Margaret Rand catches up with Nicholas Coates and Christian Seely, two old friends who are happy to acknowledge the influence of Champagne, and of each other, on their stylish sparkling-wine project in Hampshire.
Imagine, if you will, the plight of an Englishman living in Bordeaux on the eve of a Rugby World Cup final. It’s England against South Africa. He rings a friend: “I’m living in a country where all 60 million people want England to lose. Please come over and give me moral support.”
Who could resist such a cry for help? Not Nicholas Coates. He and his wife Virginia set off for Bordeaux—but England, alas, lost. Halfway through the second consoling bottle of Champagne, Coates said, “We live in Hampshire, where we have chalk slopes. Have you ever thought of making English sparkling wine?”
Christian Seely (for it was he) dashed from the room and returned clutching a business plan. It turned out that he had already suggested it to his stepfather, who said he’d be dead by then, so, says Coates, “He was looking for a victim. I was dispatched to find the perfect site.”
It’s a bit of a joke with journalists when growers say, “Oh, I hunted high and low, and then I found the ideal site—and it just happened to be a field I owned! Such a coincidence!”
Fancy that, we say. But here we are again—though to be fair, Coates didn’t own this particular site. His own land is just not suitable. He searched for a year, and he says he was about to give up, when someone mentioned that there was a vineyard next door to him, planted by Charles Cunningham, and what about that? Gypsy John down the road had the details.
Yes, really. Gypsy John exists—he lives in a caravan parked by the side of the road, and Coates went to knock on his door. “He talked for England. Four hours later, I had the story.” The site was 10 acres [4ha], half Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier, and the other half hybrids.
It was planted in 1989, but Cunningham had died trekking in Indonesia. His mother Daphne wanted to keep it going as a memorial to him, but she was struggling, and it was overgrown. The trustees were approached, and soil samples were sent to Bordeaux University to check its suitability for sparkling; they thought it was soil from Champagne. “And it was a mile from my house,” says Coates.
A joint venture was set up, 50/50, with Daphne and Coates & Seely. “Daphne came alive again,” says Coates. “She hadn’t left the house for three years. We invited her to Pichon [Baron, part of the AXA Millésimes empire run by Seely], and the trustees said she wouldn’t come, but she got herself a passport and got on a plane. She was 84 or 85. She died a couple of years ago, at 95. We bought the vineyards and the winery.”
Building something of their own
Coates and Seely have known each other for decades. They met at business school INSEAD in 1986 and stayed close friends. Seely had gone to INSEAD after starting, building, and selling a company called Presents of Mind; after INSEAD he joined L’Oréal but found it difficult to fall in love with shampoo.
Post-Cambridge he had spent six months researching Bordeaux for a book his father, James Seely, was writing; when he heard that insurance company AXA had bought Quinta do Noval in the Douro, he wrote to it. In 1993, he moved to the Douro to rescue this great but bankrupt estate. Some years later, he became MD of AXA Millésimes and is now based at Château Pichon Baron in Pauillac.
It was in 2005 or 2006, on the terrace at Noval, that Seely had one of those moments of revelation. “My son Theodore was about five, and he’d got used to traveling with me; he knew Noval and Pichon. I told him that Noval didn’t belong to me; nor Pichon, nor any of the others. He was shattered. I felt such a failure for telling him. He said, ‘Are you stupid or something? You work all the time, and it’s not yours.’”
Seely is very keen to emphasize that he continued, and continues, to work for AXA with exactly the same intense dedication as before; but he did begin to wonder if it might not be a good idea to build something of his own.
He bought Quinta de Romaneira in the Douro, with the idea of making wine from its 400ha (1,000 acres) of land and turning the buildings into a super-deluxe hotel. The latter opened in 2008. This was not perfect timing. Eventually, the ownership of the hotel was separated from the wine operation, and Seely is still involved with the latter but not the former.
But England, though… “There was a strong element of romance in it for me,” he says. “I’ve made my life in France and Portugal, and I will stay there, but I remain an Englishman, and there seemed no better way of making a link with the land that made me than by planting vines.” That first project didn’t come off, but the business plan was still good. Coates took it away, read it, and said, “Let’s do it.”
Coates was in banking and, after INSEAD, went back into investment banking with Barings, but he eventually left because he wanted a change.
“I knew that if I didn’t get out by my mid- to late 40s, I wouldn’t have enough time left to build a second career. I took the view that it would take at least 20 years to get to where Christian and I wanted to be. When I left, I still had to work, so I had to find something. It took just under a year and a half to find the perfect site.”
If Christian hadn’t had a business plan to wave at him, and if the idea of wine had never come up, what might he have done?
“There were certain boxes I had to tick; I wanted to start a business. Everything I’d done was starting businesses within the bank; I was always very entrepreneurial. Any success I had was because I started new products or new lines within the bank.”
A new career had to be in Hampshire or thereabouts to be close to his family and enable him to “lead a slightly less frenetic life.” It could have been horticulture; he’s a keen gardener. “The possibility of English sparkling wine fitted, but could I do it?”
There was, he acknowledges, a lot of serendipity. He and Christian formed a partnership, and there is now a third shareholder, Nick Bloy, who runs a private equity business in Asia and is a Hampshire neighbor; he was at INSEAD with them, too.
Growing control and demand
Coates praises Seely’s expertise and knowledge of all aspects of wine and his contacts. Their roles are different, which is certainly a good thing, and being based in different countries might also be a good thing, given that each is perfectly capable of running a company on his own.
“It was not without frictions at first,” acknowledges Seely. “We’re both used to being in charge. It took a couple of years to work out. I’m very happy with the partnership now; we have both proved our value and the value of the other. It’s a very life-enhancing enterprise.”
They talk every day, and Coates handles sales, marketing, branding, and day-to-day management; Seely takes the lead on wine matters. “We’re completely aligned on both functions,” says Coates.
So, what do they have? In total, another 40–65 acres (16–26ha) in addition to that original 10 acres (4ha). And most of the old vineyard has been replanted. There are 3.5 acres (1.4ha) left of the 1989 vines—probably not the right clones or rootstocks for now, says Coates, but they often give the best fruit because of their age. Then there are the three vineyards they’ve planted for other landowning families nearby.
“The main difficulty was in finding the perfect site, because everything around is owned by big farming families or big companies, and they won’t sell,” says Coates. “But if you suggest to them that they plant a sparkling vineyard…”
It incentivized the landowners to put their most suitable land forward for planting. Otherwise, Coates points out, even if they agreed to sell some land, which they wouldn’t, it wouldn’t be the land you wanted. C&S managed to plant 30 acres (12ha) this way for the Barings and some for the late Lord Sainsbury of Preston Candover.
“Lord Sainsbury said, ‘There are 2,000 acres [800ha]; choose the best.’” C&S doesn’t have a formal arrangement to buy this fruit, but it has bought some in the past. “We’re moving away from that,” says Coates. “The long-term plan is to be self-sufficient. Where we have planted for others, we’ve had input in the selection of rootstocks and clones; and if we buy the fruit, it’s very good fruit. It’s subtly different from ours, but there’s a relationship—like cousins rather than like siblings.”
Why plant for other people without a formal arrangement, you might ask. “We had contemplated a more formal arrangement. We planted at Exton Park as well. The intention was to continue a buying relationship. But Exton Park and Grange wanted their own labels, and we didn’t want to stand in their way.
“We have, over the years, bought fruit from them, and we might yet still. Had we wanted to lock in a long-term contract, we could have done—but we didn’t.”
That initial idea of planting for others, as well as for themselves, was partly for volume, says Seely, and partly because “we didn’t have very much money… It helped us get going faster than we had thought possible. Now we’re investing more and more in our own vineyards, because it’s clear to us that the more you have your own, the more you can control quality at every stage.”
The vines they own are all around the winery, with 30 acres (12ha) planted and another 35 acres (14ha) just planted or about to be. Everything is chalk and southeast- to southwest-facing. There are no pesticides or herbicides, but they do use some fungicide. “We have to. The alternative is copper sulfate, and we won’t do that. But if we did, we could call ourselves organic.”
The climate there is comparable to that of Champagne, says Coates, but there are two big differences: humidity is higher, which necessitates lower planting densities—roughly half what they are in Champagne. Champagne has warmer summers and crops earlier. Champagne gets frost, of course, and because its growing season starts earlier, it is just as much at risk of late frosts as is Hampshire. The Ice Saints—whose feast days are May 11, 12, and 13—did not leave England at the Reformation.
Frost is the most difficult thing to manage, says Coates. They have fans in the vineyards and “have been through the whole gamut” of frost protection methods. The only thing that really works, he says, is spraying the vines with water. “But we can survive without it. […] On balance, we’re the right side of marginal, not the wrong side. If we were aspiring to higher yields, frost would hit us harder.”
Current production is 60,000–65,000 bottles a year, which cannot come only from their own vineyards. They buy in the rest, mostly from Hampshire, all from south-facing chalk. “Many were planted by us, but we’re not prescriptive about that. We could shift up to 100,000 bottles quite fast,” says Coates. “With the new winery, we will probably go to 120,000–150,000 bottles.”
Delicacy, purity, and an unfolding story
Why expand? It’s demand-driven, says Coates, both in Britain and in the nine or ten countries to which they export. If they were going to be supply-led, they could have planted 90 acres (36ha) ten years ago, he points out. But they sell to the on-trade, to events, and to independent merchants, and they do not want to compromise either their price or the quality of their customers.
“We’re profitable,” says Coates, “but we’re not solely economically driven here. If we double or triple in size over the next ten years, profits will increase, but they’re not the primary driver. We’re not looking to be the biggest.”
Champagne is an ever-present influence here. It is in most English sparkling vineyards, but here it’s acknowledged. That teasing term “Bretagne” on the bottle, for example. “What is the English style?” asks Coates. “What does English terroir show? Our consultants have always been French. None of us knows what ‘English’ is.” Stéphane Derenoncourt consults.
There is nothing particularly unusual about the winemaking. At the time of writing, the post of winemaker was vacant, the previous winemaker having returned home during Covid. They aim to pick at between 10 and 11° Baumé. “We can’t always get there, but we normally do,” says Coates; chaptalization is only a last resort.
Yields are seldom more than 2 tons per acre, and the density of planting is half that of Champagne. “If we planted to French density, we’d get rot. So, our yields are half to a third of that of Champagne.”
They do the malo and age for 30 months on the lees for Non-Vintage wines, five years minimum for Vintage, all of which enables a low dosage of around 4g/l.
“If you use dosage to manage acidity, the acidity is still there, and the sugar gets stuck on top of the palate,” Coates says. He wants tension. “Some of us would have the dosage even lower. But we’re not about satisfying the geekiest; it’s about the market. Stéphane wanted zero dosage for the 2014, and in fact it’s 3–4g/l.”
The wines have a notable purity and an exposed quality—they make me think of a pebbly beach as a wave pulls back. Get it wrong, with too little ripeness or too little lees aging, and that can feel raw. But these wines never feel raw.
That love of delicacy, as an aside, is echoed in Coates’s love of tea. His favorite comes from 12,000ft (3,650m) up in Darjeeling and is amber in color. “The thought of putting in sugar and milk! You have to have some sugar in wine, but not as a disguise.”
At the top of the original vineyard, where the land rises and then disappears over the horizon, there are three big barns. One will be a new winery. “The money is raised, and the land is bought,” says Coates.
There is likely to be some sort of food offering as well, which might be an extension of the lunches or dinners they already do for private clients, or it might be something else.
Coates is inspired by the local food—trout from the Test, which is one of the great trout streams of the world; local venison, local lamb. (The River Test, in fact, runs at the bottom of the garden of Château Coates, but the Coateses don’t own the riverbank, and the man who does doesn’t want it fished. Some people might consider this a shocking waste.)
There will be beehives, and they will impregnate hazel in the wood with truffle spores and keep their fingers crossed. There is potential, and lots of ideas, but no decisions yet.
The thing on the horizon of several English wines now is the luxury bracket. Some are heading there at the moment, with prices to match. Coates is skeptical of some of them and reckons that his is as good or better. But he admits that when his children were born, he thought them unbelievably beautiful. “Now, looking back at pictures, I see these red creatures. You favor the things you’ve made.”
And why not? The wines are splendid. Seely recalls the first corks they pulled from their first wines: “And we thought, this is rather good. It was a rather lovely moment. We didn’t know how good [the wine] would be. We knew we had wonderful land and technical ability; it’s an unfolding story, what the full quality potential of English sparkling wine is, provided you have the right vines on the right soil”—and provided you handle them properly.
“I’m fairly confident now that there will be an enduring place for English sparkling among the top wines of the world, which wasn’t obvious ten to 15 years ago.”
Dare one mention the word “still,” as in still wine? Might that be a possibility? “You should never rule anything out,” says Seely. “At the moment, we’re focused resolutely on sparkling. It would need to get a bit warmer before I felt tempted to make still wine.” No new business plan just yet, then.