In this latest episode of 'The Road to the Finest English Fizz' our good friend and BBC2's wine expert, Joe Wadsack, interviews the man behind the bottle, Owner and Managing Director, Ian Kellett.
Here they discuss exactly what led Ian's heart to Hambledon Vineyard, why he is so passionate about supporting English sparkling wine, and exploring the journey behind and in front of Hambledon Vineyard. Expect some sneak peeks of what's to come in the near future!
So sit back, relax, treat yourself to glass of Ian’s favourite Hambledon Première Cuvée and enjoy!
Joe - Hi, I’m Joe Wadsack and it’s my pleasure today to interview the owner of Hambledon. So Ian, we’ve known each other for a while now but this is the first time I’ve had the chance to really question you about your background and your motives. How do you feel about that?
Ian – A little bit of trepidation to be honest. You know too much about me! (both laugh)
Joe - So let’s start right at the beginning. Ian, where did you grow up and is there anything in your formative years that led to where you are now?
Ian – So I grew up in Yorkshire, then went to university in London and studied Biochemistry as my degree. After that, I worked in the food industry and studied accountancy, then I was offered a job in the City where I ended up doing food and drink-based investment, equity research and corporate finance, and in the middle of that time I bought a house in France just north of Bordeaux and decided that I really needed a vineyard in Bordeaux as well (!). And then this place, Hambledon vineyard, became available; it was England’s oldest vineyard and I thought, well that’s intriguing, and so instead of being another British banker taking money to rural France, I thought it would be much more interesting to have a go at taking on that little brand “Champagne” from our front garden… And then I took myself “back to school”, to Plumpton College to study Oenology/winemaking.
Joe – So do you think you bought Hambledon vineyard with your heart or with your head – or is it both?
Ian – Oh, heart. I mean, the heart side of it, it was only intended to be a smallish project and wasn’t intended to take over life the way it has. We’ve got 15 acres of vineyard in front of the house now, which was all I Intended to plant, and just to put the old winery back into operation, albeit making sparkling rather than still wine. But when you’re trying to develop a business as an entrepreneur I think it’s a bit like raising a child, in that you want to bring it up to be as good as it can be, and that’s just meant it’s become much bigger than we ever originally intended. So it was definitely a move of the heart, but the application, I’d like to think, has all been done with the head.
Joe – Head-wise, you are clearly able to spot opportunities in business, and it doesn’t sound like you ever rest! So tell us about the restaurant you’re building.
Ian – Well we’ve ended up deciding to do an awful lot more - this is a good example of raising the child to be the best it can be. We knew, to build a pre-eminent international wine brand, that we needed a visitor facility, but we really didn’t want to run a restaurant – the idea of it terrified us. What’s changed over the last three years of our research is we’ve concluded that the US market for selling wine direct to consumers, which is very powerful, has been built upon “oeno-tourism”, so that the vast majority of people buying the wine directly have actually visited the vineyards.
So that’s what made us realise – I mean we have a beautiful location here, the winery on site with the vineyards, the cellars underground onsite, the house with a family in it, etc. - so we’ve decided to go all-out on building what we think will be the most remarkable restaurant/oeno-tourism facility in English wine and maybe one of the leading European ones. We’ve got the interior designers who did Ramsay’s 3* flagship in Chelsea and various Heston Blumenthal projects and we’ve just recruited the former head chef from the Manoir aux Quat’Saisons who did 10 years there. We’re building what we hope will be the most beautiful restaurant in Hampshire by a distance, as a springboard for the whole brand.
Joe – And you have one of the finest sparkling wine consultants in the world, with Hervé Jestin. Tell me, how did you get in contact with him, how did you meet him?
So when I started becoming much more serious about this project, my first plan was to do it all by science, coming from a Biochemistry background. We did experimental plantings as well as commissioning extensive forensic analyses of base wines from the UK’s biggest wine laboratory and so on. But once I worked out I couldn’t make the wine purely by science and a “chemical shopping list” alone, I got introduced to Hubert de Billy, the president of Pol Roger, and asked him if he could help us find a winemaker. And I explained the journey I had just been on and he smiled and said he knew absolutely the man I needed. Hervé and Hubert had known each other since their schooldays, and it was just a dream fit. We have been working with Hervé now for over 12 years, and he leads our winemaking process – I designed the winery with some of his thought processes in mind, and we have developed the project very much together - it’s fully implemented by Felix and Tobias and the winery, but we all look to Hervé as our guide and our guardian in this regard.
Joe – So let’s talk about your wine passions. Do you remember that first wine? I mean, one presumes you loved wine before buying a house in the north of Bordeaux, but do you remember that first wine which made you think “I want to be involved with this at some point in the future”?
Ian – I think that it was, rather than one wine, it was one trip – all too predictable really, but where my house was, it was a trip nearby around Pauillac tasting wine after wine, and it was more the overall experience. Originally I was actually going to make cognac at the house in Bordeaux, as the house I bought had previously been a cognac distillery! The sort of “penny drop” moment in a sparkling wine context, meanwhile, would be Pol Roger Cuvée Winston Churchill ‘96
Joe – (interjects) That’s a hell of a wine!
Ian – When my wife and I tasted that wine we thought “wow” - you can have the lightness and the complexity. And I think that’s the “direction of travel” in both the culinary world, in hospitality and in oenology and wine-making. And as the geological substrate, chalk helps a lot with the feeling of lightness, the cool climate helps a lot, and so for me, the real “penny drop” moment, apart from the Cuvée Winston Churchill ’96, was when I suddenly realised, driving down to Epernay, that the north-facing slopes there – i.e. the cooler slopes - were where, arguably, the most important and expensive sparkling wine vineyards in the world are. So I genuinely began to believe, why shouldn’t we make the world’s finest Blanc de Blancs, the most elegant, precise, weightless, accurate versions?
Joe – So where do you see Hambledon fitting into the gastronomy of the world, more as a wine to be served with food, or is its best expression more on its own?
Ian – I think we’re trying to make different cuvées that set out to achieve different things, so we are trying to make our Classic Cuvée, the Rosé and in particular the Brut, as apéritif-style wines, but with our Première Cuvée range we are aiming to make very much more gastronomic wines. Overall I think that we are on a continuum of an increasing search for – without wanting to sound pretentious - elegance, lightness, precision, accuracy, fineness.
Joe – So in the short term, what can we expect from Hambledon in terms of wines? Are there likely to be any new wines in the line-up or is it always going to be about the three wines that you’re currently selling?
Ian – We will be substantially expanding the portfolio of wines we offer, to the sort of number of cuvées that you see from your average Grand Marque house in Champagne. Watch this space!
Joe – Well I’m certainly looking forward to trying that! Ian Kellett, thank you very much, it’s been a privilege.
Ian – Joe Wadsack, you’re a star. Thank you very much, lovely to talk to you.