Published: 00:01, 08 June 2017
| Updated: 10:24, 08 June 2017
Even the British weather could not take the smile off the face of Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger.
The president of the eponymous Grand Marque champagne house – the last still run by its founding family – stood in the rain in a field at Chilham, near Canterbury, where he plans to make English sparkling wine.
He planted vines at the ceremonial launch of the Domaine Evremond vineyard on May 4, where he will grow nearly 100 acres of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes over the next two to three years.
Taittinger has broken new ground after becoming the first champagne house to take the plunge into English sparkling wine.
It comes 30 years after it launched its successful Domaine Carneros by Taittinger venture in the USA.
It acquired the 170-acre Kent site last autumn and hopes to have the first wine on sale by 2023.
“The soil is excellent for the production of good pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay grapes,” said Mr Taittinger, rubbing the crumbling earth through his fingers.
“It is chalky soil with very good exposure. With global warming, progressively I think it will have a very good texture to make an excellent wine.”
Many of the great and good of Kent’s wine industry were gathered at the Taittinger launch. The industry works collaboratively, rather than in competition, raising the profile of British bubbles as much as individual brands.
“It is a huge vote of confidence in the English wine industry and in Kent in particular,” said Richard Balfour-Lynn, owner of the Hush Heath Estate winery, near Staplehurst.
“It is the first French champagne house with a strong reputation planting here. It is very exciting.
“We have all been working together to promote Kent as the Garden of England and to promote wine tourism, which is creating jobs and bringing people back into agriculture.
“I feel very strongly that the future of English wine is in working collaboratively.
“We welcome everyone to come visit us and we are happy to talk openly about what we do and how we do it.”
Charles Simpson, who runs Simpsons Wine Estate in Barham, with his wife Ruth, agreed. “What a great story,” he said.
“Taittinger are investing in east Kent which is a great endorsement for the industry but also for the area.”
Before arriving at the Domaine Evremond launch, Mr Simpson had been doing some planting of his own.
His team had begun adding 40,000 chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier vines across 25 acres. It was the final phase of planting which began in 2014.
He said Kent’s climate and soil is the reason the county had become a haven for the growing appetite for English wine.
“We believe that we have the highest sunshine hours in the UK,” said Mr Simpson. “They do call Kent the Garden of England for a reason. Everything grows so well.
“We are at the margins of what’s possible relating to viticulure so you need to use everything in your favour.
"Having a lot of sunshine hours makes Kent incredibly suitable. The other thing is we are on the chalk hills of the North Downs and chalk is the holy grail of viticultural soil types.
“We have the same soil type as the Champagne region. We couldn’t be in a better place.”
Domaine Evremond, which will eventually employ about 20 people, is a joint venture between Taittinger and Hatch Mansfield, a wine importer which has been bringing wine from the champagne house to the UK for 18 years.
Managing director Patrick McGrath said the Taittinger involvement was “crucial” in creating top wine and enhancing the reputation of English sparkling wine.
He said: “The real art in making a really good champagne or sparkling wine is the blending process between chardonnay, pinor noir and pinot meunier.
“The Taittinger winemaking team are experts at that, which is where the extra knowhow will come in.
“Taittinger coming here is a real show of confidence in Kent as the best place in England to produce sparkling wine.”
Mr Taittinger concurs. “We produce good sparkling wine all over the world and it will not be a competition,” he said.
“I don’t see it in this way. It will be a complimentary production between people who like to produce excellent bubbles.
“We have done it in terms of friendship and also because we are convinced that we can grow and produce excellent sparkling wines here in this land of Kent.”
Who is Pierre Emmanuel Taittinger?
Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger had close links with the UK before his company’s venture into English sparkling wine.
He began his career in Chelsea four decades ago and his father, Jean Taittinger, twinned Canterbury with his hometown of Rheims 45 years ago, when he was mayor of the town.
He is popular among English winemakers for his humour – he dismissed the rainy launch of his vineyard as “a sign of good luck”.
He has also won over his English counterparts with his willingness to invest millions into wine production in the UK over the next decade – and the prestige he has brought by adding a Grand Marque champagne house to the list of growers in the county.
“He is remarkably charismatic, very visionary and he’s a great people person,” said Patrick McGrath, managing director of Hatch Mansfield, one of Mr Taittinger’s business partners in the county.
“He really believes in people and this project is borne out of friendship.”
Mr McGrath has known Mr Taittinger for 20 years and said his investment was a signal of his company’s appreciation of all the support the UK has given the Champagne region over hundreds of years.
He said: “It was as simple as talking about it.
“He is remarkably charismatic, very visionary and he’s a great people person..." - Patrick McGrath on Pierre Emmanuel Taittinger
“We were talking over dinner about the growth of English sparkling wine and the next morning he said ‘let’s do something together’.
“He said ‘if you can find the right sort of land, I’m with you’.”
They secured the services of Stephen Skelton, the man who established vineyards at Tenterden in 1977, which are now the home to Chapel Down Wines.
Mr Skelton was also winemaker and general manager at Lamberhurst Vineyards from 1988 to 1991, at that time the largest winery in the UK.
Despite his flamboyant style, Mr Taittinger is known as an excellent businessman able to generate incredible publicity for the company which bears his name.
He declared his intention to run in the French presidential race last year, only to pull out days later.
Taittinger has a 55% stake in the Domaine Evremond vineyard in Chilham, with the rest divided between Hatch Mansfield and investors including the Gaskain family, the fruit farmers who sold the land at Stone Stile Farm to the venture.
He has declared his intention to expand the vineyard if more suitable land becomes available.
His company is focused entirely on the premium end of the market and his new Domaine Evremond vineyard will be no different when production eventually reaches its target of 300,000 bottles a year.
Mr Taittinger said: “We are going to develop Evremond as a division of excellency.
“Evremond will be a signature of something which will have a worldwide image.”