Toasting success: Chapel Down boss Frazer Thompson
Champagne is becoming old hat. So says the boss of Chapel Down, England’s largest sparkling wine producer, which is fast becoming a rival to the French fizz behemoths.
Frazer Thompson, who has run Chapel Down for two decades, may be biased, but the figures stand up to scrutiny.
While champagne sales fell 22 per cent in 2020, according to the producers’ body CIVC, Chapel Down’s sales shot up sharply. The English producer is now planning to open a new, larger winery and scale up its production.
Thompson, a straight-talking Geordie, says: ‘Champagne has a problem. I saw an advert recently with Roger Federer lying in a bathtub in a pristine suit, supposedly drinking an unopened bottle of Moet. We thought this was the most preposterous imagery, and there’s this super-luxury association.
‘Does anyone actually believe Roger Federer even drinks champagne, especially fully clothed in a bath? Consumers read through that now.’
Part of this is due to lockdown, he thinks, especially looking at his three sons who are in their early 30s and how other youngsters want to present themselves on social media.
‘They’ve completely changed during lockdown,’ Thompson says. ‘Now it’s much more about truth and being honest. I think [the pandemic] has brought some profound social change.’
Rather than being attracted by an aspirational life of excess, and wanting to emulate the rich and famous, Thompson believes consumers are more interested in backing a British success story – and Chapel Down is placing itself firmly on their radars.
‘I used to say we were a pimple on the backside of the champagne elephant,’ he laughs. ‘Now I think we’re more of a festering boil.’ The company, whose winery is in Tenterden, Kent, has long attracted shareholders who are also loyal customers.
‘The investors are our best marketers,’ says Thompson, 61, who often gets personal emails from the 4,500 ‘incredibly engaged’ shareholders.
It’s a tried and tested strategy and in 2014 Chapel Down raised £3.8m in just 22 days as investors ploughed their money in.
Thompson adds: ‘People carry our cards, and bore their friends to death about us at dinner parties. That’s something that doesn’t usually happen.’
The firm also received early backing from property entrepreneur and Saracens rugby club owner Nigel Wray, who bonded with Thompson ‘because we’re both sports nuts’ and then introduced City veteran Michael Spencer. Both are still significant shareholders, and Thompson still gets a huge amount of advice from them.
Chapel Down’s shares are listed on challenger stock exchange Aquis, which means the stock can easily be traded.
Thompson points out this is handy for anyone who needs to sell shares and free up a bit of cash, but many will never bother, especially since anyone who owns more than 2,000 shares, currently worth £1,200, gets a third off the price of any Chapel Down wine bought through its website, among other benefits.
Despite lockdowns for much of last year, shareholders were clearly taking advantage of their discount as online sales exploded. And the brand is one of few English wines to be sold across Waitrose, Sainsbury’s, Marks & Spencer and Tesco.
Thompson is also hoping for a bounce-back in hospitality sales now bars and restaurants are opening. Chapel Down appears on the wine list at several high-end locations, including Harrods, the Sheraton Grand hotel on London’s Park Lane, Ascot and the Royal Opera House.
Lucky drinkers who find them – selves seated at a bar next to him might even get a bottle free – Thompson has been known to lean over to anyone ‘dithering’ over the wine list and buy them a bottle of his produce.
Rising demand will mean Chapel Down, whose production capacity is stretched at Tenterden, will need a new winery. Thompson is finalising plans for where it will be located, though it is likely to stay in Kent. And he is adamant that the Tenterden site, where Chapel Down has a restaurant and visitor centre, will remain its home.
Its production facilities will be used to produce top-end drinks such as the Kit’s Coty Blanc de Blancs, and experiment with new products.
Bubble bath: Tennis star Roger Federer in a recent Moet ad
Thompson and his team also want to start buying more English grapes from vineyards producing more than they can deal with. He says: ‘There’s a lot of people – millionaires and the like – trying to get into this game at the moment, but they haven’t really thought it through.
‘They’re planting acres and acres of vines, but what are they going to do with it all? When they’ve produced enough to make bottles for themselves and their mates, we’ll be there to buy the rest of the grapes.’
Chapel Down has come a long way since Thompson – then global brand director for Heineken – joined in 2001, after losing a bet to a friend who challenged him to identify a glass of the winery’s fizz.
‘I took a 70 per cent pay cut when I joined, and moved my family back from Holland,’ says Thompson. ‘ On week two, some heavy men in leather jackets came to repossess the photocopier.’
The company has not emerged from the pandemic entirely unscathed – in February it was forced to sell its Curious Drinks brewing business, which was dragging down performance.
It had sold 90 per cent of its beer to pubs and bars, and during sub – sequent lockdowns this revenue fell off a cliff. Chapel Down eventually offloaded Curious to private equity firm Risk Capital Partners, after putting the business into administration.
Now entirely focused on wine it will shortly release its 2020 results – and they are set to be blockbuster.
Last October, Thompson said fruit yields were ‘exceptional yet again’, which should mean it has produced far more bottles than the previous year.
There are, of course, other English wine producers whose stars are ascending. Thompson sees Nyetimber as his biggest rival. Others include Camel Valley, Bolney and Hattingley Valley.
But with the English sparkling wine industry forecast to grow from producing 3.5m bottles in 2020 to 8.2m in 2026, Thompson is confident every firm will have a niche to grow into.
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