Jackson Family becomes first US firm to buy into English fizz
Jackson Family Wines has become the first US business to buy into the English wine industry as it appoints the former Gusbourne winemaker and acquires land in Essex.
As first reported by db back in August 2017, Barbara Banke, who owns the Californian-headquartered Jackson Family Wines, has expressed a serious interest in England for the group’s next vineyard investment, both due to the quality of the sparkling wines, and the group’s focus on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but also because Banke, who is a major Thoroughbred owner and breeder, visits the UK regularly for its racing scene.
That interest was confirmed yesterday as the wine group announced that it will start making “a full range of vintage and non-vintage sparkling wines and vintage still wines” in the UK, following the appointment of former Gusbourne winemaker, Charlie Holland, who is being assisted by James Dodson, CEO of VineWorks, who is acting as the lead viticulturist on this project.
Notably, the US business – which also has properties in Bordeaux and Tuscany – is “in the process” of acquiring land to be planted with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in Essex’s Crouch Valley.
Sometimes dubbed the ‘Côte d’Or’ of the UK, the Crouch Valley is compared to the famous heartland of Burgundy due to its sloping vineyards, clay-rich soils, and its sunny, relatively dry conditions. Indeed, this south-eastern part of the UK is one of the driest areas of the country, and also claims to have a low frost risk, while being less exposed to damaging winds compared to higher and more westerly areas of the UK.
As a result, some of the UK’s best grape growing conditions are found in the Crouch Valley, even though this is not a part of the country containing chalk – a bedrock found in abundance in the more exposed sites of Sussex and wetter counties of Hampshire and Dorset.
Although chalk is favoured by many English wine producers for yielding high-acid base wines for making long lees-aged sparkling, and for drawing comparisons with Champagne’s Côte des Blancs – which is famous for its fine Chardonnay-based sparkling wines from chalky soils – the climate of Essex is deemed more suitable for producing regular quantities of ripe grapes due to its more continental conditions.
Indeed, as db noted in 2018, Essex has Britain’s best terroir, according to scientists at the University of East Anglia.
Having identified nearly 35,000 hectares of prime viticultural land for new and expanding vineyards — much of it in Kent, Sussex and East Anglia — climate and viticulture experts led by Dr Alistair Nesbitt said that the climate and soils that really stood out were found in places where “relatively few vineyards currently exist, such as in Essex and Suffolk.”
Nesbitt said five years ago that these counties are better for grape growing because they are “drier, warmer and more stable year-to-year than some more established vineyard locations.”
The study found that areas with ground elevated to between 100 metres and 150 metres above sea level, south-facing slopes, low summer rainfall and an average soil pH of 5.5-8, made for ideal vineyard conditions.
Lucy Winward, who works for New Hall Vineyards in Chelmsford, Essex, told db that her estate benefits from a unique microclimate aided by a combination of low rainfall and a warm, sunny growing season, with temperature extremes moderated by the neighbouring River Crouch and Blackwater.
Currently, just 8% of plantings in the UK are found in Essex, with the largest proportion of vineyards located in Kent, with 26% of the total.
“I’ve been impressed with the quality of sparkling wines from the UK for years, which influenced our decision to develop premium sparkling and still wines here in England,” said Banke, speaking about her motivations for investing in the UK.
Continuing, she said, “With my family’s growing involvement in the English horseracing business, and our love of the UK, this move is a natural progression for our company – expanding our ventures in wine regions globally.”
Holland, who has served as chief winemaker and CEO of Gusbourne Winery since 2013, will oversee all winemaking operations in England for Jackson Family Wines.
Following international work in Australia, New Zealand, Germany, and the United States, Holland returned to his native England in 2009 to join the burgeoning English wine industry.
“After 10 productive and thoroughly enjoyable years leading the amazing team at Gusbourne, I am thrilled to be joining Jackson Family Wines as they kickstart their new English wine venture,” said Holland.
“I believe England is the most exciting place in the world to be making wine right now and the prospect of doing this for a company with a proven commitment and track record of producing world-class wines around the globe is an enticing prospect,” he added.
Holland will officially begin working with Jackson Family Wines in September 2023.