Steven Spurrier is well known to Decanter readers. But what many might not know is that he’s now making English sparkling wine. John Livingstone-Learmonth explains how this particular vineyard adventure was third time lucky
During his 50-year journey through wine, Steven Spurrier has adopted several roles and mantles: marchand de vin (his term), taster, educator, agent provocateur (the 1976 Judgement of Paris), consultant editor (Decanter), sage (member of many international judging panels), purchasing consultant (Singapore Airlines). The only one missing from this extensive and varied CV, however, has now been filled: after two brief failed French flirtations, he is now an English vineyard proprietor, together with his wife Bella.
The route to his Bride Valley vineyard in Dorset has therefore been anything but orthodox. The first time he dabbled in ownership came somewhat fleetingly in Vacqueyras in the southern Rhone, in 1973. The vineyard was a handsome one, the Clos de Caveau, tucked away on a slope near the hotel de Montmirail.
‘It wasn’t a planned exercise,’ Spurrier recalls. ‘I had money in a mobile bottling company in Bordeaux which went bust. Its owner made up for this by transferring 49% of the vineyard to me. But it was never something I could really get into. I simply didn’t have the time to devote to it.’ Almost immediately the Clos de Caveau made a loss and was sold in 1975, allowing him to concentrate on his businesses in Paris.
Already, his profile was building thanks to a combination of cash, ideas and the ability to make things happen. The following year his fame really took off when he organised the now historic Judgement of Paris blind tasting. sensationally, it resulted in California handing out a beating to the Bordelais. With California wanting to erect the ‘steven spurrier gate’ at the entrance to Napa, and some of the Bordelais and Burgundians wanting to hound him out of France, Spurrier had his hands full for the next few years. ‘The idea of being involved in vineyards went out of my mind,’ he recalls. ‘I was too busy selling wine at my Paris shop, Les Caves de Madeleine, and running the Académie du Vin wine school.’
But those too, along with an ill-advised restaurant venture, ran into problems in the 1980s. ‘It was a bad decade for me financially as the Caves lost customers. By 1987 my bank balance was in trouble and I had to sell up.’
From France to Dorset
He and Bella upped sticks to Dorset, while continuing to work in Paris. The house had a cellar (a must) and a garden but no land. ‘But soon after we arrived, 85 hectares on the edge of Litton Cheney village came up for sale, and Bella bought it to farm sheep.
‘Just walking around the land i was immediately struck by the chalk – it is just 30 minutes’ drive west from Kimmeridge – and showed some rocks to French wine critic Michel Bettane at L’Académie du Vin in Paris. When I asked where he thought they were from, he replied, “Champagne, of course”.’ Later, when Chablis producer Michel Laroche visited the spurriers, he took soil samples back to Chablis for analysis. ‘Michel told me it was perfect for Chardonnay and other white grapes. Possibly Pinot Noir too – if we had the climate to ripen it.’
Fortunately, Spurrier wasn’t in a position to go ahead in the early 1990s. ‘if I had planted vines then, I would have chosen Pinot Auxerrois from Alsace to make a still, fruity wine, which would have been another financial disaster!’
Instead, he focused on two major career moves. He became a consultant wine buyer for Singapore Airlines and, with several books already under his belt, began writing for Decanter. so, by 1994, he was back on his feet and unable to resist a project in Bordeaux. His eye had fallen on a rundown but architecturally noble 18th-century château in Entre-deux-Mers – Château Gamage.
He bought a stake with his brother. ‘We owned 30% of the vineyard and saw it as an investment.’ Unfortunately, it too turned out badly and the pair lost a hefty sum. ‘I’m still involved in litigation with the French partner and it’s now known in the family as Château Dommage,’ says Spurrier ruefully. ‘It was then that I swore that if ever I were to go into vineyards again, it would be with someone I could trust absolutely. Namely my wife.’
Thereafter, all ideas fell dormant until the turn of the millennium. By this point Spurrier had noted the rapidly improving quality of the sparkling wine from pioneering English vineyards such as Nyetimber and Ridgeview. The irrepressible wine-producing itch began to grow, aided and abetted by a warming climate. ‘When walking our dogs round the perfect south-southwest facing bowl of the farm, I couldn’t stop imagining a vineyard there,’ he says. ‘The clincher was when the sheep farm began to cost us money.’
It was his third roll of the vineyard dice. ‘I decided that this time we would spend what needed spending. so I suggested to Bella that we plant vines on her farmland. Fortunately, she agreed, but only if I paid for them.’
Written by John Livingstone-Learmouth