Proving them all wrong: 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 an international rival to French Champagne has always been a slow burn.
It’s taken 16 years, and it will be another eight before Nyetimber hits its chief executive’s target of selling 2m bottles a year.
When 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 reputation, as well as overcoming the climatic quirks that can wipe out a harvest even in the normally mild area of the South Downs in West Sussex.
‘The French in particular questioned our existence,’ said 61-year-old Heerema, who lives in a 16th century manor house on the Nyetimber estate.
‘It was a case of ‘why are you in business when Champagne is already established?’ But we’ve proved them wrong.
‘We get more investors approaching us now, but they’re focused on a return whereas I think in terms of generations rather than years.
‘They would also want to cut our expenditure, but it’s always been an expensive industry in which to operate with relatively low yields; you can make a profit but it’s not Silicon Valley.’
The former lawyer can afford to swerve unwelcome interference and go it alone. He has some deep coffers thanks in part 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 very English credentials of a product sipped on the royal barge at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and also 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 scale of investment to date, which has funded expansion to 11 vineyards across 865 acres of West Sussex, Hampshire and Kent, all in the low altitude and sandy soil sweet-spot for optimal growing conditions.
Crucially, he was cushioned against the pandemic.
Lucrative partnerships with events such as Queen’s Club tennis and Glyndebourne festival had to be put on hold while on-trade sales to hotels including the Savoy, Ritz and Chewton Glen took a big hit along with export trade to core markets of Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland.
‘There were months we didn’t export a single bottle – it was a terrible,’ Heerema adds of a tough spell that was compounded by the post-Brexit exodus of Eastern European labour needed to pick the 200 tonnes of grapes a day during harvest.
However, fortunes soon improved. Export trade returned with new inroads into German, Chinese and Japanese markets. The trend for customers to spend more on premium wines to drink at home also played to the company’s advantage, resulting in a 57pc rise in sales from 2020.
For Heerema it’s further evidence that efforts to broaden a traditionally older customer base, skewed to the South have paid off.
Shelf space in 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 in their late 20s.
Raising a glass: Nyetimber’s special edition bottle for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee
It’s also clear the growing scale and stature of a UK viticulture industry that barely existed when he started 16 years ago is playing its part in raising Nyetimber’s profile and reputation.
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 continue with further consolidation and acquisitions. He welcomes what he stipulates as ‘serious’ producers as opposed to ‘farmers used to planting lettuces suddenly switching to vines’.
The rise in French Champagne houses such as Taittinger investing in English vineyards is seen as the ultimate endorsement from a nation that was once English wine’s biggest sceptic.
However, a major 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 would seem that Heerema still has to be on his guard.
‘People have copied our label and even the names of some of the wine,’ he says, gesturing towards the sleek black bottles with the distinctive metallic label, the result of 2012 rebrands.
‘Plus, because wine making involves specialist and sought-after skills, it’s not unusual for other producers to have an eye on your team.
Fruitful partnership: Eric and his wife Hannah inside their 16th century manor house on the Nyetimber estate
‘They can also approach someone, get information and then 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 quality and consistency of the wine, the key differentiator between those who stay the course and those ‘who win an award one year and disappear the next’.
The process of blending wines from up to 100 tanks is, he says, is an intuitive and a precise art with little room for variance.
For example, an experiment to add a more oaky quality to the flavour was soon abandoned for the crisper taste that Nyetimber drinkers seem to prefer in the form 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 again his wine will be the tipple of choice for any of the official royal celebrations.
Having outgrown the former winery on the estate, the production happens at another 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 would be an obvious draw to cellar door trade and vineyard tours.
But the single-track road limits access to the public.
Heerema says he is thinking of using an alternative 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 process as the buds burst and become particularly vulnerable to frost for the next three weeks.
‘It’s a very anxious time because the cold can really damage the plant as it did with the crops in 2016 and 2017 and meant we had no harvest,’ he says.
‘But you must be flexible in this business. What we’re involved with is a product of nature, which is always subject to control. That is what makes it all so fascinating.’