the property boom for £800,000.

Since moving in, they have replanted around 40% of the vineyards, taking total plantings down to 37ha, six white varieties (Roussane, Marsanne, Chardonnay, Viognier, Muscat and Sauvignon Blanc) and six red (Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot). “Small domaines have to offer something unusual,” says Simpson, “as they can’t compete on price on the monovarietal wines made from the usual international varieties. As outsiders we approached it with a fresh attitude, blending Petit Verdot with Mourvèdre, for instance – Majestic bought that wine because it’s different.”

The biggest mistake was hiring a French winemaker in the early days, says Simpson. “They’re trained in a very different way to Antipodeans. The French believe they’re making the wine for themselves, as artists. The New World mindset is different; they know they’re making wine for us. Many French winemakers aren’t even drinking wine from outside France. Where’s the curiousity?”

The family has settled in well in the decade that they have lived there. “Our first daughter, now 9, was born three weeks after we moved in, and two years later we had another daughter. That really helps you to integrate. I didn’t speak French when we arrived, but now I’m fluent. We take care to employ local people, and we pay them on time – all they can say about us is that we have some weird practices!”

Try:

La Nuit Blanche Roussanne 2008

This is fermented for one year in old French oak barrels and has 10 months barrel ageing. Full but racy, it is a serious, structured, oily wine with a hint of tropical fruit and an attractive, slightly saline quality. Quite tight, and firm on the palate; a food wine. 17pts/20
Price: £9.99, Majestic.

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