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Nyetimber boss: We’re beating the French at their very own game’

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Proving all of them fallacious: Eric Heerema at his Sussex vineyard holding his Platinum Jubilee fizz

Transforming ‘cottage industry run by willing amateurs’ that Eric Heerema bought in 2006 into a global rival to French Champagne has all the time been a slow burn. 

It’s taken 16 years, and it can be one other eight before Nyetimber hits its chief executive’s goal of selling 2m bottles a 12 months. 

Once they do, Heerema says, the English sparkling wine producer ‘should turn a profit’. 

The Dutchman’s quest has meant improving English wine’s once lowly repute, in addition to overcoming the climatic quirks that may wipe out a harvest even within the normally mild area of the South Downs in West Sussex. 

‘The French particularly questioned our existence,’ said 61-year-old Heerema, who lives in a sixteenth century manor house on the Nyetimber estate. 

‘It was a case of ‘why are you in business when Champagne is already established?’ But we have proved them fallacious. 

‘We get more investors approaching us now, but they’re focused on a return whereas I feel by way of generations fairly than years. 

‘They’d also need to cut our expenditure, nevertheless it’s all the time been an expensive industry through which to operate with relatively low yields; you possibly can make a profit nevertheless it’s not Silicon Valley.’ 

The previous lawyer can afford to swerve unwelcome interference and go it alone. He has some deep coffers thanks partially to a controversial inheritance from his late father Pieter Schelte Heerema, a shipping entrepreneur and convicted Nazi war criminal. 

The well-publicised link jars with the otherwise impeccable and really English credentials of a product sipped on the royal barge on the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and likewise served with the Savoy Hotel’s afternoon tea. And while dismissed by Heerema as a ‘pity and a distraction’ it perhaps explains the guarded air and presence of his note-taking PR agent. 

He’s tight-lipped on the dimensions of investment thus far, which has funded expansion to 11 vineyards across 865 acres of West Sussex, Hampshire and Kent, all within the low altitude and sandy soil sweet-spot for optimal growing conditions. 

Crucially, he was cushioned against the pandemic. 

Lucrative partnerships with events resembling Queen’s Club tennis and Glyndebourne festival needed to be placed on hold while on-trade sales to hotels including the Savoy, Ritz and Chewton Glen took an enormous hit together with export trade to core markets of Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland. 

‘There have been months we didn’t export a single bottle – it was a terrible,’ Heerema adds of a tricky spell that was compounded by the post-Brexit exodus of Eastern European labour needed to select the 200 tonnes of grapes a day during harvest.

Nevertheless, fortunes soon improved. Export trade returned with recent inroads into German, Chinese and Japanese markets. The trend for patrons to spend more on premium wines to drink at home also played to the corporate’s advantage, leading to a 57pc rise in sales from 2020. 

For Heerema it’s further evidence that efforts to broaden a historically older customer base, skewed to the South have paid off. 

Shelf space within the Northern supermarket chain of Booths, alongside Waitrose and Majestic Wines, has brought the brand to Manchester, Cheshire and Liverpool and helped it discover a younger clientele of their late 20s. 

Raising a glass: Nyetimber’s special edition bottle for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee

Raising a glass: Nyetimber’s special edition bottle for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee

It is also clear the growing scale and stature of a UK viticulture industry that hardly existed when he began 16 years ago is playing its part in raising Nyetimber’s profile and repute. 

Warmer growing seasons driven by climate change saw a 300 per cent increase in vineyards across England and Wales between 2005 to 2019, a traction Heerema predicts will proceed with further consolidation and acquisitions. He welcomes what he stipulates as ‘serious’ producers versus ‘farmers used to planting lettuces suddenly switching to vines’. 

The rise in French Champagne houses resembling Taittinger investing in English vineyards is seen as the final word endorsement from a nation that was once English wine’s biggest sceptic. 

Nevertheless, a serious downside of market growth is soaring competition for land with exacting criteria pushing up prices and stunting his own expansion plans around West Sussex. 

And while he stresses the industry is ‘generally friendly’, it might seem that Heerema still must be on his guard. 

‘People have copied our label and even the names of a few of the wine,’ he says, gesturing towards the sleek black bottles with the distinctive metallic label, the results of 2012 rebrands. 

‘Plus, because wine making involves specialist and sought-after skills, it’s common for other producers to have a watch in your team. 

Fruitful partnership: Eric and his wife Hannah inside their 16th century manor house on the Nyetimber estate

Fruitful partnership: Eric and his wife Hannah inside their sixteenth century manor house on the Nyetimber estate

‘They may approach someone, get information after which spit them out.’ It explains his effusive praise for Cherie Spriggs and Brad Greatrix, a husband-and-wife team who, answering his call for international winemakers 15 years ago, relocated from Canada. 

The Dutchman credits the couple with improving the standard and consistency of the wine, the important thing differentiator between those that stay the course and people ‘who win an award one 12 months and disappear the following’. 

The strategy of mixing wines from as much as 100 tanks is, he says, is an intuitive and a precise art with little room for variance.

For instance, an experiment so as to add a more oaky quality to the flavour was soon abandoned for the crisper taste that Nyetimber drinkers appear to prefer in the shape of best-selling multi vintage Classic Cuvee. 

Limited edition bottles are currently toting a platinum-coloured sleeve in honour of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee as Heerema waits to see if once more his wine will probably be the tipple of alternative for any of the official royal celebrations. 

Having outgrown the previous winery on the estate, the production happens at one other site 20 miles away in Crawley, leaving the estate itself vast and quiet. 

Rooted in centuries of history, with the verdant South Downs as a backdrop, it might be an obvious draw to cellar door trade and vineyard tours. 

However the single-track road limits access to the general public. 

Heerema says he’s pondering of using an alternate site for that purpose but for now his focus falls is on the rows of surrounding vines. 

Their stumpy unremarkable appearance belies a critical time in the method because the buds burst and develop into particularly vulnerable to frost for the following three weeks. 

‘It’s a really anxious time since the cold can really damage the plant because it did with the crops in 2016 and 2017 and meant we had no harvest,’ he says. 

‘But you have to be flexible on this business. What we’re involved with is a product of nature, which is all the time subject to manage. That’s what makes all of it so fascinating.’

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