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The sunny slopes of the Elham Valley near Barham are bearing fruit for award-winning winemakers

A maker of French wine whose bottles grace the shelves of Waitrose is ploughing £4 million into a vineyard in the Kent countryside - and the first crop is almost ripe for picking.

Next month grape pickers will bring in the harvest for what will be turned into a high-quality sparkling wines.

It will be the first local produce of winemakers Charles and Ruth Simpson, who already have a successful estate in France but have chosen the downs at Barham, near Canterbury, for their next venture.

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Wine maker Charles Simpson examines the vines at his estate
Wine maker Charles Simpson examines the vines at his estate

They are ploughing millions into the business, but are confident they can deliver fine English sparkling wines to rival the best and expect to sell 250,000 bottles a year when production is in full flow.

It will be the result of their knowledge and skill gained from 13 years in viticulture at their award-winning Domaine Sainte Rose winery in the Languedoc, which sells in Waitrose and Majestic.

The couple bought around 90 acres at Barham and established the Simpsons Wine Estate in 2014 and are building a high tech winery.

The land was chosen specifically for its grape-growing friendly properties, including south-facing sheltered slopes for catching the best of the sun and drainage, as well as the lime-rich chalk soil.

VIDEO: New crop almost ripe for picking

They have planted the most popular grape varieties of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay from which their signature sparkling wine will be produced.

Mr Simpson, 44, who has homes in Fordwich and France, said: “The English climate may be marginal for viticulture, but its relative austerity – when expertly handled – is ideally suited to creating sparkling wines with racy acidity and subtly sophisticated aromas, thanks to a long, cool ripening period.

"We are seeing the grapes ripening now on the first 30 acres we planted and the second plot of 30 acres will produce grapes in 2018. After that we will plant up the last adjacent 30 acres.

"It’s exciting but we will not be cracking open the first bottle until 2018 because of the lengthy fermentation process needed to get the quality."

The first grapes are ripening at the Simpsons Wines Estate at Barham
The first grapes are ripening at the Simpsons Wines Estate at Barham

Mr Simpson, has invested in some of the latest technology but he says: “You can’t make a great wine without the best grapes - the technology can’t help with that, although you can spoil a good grape in the process.”

Despite it not yet being in production, Mr Simpson, says there has already been strong interest in the wine and a lot of support locally.

He added: "We launched a crowdfunding scheme and 1,200 people have bought six bottles each for £100 - even though they will not be able to taste it for two years.

"People are also asking about vineyard tours and that is something we will certainly be considering in the future, along with wine-tasting and maybe even a restaurant.”

Wine maker Charles Simpson against the backdrop of a newly-planted vineyard in the Elham Valley
Wine maker Charles Simpson against the backdrop of a newly-planted vineyard in the Elham Valley

Mr Simpson, admits there has been snobbery against English wines in years past, but opinion - and the quality - has changed.

"Frankly, years ago, the wines were not very good, but that has changed," he says.

"But I think it had more to do with the fact that growers were concentrating on Germanic varieties.

"There are some superb wines in production now and we think there will be strong demand for a new top quality English sparkling wine.

"Our new wine is still an unknown quantity and in many respects, that’s what makes it exciting.

"We have the core skills to make world class wine but are having to take that and adapt it to a totally different climate, 1,000km north of our winery in France. It’s a new challenge which we are relishing."


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