Rachel Bridge explains how to go about buying your own dream lifestyle
Sir Cliff Richard owns 10ha (hectares) in Portugal, singer Mick Hucknall has 40ha in Sicily, and actor Gérard Depardieu is so keen on his vineyards in the Loire that he describes himself as winemaker on his passport.
The past few years have seen a stampede of celebrities into the winemaking business as a vineyard has become the latest must-have essential. It isn’t hard to see why. After all, there can be few more appealing prospects than gently uncorking a bottle with your name on the label while gazing out over rows of your vines stretching out into the distance.
The good news is that although the price of vineyards in the likes of Bordeaux and Burgundy has soared way beyond the reach of all but the fabulously wealthy, it is still possible for ordinary mortals to buy a vineyard in an up-and-coming region such as Languedoc-Roussillon or Lot et Garonne for the price of a UK family home. And if you are prepared to venture further afield, there are many more opportunities in places such as Spain, Portugal and Italy – or even Australia.
If you lack the bank balance of a celebrity, it is vital to decide exactly what you are hoping to achieve so as to avoid costly mistakes. Former winemaker James Herrick, now wine investment consultant with wineprophet.com, says: ‘You must have a very clear vision and start the way you mean to finish. So if you want to make 1,000 cases of wine and sell it for £100 a bottle then you should begin with a quality approach to the vineyard and a financial approach which accepts that you are not going to make a return for several years. If you want to sell 300,000 cases of own-label wine to supermarkets, that is a completely different business. Where people get it wrong is when they don’t clearly identify which type of animal they are.’
Herrick points out that it is clearly more risky to set up in a lesser known region than in an established region, it does allow greater scope for individuality: ‘The advantage of buying in a known area such as the Rhône valley is that the value of your vineyard is underpinned by the strength of the collective brand,’ he says. ‘But most of the great wines have been created by people who are wild enough and stubborn enough to say, “Sod everybody else, I am going to do it my way.” Then they get it right both technically and from a market point of view.’
Aside from verifying exactly what and how you can plant in a particular region, Herrick says would-be owners also need to be clear about the extent they wish to be involved in the day-to-day running of the vineyard. ‘You need to decide whether you are going to do the work yourself or whether you are going to hand it over to other people,’ he says. ‘If you are going to hire a winemaker, a vineyard manager, a salesman and so on then you need to consider that, typically, it costs the same to hire these people for 10ha as it does for 30.’
Either way, running a vineyard is an expensive business. ‘People who enter the wine business often don’t realise how high risk it is,’ Herrick warns. ‘If a bug causes all your grapes to rot, you can lose an awful lot of money very quickly. Many people think they are going to make the wine one year and sell it the next but they underestimate the fact that they need to hold a year’s worth of stock. They suddenly discover in the second year that they will have to sell some of their good wine off in bulk to pay for their bottles.’
Another key factor to bear in mind is how you aim to sell your wine. Simon Field MW, buyer with London wine merchant Berry Brothers & Rudd, says he is constantly on the lookout for exciting new vineyards producing quality wine. Six of the 30 wines Berry Bros lists in the Languedoc region are from newly discovered vineyards.
He says the secret to attracting interest from a specialist wine merchant such as Berry Bros is to create a wine that uniquely reflects its terroir, or particular location. ‘We are looking for wines that really capture the essence of a certain area, vins de terroir. We want our wines from Côte-Rôtie to taste different from our wines from Crozes-Hermitage, even though it’s only 20 miles down the road.’
Several of the wines Berry Bros lists are sourced from vineyards owned by English ex-pats. But Field cautions that for an outsider to create a uniquely individual wine will take time and patience. ‘It may take a while to imbue a wine with the essence of its terroir. This is something which has been bred in the bones of the French vigneron and someone coming in fresh from outside may not easily be able to get the feel of a particular place.’
Angelika Smith-Aichbichler, a partner with Piedmont Properties which sells vineyards in Piedmont and Tuscany, says people need to be absolutely clear about whether they intend to run the vineyard as a hobby or a proper business. ‘We calculate that you need a minimum of 3ha if you want to have an income from the vineyard,’ she says. ‘A 1ha vineyard is just a hobby.’
Such a spot, with a house, in Piedmont will cost from £160,000, while a 5ha vineyard will cost £7–800,000. However, finding high-quality vineyards for sale can be difficult: ‘People are making a good living out of vineyards at the moment and they don’t want to sell. The local players snatch up every vineyard they can get their hands on. If you do find what you want, you have to move quickly.’
CASE STUDY ONE: AUSTRALIA
Will Wolseley (pictured below) grew up in Somerset where he started making blackberry wine at home as a teenager. He moved to Australia in 1986, aged 19, and spent five years studying wine science and working in vineyards before deciding to go it alone and establish a vineyard of his own. After two years spent looking for the ideal site, he bought 16ha on the southeast coast in Victoria at a cost of £26,000. Wolseley felt that the poor soil and the cool, maritime climate would allow him to grow small concentrated fruit and so create highly individual wines. Single-handedly, he planted 12,000 vines. After living in a tent on site and suffering several major setbacks including storms, frost and drought, he began commercial production in 1998.
Wolseley now produces 50,000 bottles a year, primarily of Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz. From the beginning he has adopted a very traditional approach to winemaking, picking all the grapes by hand, not irrigating, and eschewing the use of pumps or filtering processes in the winery, which runs entirely on solar power. Wolseley explains: ‘I firmly believe that good wine is made on the vine rather than in the winery and so my philosophy has always been to aim for minimal intervention. What excites me is seeing how every decision you make in the vineyard and the winery, no matter how small, is clearly reflected in the quality of the final wine produced.’
Wolseley Wines, 1790 Hendy Main Road, Paraparap 3240, Victoria, Australia. Tel: +61 412 990 638
CASE STUDY TWO: LANGUEDOC
Robert and Kim Cripps (pictured right) were working on vineyards in the Napa Valley when the bug hit them. They moved to France and in 1994 spent their life savings on an 18ha vineyard in the Languedoc. They raised working capital by issuing debentures of £1,000 to friends in return for an annual dividend paid in wine. In the first 18 months, they had just four days’ holiday. Today, they produce 80–90,000 bottles a year, sold under the Coteaux du Languedoc and Vin de Pays appellations. It’s been a long, hard struggle: ‘In the beginning we were forced into a certain point in the marketplace as given our limited resources we knew we had to make wine in as easy drinking a style as we could,’ explains Robert.
With the vineyard now generating an income, however, the Cripps have finally been able to start making the wines they want. Cripps adds: ‘Our philosophy has always been to make vins de terroir which uniquely express the domaine. For me that means having as much life as possible in the soils so we are very careful about what chemicals we spray on the vines. We wanted to make interesting wines that are unique to us but which don’t cost a fortune and are not too excessive in any sense of the word.’
Domaine du Poujol, 34570 Vailhauques, France. Tel: +33 4 67 84 47 57; www.domainedupoujol.com UK stockists: Tanners, Lea & Sandeman and Duncan Murray Wines (see p166 for contact details).
CASE STUDY THREE: WALES
Peter and Diana Andrews were pharmacists when they bought a dilapidated farm in the Vale of Glamorgan in South Wales for less than £50,000 almost 30 years ago. They originally started growing vines as a hobby but when the pharmacy business was taken over in 1987 they decided to devote their energies to making wine commercially. They now have 3ha of vines and produce around 20,000 bottles a year. Their wines, which are marketed under the Cariad label, have won almost 30 awards in international competitions and are sold in Sainsbury’s stores throughout Wales. They practise cool-climate viticulture, growing their grapes high off the ground to improve air circulation and light penetration, to negate the effects of dampness.
‘Right from the beginning we knew we wanted to do it professionally,’ says Peter Andrews. ‘So we decided not to submit any of our wines to local competitions and instead used international wine competitions as a way of assessing how we were doing.
‘We get a lot of support from the Welsh government and Welsh businesses. Our biggest problem has always been making enough wine. Within five or six years we realised that we should have planted four times as many vines as we did.’
Llanerch Vineyard, Vale of Glamorgan, South Wales. Tel: +44 (0) 1443 225 877; www.llanerch-vineyard.co.uk
Written by Rachel Bridge