Second innings: Botham looks to Britain for latest wine launch

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Having made a splash with his own-name wine brand last year, cricketing hero Sir Ian Botham has joined forces with Kent winery Hush Heath Estate to launch a range of quintessentially English wines.

IF YOU know anything about English sporting legend Sir Ian Botham, it should come as no surprise to learn that he signed off from his cricket-commentary career at Sky last month with a glass of wine. Aside from his fame for record-breaking batting achievements, and his high-profile charitable work, Sir Ian carries a reputation as a knowledgeable and enthusiastic wine lover.

And, he has had a toe in the drinks trade for the past 20 years, having partnered with McLaren Vale winemaker Geoff Merrill (and former cricketer Bob Willis) for the Botham Merrill Willis label since 1999.

Furthermore, if you read the drinks business’s interview with Botham last year, then it will come as little surprise to also learn that he marked his 20 years of broadcasting with a glass of Chardonnay – the ex-England all-rounder loves the grape, and would rather drink a creamy white wine from Australia than risk the disappointment of an insipid fizz. (One senses a certain fatigue from the 63-year-old Botham for the standard bubbles served at drinks receptions).

Also, if you read the article in our August 2018 edition, then it will come as no shock to find out the wine he drank in the commentary box was his own – Botham’s Adelaide Hills Chardonnay, made using grapes from Marty Edwards at The Lane Vineyard, one of the brilliant partner wineries chosen by Botham for his brand launch.

Such a drop, along with others from Australia, was unveiled to db at Lord’s cricket ground on 27 July 2018, where Botham made clear his dislike of the term ‘celebrity winemaker’, which, he felt, would imply that his famous name was just being used to shift an existing product, rather than the reality, which sees Botham involved in all stages of production, from choosing the producers, to making the blends, and presenting the wines to press and buyers.

Speaking to Botham more recently, it seems he was relishing leaving Sky because it gives him a chance to devote himself full-time to the wine business; a change of career.

L-r: Richard Balfour-Lynn, Sir Ian Botham and db editor-in-chief Patrick Schmitt MW

But for those who follow Botham closely, there is something a bit surprising about his latest, hands-on foray into the wine business – the lack of English wine in his range. As a former player for England in both test and one-day international cricket, he is renowned for his passionate attachment to his home nation. One would have thought such patriotism would extend to the promotion of his motherland’s produce. But, until this summer, the Botham wines comprised a range from Australia, followed by a Pinot from Central Otago in New Zealand. Where was the English fizz? He may prefer weighty whites in the commentary box, but surely a fine sparkling wine from the UK would appeal to this famous English figure? Furthermore, wouldn’t it be brilliant for GB’s emerging wine industry players if they could count Botham as a backer?

When we met him in July last year, Botham told db of his intention to launch an English fizz, leading us to run a story on our website expressing this desire, which in turn prompted a rash of offers from hopeful English wineries. Out of a mixture of duty, curiosity, and good manners, Botham has spent the past 12 months visiting English wine producers, but, as we were first to report four months ago, he has made his choice, agreeing a tie-up with Hush Heath Estate in Kent.

As he told us at the property last month, although he recognises the quality at a number of English wine producers, it was always Hush Heath that he had in mind for his brand. “I knew which sparkling I wanted from the word go; it was just a case of being polite and tasting the others,” he says. Such certainty hails from Botham’s long-standing experience of Hush Heath’s fizz, above all its flagship rosé.

He explains: “It was the first English sparkling wine to be served in BA First Class, and the only English wine to be poured at the London 2012 Olympics.”

Not only that, but Botham knew the owner of Hush Heath Estate, Richard Balfour-Lynn. The connection stems from Botham’s former role as brand ambassador of Hotel du Vin, a chain of wine-focused British hotels previously own and run by Balfour-Lynn’s MWB property and hotel group.

Botham says: “I remembered drinking Richard’s sparkling rosé – I loved it, and so did my wife.”

But this latest Botham wine represents a subtle twist in the development of his wine business. Rather than being purely a Botham-branded product, the English wines carry the famous cricketer’s name and that of the winery partner, Balfour-Lynn. So, with the launch of the cricketer’s first English wine offer comes a new label: Botham & Balfour.

There’s something else that’s novel about the enterprise: Tesco is taking the new wine label on an initial exclusive basis, but not the fizz. Rather, Botham & Balfour will launch in the UK’s largest supermarket chain with a still rosé.

Although Botham had planned to bring an English sparkling wine to market, and launch a pink fizz with Hush Heath, he was so impressed by the still rosé from the property that he and Richard agreed a two-line launch offer: with a still and sparkling rosé.

“I knew about the sparkling rosé, but then, when I came here, Richard served us a still rosé, and I thought, wow, this is good, it has to be a wine from Provence.” Actually, it was a bone-dry pink wine made from a blend of Champagne grapes Pinot Noir, Meunier and Chardonnay, along with hybrid red grape Regner, which Balfour-Lynn says works best as a rosé, bringing plenty of red berry aromas.

Hailing from the unusually good harvest last year, Balfour-Lynn says that the Botham & Balfour pink is “certainly the best rosé we’ve ever made”, and describes it as having “the natural pretty colour of an apricot English rose, while stressing that the wine is “fresh and very clean on the nose”.

Botham says: “I am putting my name to this because the quality is there, and I have been promised that it will be maintained.”

Speaking more generally about the development of English sparkling and still wine, he adds, “It is exciting to be part of the trip.”

Balfour-Lynn says: “The product has to be great to match the celebrity. Our confidence in each other lies in the fact that the product matches the personality – that is the bottom line.” Representing the range of wines from Sir Ian Botham, and the new English wine partnership with Balfour-Lynn, is Benchmark Drinks. Founder Paul Schaafsma, who was formerly CEO at Accolade Wines, tells db that the launch of the Botham & Balfour brand and the Tesco listing represents a big step forward for English wine, pointing out that “the familiarity of Botham”, coupled with the high quality reputation of Hush Heath Estate, will encourage more people to try English wine, people who perhaps were “a bit scared before”.

Not only does the Botham & Balfour brand make English wine “more accessible”, according to Schaafsma, but the “support of Tesco has created an opportunity, and that has got to be good for English wine”.

Reinforcing such a view, Balfour-Lynn says: “This partnership with Ian will be good for English wine, ringing the bell loudly for the industry in the UK and export markets. We both have strong brands, so the most powerful thing is to put the two together – use our strength as an authentic source of English wine, and Ian as a great ambassador with a big wine business internationally.”

As for Botham, he explains: “I always wanted to do an English sparkling wine; I wasn’t interested in doing anything French, and English wine was always going to be a good fit; I’ve got the Union Jack on my chest, so to speak; I’m as proud an Englishman as Richard.” But the range isn’t capped at two pink wines, stresses Balfour-Lynn. “This is the start of a long-term partnership, and I suspect we will do more wines together, it is hugely exciting and we are right behind it. We are joint business partners and joint brand ambassadors for English wine.” And Botham is optimistic about the export potential. “The Botham wines are in 14 countries, so the market is already there, and I don’t see any reason why we can’t go global with Botham & Balfour.”

He is also excited by the opportunity in the domestic market. “We need to give people the chance to try the wine, because people in England are not aware of the quality of wine we make,” he says, noting that national distribution through Tesco will provide a fillip to such an endeavour, along with, on a smaller scale, on-trade listings. For example, England cricketer Stuart Broad, who has a small pub business, has expressed an interest in stocking the Botham & Balfour English wines. Then there’s the six-strong Hush Heath pub group, soon to be seven.

As for the wine estate in Kent, Botham says: “Everything here ticks the boxes – it is in the garden of England, it has the weather, the climate, the vineyards are immaculate, and the winery is as modern as anywhere I’ve been – and I’ve been to a lot. As I said about Sky when I left it, I was there at the right time, at the beginning, and I watched it grow over 20 years in the commentary box.

“And that’s where we are now with the English wine industry; we are at the beginning, and it’s exciting, there is only one way for it to go, and that is to grow.”

If one were to pick a figure to make such a forecast come to fruition, then it would be Botham. Not only is he known and respected in cricket-loving nations, but he’s also passionate about the wine business. Plus, with a career in commentary now behind him, he can play full-time in the field of wine promotion, English still and sparkling rosé included.

This article first appeared in the October edition of the drinks business, and you can subscribe to the magazine (digital and print) by clicking here.

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