The rise of English sparkling wine has been spearheaded by the pioneering work of Nyetimber. Patrick Schmitt MW meets its owner, Eric Heerema, and discovers how he is planning for the house to succeed for generations to come.
Being based in the UK will colour one’s view, but even in such a highly international wine market – the biggest for Prosecco and Champagne – English sparkling wine is the topic du jour. This is partly because last year was the best vintage on record for British vintners, and partly because the country is just starting its summer of outdoor events, from racing to motoring, rowing to racquets, not forgetting cricket, sailing and open-air concerts, all of which are perfect places for pouring home-grown fizz.
However, as those who attend such occasions will confirm, the refreshment usually comes in the form of Champagne. Of course Brits love to drink the fine French fizz, but this product’s stranglehold during the ‘English Season’ – as it’s dubbed – has come about
because Champagne’s strongest brands have the cash and scale required to be ‘the official’ drink of Royal Ascot or Henley Regatta, for example. And, it’s not an image-building position they are going to give up lightly.
Nevertheless, there is one name that is behaving like a Champagne grande marque. A brand of fizz that you will find at quintessential British social events, complete with its route master bus in a distinctive shade of pale green, similar to the Eau de Nil of famous UK marque, Fortnum & Mason.
This sparkling is Nyetimber – the name of a place that can trace its origins back to the Domesday Book of 1086, as well as a vineyard planted in 1988, and a brand of fizz launched in 1996. Today, Nyetimber is invariably the first English fizz mentioned by anyone with even the most basic experience of this category, and the only one that features prominently at major summer sporting occasions, or indeed, in the best wine shops at home and worldwide, as it paves the way for English fizz in foreign markets.
But, such a presence has required funding, and on a significant scale. And, because Nyetimber is privately owned, it has needed someone with deep pockets, and a strongly held belief in the potential of English sparkling. That person is Eric Heerema, a pioneering figure in the world of English fizz branding and development. Born into a Dutch family, his fortune stems from Heerema Marine Contractors, a shipping business built up by his father. Today Heerema works full time as owner and CEO of Nyetimber, having sold his stake in the family business, giving him a net worth of more than £100m, according to Forbes.
Born in 1960, it wasn’t until he was 45 that Eric made his first foray into the English wine industry, although he traces his fascination with wine back to his teenage years, when he began to experience its extraordinary diversity. “I became passionate about wine when I was 17. I loved the taste, the range. The differences in flavour triggered my interest, but so did the story of how it was made, so I started reading about it,” he recalls. “I always hoped that one day I’d become a wine producer,” he adds, although at this early stage in his appreciation of the drink, he envisaged having vineyards in France or Italy.
It wasn’t until 2003 that Heerema had his first taste of English fizz. He moved to the UK, and bought a farmhouse in West Sussex. He loved the countryside in this part of the UK, but also wanted to be near Goodwood, the Sussex estate famed for motorsports – Heerema is a classic car enthusiast, and has owned and raced some seriously valuable cars, including a Ferrari 250 GTO that made US$35m (£27.8m) when he sold it in 2012 (creating a new record as the world’s most expensive car).
It was purely by chance that he had bought a property with great potential for vineyards, while saying that his settling in Sussex “coincided” with a sip of English sparkling wine. “It made me realise that it was seriously impressive,” he says. It prompted him to convert some grazing land around the property from pasture to vineyards, planting his first 16 acres of grapes in 2005. But he needed more land, and decided to acquire an existing producer, which he did in 2006 with Nyetimber.
“It was the name that stood out; it was a pioneer with Champagne grapes in the UK, it was already seen as the best, and it was a beautiful location,” he says.
But he also “saw the potential of English sparkling wine. I saw a future for this industry based on this quality, and I knew I had a unique opportunity to conquer a place in the sparkling wine world.”
That was 13 years ago, so has his view of the possibilities for English wine changed? After all, getting this far has been costly, even having bought the initial Nyetimber property for £7.4m. Although Heerema won’t disclose what he has spent building Nyetimber as an estate and a brand, it must have required a lot of money. Nyetimber has the most advanced winery equipment in the business, and it only uses grapes from its own vineyards, which now total more than 260 hectares in prime English countryside – a huge growth considering the estate was just 16ha in 2006. Then there’s been all the marketing activities to position Nyetimber as a “contemporary luxury British brand” – to use Eric’s description.
While he chooses not to comment on the extent of the investment, he does say: “It has been much more than I envisaged… much much more.” Having said that, he expresses no regrets. “I believe in it. I believe in the future of Nyetimber and the future of the English sparkling wine industry and, as we go along this long path, I see more opportunities than I envisaged in 2006. At that time we produced an average of 40,000 to 45,000 bottles – with a peak of 60,000 bottles – and I aimed then to grow to 500,000 bottles,” he says. But, Nyetimber produced more than 1m bottles from
the 2018 vintage – “it was a bumper and historic year” – so he says his “ambitions have grown considerably”.
Looking back, he says: “When I took over, the English wine industry was in its infancy; it was primarily making still wine, the quality was not high, and the perception about English wine was very low.”
At this point he was having to “constantly justify our existence” – although a “turning point came soon”. It arrived within three years, as a result of the collapse of Lehman Brothers in late 2008 and the ensuing economic turmoil. He explains: “The global financial crisis of 2008/2009 started to make people think about the ostentatiousness of Champagne, and they didn’t want to be seen to be celebrating with such a luxury product; they were less eager to spend money – and that was the beginning of the rise of Prosecco.
“I see it as the beginning of the emancipation of the Champagne drinker.”
In other words, it prompted consumers to open their eyes to Champagne alternatives, with Prosecco as the cheaper option, but English sparkling wine as a quality substitute for the French traditional method fizz. “I see a parallel in still wine with the Judgement of Paris in 1976, when wines from the New World did well, and it opened the consumer’s eyes to new wine regions, and not only the safe choices,” he says, referencing Steven Spurrier’s blind tasting, which pitted first growth Bordeaux against great Napa Cabernets. But he also says that the small scale of the English sparkling wine industry ensures that it will “remain a niche product, with Nyetimber a niche producer, that attracts a certain group of consumers with an eye for quality”.
Heerema’s sustained investment in Nyetimber isn’t just driven by his passion for the property and his urge to realise the quality potential of English fizz, but also his determination to make a cash-generating business out of his British brand. “We have invested because we have a belief in our product and the commercial viability of Nyetimber as a company – at the intended scale.”
Before discussing what he means by “intended scale”, he stresses his “dedication” to make Nyetimber “a profitable enterprise”. “It has been hugely loss-making since 2006, but it had to be, because we have invested in the growth of the company, from buying land and equipment, to planting vineyards and creating a brand, with all the people that requires. All those things are extremely capital-intensive, so the losses are still huge.” And while he sees “a point when we become profitable, it will be some years from now. We hope around 2022.”
Harvesting and selling
So what about the size of the business in volume terms? Heerema says that sales of Nyetimber in 2018 were about 350,000 “units”, which “is where we wanted to be”, and while Nyetimber produced more than double that quantity from last year’s harvest, he says: “Our sales seem low compared with production because there is long period between harvesting and selling.”
Heerema believes that Nyetimber is England’s biggest producer of sparkling wine but wants to double the present volume. “We passed the 1m bottle mark from 170ha in 2018, but we have 240ha under vine, and this year we are planting a further 25ha. We are looking to reach well over 300ha by the end of next year, so we will eventually reach 2m bottles in average annual production.”
While not vast by Champagne standards – it’s the equivalent in scale of a house such as Pol Roger – for an English wine producer using only estate-grown grapes, it’s big. With the amount of all English fizz estimated to be around 10m bottles from the 2018 harvest, Nyetimber already represents 10% of the total production. As for the style of fizz from the UK, Heerema sees “a virtue in freshness. English sparkling wine has a complexity and finesse that comes from the slow ripening of grapes in a cool climate,” noting that it’s also on trend “as people’s tastes evolve to ever-drier styles”. Speaking about Nyetimber specifically, he adds: “Nyetimber is not a very rich sparkling wine – certainly compared with Champagne – richness is not something we strive for; we strive for elegance and balance.”
He also says: “We don’t benchmark for taste – we look at intrinsic quality from our fruit.”
As with many relative newcomers to the world of wine, the challenges of building a brand in such a crowded category are noteworthy. He says: “I certainly underestimated the difficulties and complexities of brand building, and, next to the challenges of winemaking,
this is certainly the most difficult part of creating a successful sparkling wine producing company.”
In terms of Nyetimber’s recent history, he recalls a turning point from “being a novelty to becoming a real brand” in 2012, “which was a very British year, with the Olympics, the first British man’s victory in the Tour de France, and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee – and it was a set of events that linked with English sparkling wine and Nyetimber”.
Impressively for an English fizz, Nyetimber exports around 10% of its total sales, and Heerema highlights a “tremendous growth” in demand from foreign markets, and hopes to increase the share of Nyetimber’s export business to 30% in the coming years.
However, he’s also realistic about the challenges of doing this. “It has been very difficult to get to where we are now in the UK, and there will be the same challenges in every other market, but without the affinity for our own production,” he says. “The factor helping our industry in the past 10 years has been the support of consumers, the fact there is pride in our own produce, and abroad we won’t have that, so we will have to work very hard.”
Having discussed many other aspects concering the establishment of Nyetimber as a contemporary luxury British brand, including viticultural setbacks from frost, rot and soil compaction, I ask him why he has devoted the past 13 years of his life to such a pursuit, as well as, no doubt, a large sum of money. “When I started this project, a consultant questioned me, and told me that it would be a great way to make a small fortune out of a bigger one, but I have never seen Nyetimber as just a way to earn money – it is a way of life and, out of conviction, it can be successful – including financially,” he says.
“With investments it is usually about how can you maximise returns, and how you can exit. We don’t look at an exit, but rather how we can make Nyetimber successful, and that is a very slow process. I don’t think in years, but in generations,” he adds.
As for whether, with the benefit of hindsight, he would start again in England, and not somewhere else on trend, such
as Provence, he says: “I would do some things differently, but I am still very much convinced about the future of the English sparkling wine industry, and Nyetimber.”
Bearing in mind the good work Heerema has done for the reputation of the English wine industry, from improving Nyetimber’s benchmark Classic Cuvee MV, to launching pioneering luxury brand extensions, such as the single vineyard Tillington or, more recently, the triumphal 1086 prestige expression, and now a push on demi-sec, the emerging business of British fizz should be extremely grateful to him.
Just as well this Dutchman enjoyed his first sip of English fizz in 2003.