Following the unsuccessful expeditions of Julius Caesar in 55 and 54BC, in AD43 Emperor Claudius set in motion a successful conquest of Britain. Over the next 400 years, the Romans expanded their empire north through Britain, founding Colchester, London, Bath, and many more towns and cities. The evidence for Roman Canterbury, known to the Romans as civitas Cantiacorum, is rich and varied. From Richborough, where a marble-clad arch was erected overlooking the harbour, the Romans established roads. Known now as the A2, the Old Dover Road was one of a number of these roads used by the Romans to march north. Its name a nod to its parallel planting to the Old Dover Road, Simpson’s 10 hectare Roman Road vineyard was Ruth and Charles Simpson’s first foray into English wine. Planted to Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir, the site is a collage of carefully-considered clones, rootstock, and precision viticulture. Bringing a wealth of knowledge from their award-winning southern French estate Domaine de Sainte Rose, the Simpsons are producing what many, including myself, consider to be benchmark English still wine. Recently awarded a Platinum Medal and “Best in Show” at the Decanter Awards, the pairs flagship Roman Road English Chardonnay is the focus of this article.
Purchased in 2012 and first planted in 2014, with this year being the sites fifth harvest, Simpson’s Roman Road vineyard in Barham, Kent is 10 hectares of seemingly ideal land for grape growing. Situated around 6 miles from Dover, the site is south-west facing with rows planted north-south on lime-rich chalk soil. Digging just 25-30cm below the surface reveals an almost solid bedrock of chalk, a bedrock which forms part of the exact chalk ridge that stretches from southern England to Champagne and on to Burgundy. The vineyard is surrounded on each side by imposing trees that provide protection from excess wind. The slightly-sloping, southwest-facing vineyard provides much-needed exposure during the cooler months of the year in England’s relatively cool climate. Early morning sunlight provides precious hours of warmth, helping with maturation and drying up moisture left from early morning dew.
The vineyard has, in the past as well this vintage, faced issues with frost. Hesitant to make estimates as to the extent of this year’s damage, Ruth did explain the damage was block-specific within the site. As one may expect, this specific damage can be found mostly at the bottom of the slope where a form of katabatic wind causes cold air to concentrate. Variety plantings, rootstocks and clones have been planted on the site dependent on how late or early they bud and how resistant they are to this frost. The Simpson’ have also invested heavily in fans, which they use to circulate air through a ‘central alley’ in the vineyard. Keen to explore further methods of protection, Charles and Ruth have this year purchased thousands of bougies, paraffin candles which give off enough heat to create air movement which prevents a frost pocket-forming. Seen frequently across Champagne and Burgundy, these candles are resource intensive but have proven their worth over time.
In the case of each variety, a number of clones are planted in the Roman Road vineyards, but it is Chardonnay Clone 548 which is of particular interest here. This French clone is low yielding, producing small and loose bunches. It is most prevalent in Burgundy, where it produces rich, complex wines with a large amount of dry extract, as it does in Roman Road. Ruth insists that appropriate selection of clones has been a game-changer for the estate when it comes to making exceptional English Chardonnay. Where still wine is made from clones more suited to sparkling, the results are unsurprisingly dull and often awkward. The Simpsons’ 548 Clone is planted exclusively to Fercal rootstock, which Ruth tells me tends to be more vigorous than 41b, due to its higher-density, shallower, scavenging roots. In isolation, wines grown on Fercal may have higher yields and therefore less concentrated. However, on the less fertile chalk-rich soils at Roman Road, Fercal acts as a fitting medium between soil and vine.
The 548 Chardonnay vines are, as is the rest of the site, cane pruned. While cane pruning may well be more costly and resource-intensive than spur pruning, it has proven to be an effective defence mechanism in combatting the sites inherent challenges, as well as those associated with England’s cool climate. Spur pruning offers increased frost protection, even production, even spacing of the growing shoots in the spring and allows good levels of sunlight into the canopy, all of which help control disease. The pair have also in recent vintages experimented with allowing cover crop to flourish, which they have found acts as a useful aid in managing vigour, controlling pests and disease, and aiding the flourishing of healthy soils. The space under the vines is now managed by tractors fitted with under-vine hoes, as opposed to spraying, further contributing to the quality of the site and subsequent wines.
In order to effectively manage work in the vineyard, predict and anticipate disease pressure and weather shifts, and identify optimal windows for spraying, Roman Road is equipped with its own weather station. Situated in the middle of the vineyard, the station records weather data, maps trends and predicts changes. The Simpsons vineyard team use this to plan a range of activities including the deployment of fans, application of spray (the station is able to predict the likelihood of disease pressure) pruning, picking, and more. All of this constituting precision viticulture, a notion embodied at Simpsons Wine Estate.
As I write this piece, what is evident to me, and I hope to those reading, is the conscientiousness with which Ruth and Charles approach their endeavours. As much as it can be, every element is considered, trialled and implemented where effective. No stone is left unturned and the pairs many years of experience are evident in their ability to act as effective custodians to the land, giving the vineyard all that it needs to succeed, expertly piecing together a complex jigsaw of human and nature.
Initially, Ruth and Charles had planned to build a winery on the Roman Road site. However, part of the agreed planning permission from Canterbury City Council required they have an archaeological watching brief present as the dig began. It is commonly accepted by archaeologists that the Romans buried their dead at the sides of their roads and given the sites parallel position with the Old Dover Road, it was deemed the likelihood of finding remains was high. Recognising this could present practical difficulties to budget and build, the Simpsons decided to establish their winery a little under 500m away. Grapes for their award-winning Roman Road Chardonnay are handpicked into small buckets then transferred into 200kg vessels for transportation to the winery. Handling of the fruit is extremely delicate, as to maintain the integrity and the skin and avoid enzymatic reactions and crushing.
Once grapes reach the winery they are destemmed before pressing. Destemming is the second of two key elements, the first being the appropriate selection of clones, the Simpsons believe are paramount in producing high-quality English Chardonnay. Destemming minimises the amount of astringent tannins that stems can add to wine. In England’s cool climate, compared perhaps to Burgundy where stems are often included, stems struggle to ripen and including them in either the press or ferment often results in notably astringent reds. Once destemmed the grapes are pressed using a Bucher Vaslin inert press, this gives Simpsons the ability to complete a press cycle in an oxygen-free environment, preserving the colours and aroma they desire. The press also creates a somewhat reductive environment, which is immediately obvious in the 2018 Roman Road we tasted the evening before at dinner, leaving a distinctly mineral and flinty undertone on the nose. The wine is then fermented in tainless steel, followed by ageing in French oak.
I’m not at all surprised that The Roman Road Chardonnay has received such widespread critical acclaim. The wine is elegant, linear, complex and concentrated. Hints of sweet oak, spices, pineapple, citrus and apricot pour out of the glass. The palate is textural, voluptuous and moreish. As if this wasn’t exciting enough, the pair plan to release a special edition Roman Road which they plan to be the first English still wine to retail at £100. This truly is the best English Chardonnay on the market and a benchmark for what is possible here in England. Many thanks to Ruth and Charles Simpson for kindly hosting me and to Rosamund Barton of R&R Teamwork for organising the trip.