Want to make your own wine? The key is in the planning, says Monty Waldin, who shares his insight from several winemaking ventures. Plus, we profile three couples who are now living the dream in South Africa, England and France.
How to buy a vineyard: Case study 3: Domaine Ste-Rose, Servian, France
Twelve years after leaving London and his job as a pharmaceutical executive, Charles Simpson and his wife Ruth have built a strong export base and scooped a dozen awards for the wines they make in the Languedoc.
Domaine Ste-Rose was one of 40 estates they shortlisted with the help of a property consultant. ‘With good properties, you have to move fast,’ says Simpson. ‘Luckily we had already moved to the region. We viewed it on the Monday, and signed the compromis de vente (commitment to buy) the following afternoon.’ They paid £1.3m for the estate, which included 50 hectares of vineyards and a 16th-century château.
A full viticultural survey was a good move; signs were spotted of the vineyard disease flavescence dorée, and a clause added to the contract stating that if more than 10% of vines were affected by a certain date, a 10% rebate on the purchase price would be paid.
The legal process proved long and challenging. ‘It’s frustrating that little due diligence takes place between the two main stages of purchase, the compromis de vente and the acte authentique,’ says Simpson. ‘We didn’t see the contract until just before we walked into the meeting with the vendor, the notary, and both parties’ lawyers.’
Working outside the appellation system was always the aim: land is cheaper in IGP zones – about E10,000/ha compared with E15,000/ha in AC areas – and the freedom to experiment makes it easier to stand out from the crowd, believes Simpson. ‘Small domaines have to offer something unusual, as they can’t compete on price with the varietal wines made from the usual international grapes. As outsiders, we approached it with a fresh attitude, blending Petit Verdot with Mourvèdre, for example. Majestic bought that because it’s different.’
Remember, he continues, that production costs are no lower in IGP Languedoc than in Bordeaux. But if you price your Languedoc wine at £60, you’ll only sell a few bottles. ‘We wanted our wine to be affordable, authentic and handcrafted.’ The range is priced at £7.50 to £15.
‘When making plans, you should dissect it into three: grape growing, winemaking and the business side,’ advises Simpson. ‘You either need to acquire those skills, or buy them in. In an area like the Languedoc, with a strong wine heritage, expertise is available locally, so use it – you can’t do everything.’
The Simpsons eventually found an Australian winemaker based locally by advertising on a French agricultural website. ‘We received more than 100 CVs, and interviewed 10. All had the technical know-how; what we explored was attitude. Which wines do they enjoy drinking? The answer can be very revealing.’
Simpson believes many vineyard start-ups fall down on the business side – marketing and selling their wine – and that most people underestimate the cost of buying a vineyard. ‘You should be able to make it to year two or three, when you have wines to sell, and still fund upcoming vintages,’ he counsels. Also factor in the costs of overhauling the vineyards or winery if necessary. The Simpsons reduced the planted area from 50ha to 37ha, repruning and retrellising large areas; it had been geared towards volume, not quality. Their winery hadn’t been used for 15 years, and needed a total refit. Luckily EU grants are available, and they use a consultant to help with applications.
It was in year three that the Simpsons turned a profit, after investing £100,000 since the purchase. ‘The value is in the asset we have built – the only way to make millions on it is to sell it. But while it pays only a very small salary, it provides an amazing lifestyle,’ says Simpson.
So what has he learned? ‘I was incredibly cavalier,’ he reflects. ‘I thought I could change the perception of the Languedoc overnight. Though we’ve made progress, the industry is incredibly slow to change.’ A sparkling wine they produced was too left-field for UK supermarket buyers, even retailing at £12. Luckily it was snapped up by Naked Wines, who were ‘more open-minded’, he says.
The Simpsons have decided to remain a boutique winery. Rather than expand Ste-Rose, they have instead bought 30ha of vineyard in Kent, to make English sparkling wine. ‘I often get asked whether I’d do the same again, knowing what I know now,’ says Simpson. ‘Well, we are!’
DO things different. Choose different growing areas; craft unusual blends; sell to different markets
DON’T underestimate the cost. Passion doesn’t guarantee success.