Sam Lindo: Bubbling to the Top
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because good wines are coming more and more from the most unlikely of places, if you are open to their taste.
There are nearly as many jokes about British wines as there are about sheep, and Sam Lindo has heard them all. A quarter-century ago, his folks planted the seeds of their middle-aged dreams in a Cornish sheep farm, where Lindo now helps harvest the fruits of their labor into award-winning sparkling wines.
Back then, the prospect of English bubbly got folks giggling before the first sip, but today — thanks to global warming and stiff-upper-lip tenacity — English wine is a thing, and Lindo is one of England’s foremost vintners. He’s been named the country’s winemaker of the year three times, and this year nearly nabbed the title of world’s best sparkling winemaker in the International Wine Challenge — a first for an English winemaker.
“We do have something to prove,” namely that English wine can stand the test of time.
Losing to famed Champagne Charles Heidsieck didn’t burst Lindo’s bubble; he was pleased to make the short list of three. His Camel Valley wines haven’t hit their fourth decade, while Heidsieck’s have been around since the 1850s, making Lindo the scrappy underdog. “It’s a very British position to be in, and we almost rely on it,” he tells OZY. “We do have something to prove,” namely that English wine can stand the test of time.
Lindo, 38, married with three kids, speaks casually, with a slight nasal tone. He’s lean, reflecting a love of cycling, and the opposite of posh, more comfortable in chinos and tees than tuxedos and ties. He set aside his math degree from Bath University and a prospective career in London to do what his classmates dreamed of: own a business. Lindo joined the family’s vineyard in 2002.
Dad Bob got into wine in a roundabout way, purchasing his dream farm after retiring from the military at age 38. Brown Farm’s name should’ve been a clue, but it took time to see that farming grass for sheep in their south-facing, well-draining soil — sheltered in a microclimate that has grown warmer since the 1980s — wasn’t going to plan. In 1989, the mercury rose along with Bob’s frustrations, and he came up with an idea: planting grapes in a spare field. If it didn’t work out, “at least they’d have lots of wine to drink,” Sam Lindo says.
The first crop came in 1992, producing a still wine. Acidity is a problem for English wines but can be a blessing for sparkling varieties. As Lindo tells it, an Italian customer tasted his dad’s wine and told him it would be fantastic for bubbly, which led to the vineyard’s first sparkling in 1995.
Two approaches help Camel Valley stand out: growing vines on loam instead of chalk, like most English wines, and the crushing process.
Father and son perfected the process through trial and error. This impacted virtually every aspect of production, from automating the disgorging process — which expels the yeast — to computerizing the accounts and retail system. They also introduced a cooling system for controlling temperatures during fermentation. “Each year, it’s pretty clear what things we need to get that’s going to make the wine better or our lives easier,” says the younger Lindo.
But not everyone’s a fan. “We don’t stock it,” says John Valentine of wine merchant WineTrust100, “and have tended to have Coates & Seely, which we feel, frankly, is better.” Master of Wine Jo Ahearne agrees. “I think [Camel Valley’s] reserve brut is really delicious, but the ‘normal’ one lacks a bit of structure and is more rounded and much less ‘champagne-like,’ ” she tells OZY, adding that the Coates bubbly is “more refined.”
For his part, Lindo thinks two approaches help Camel Valley stand out: growing vines on loam, rather than chalk, like most English wines, and the winery’s crushing process. Camel Valley crushes the grapes for the sparkling varieties before pressing (most wineries press whole bunches), which gives the rosé its color and extra-fruity flavor. Twelve years in, Lindo has netted numerous international awards. Annual turnover has grown from 200,000 pounds to more than 2 million pounds ($3.7 million), and the vineyard produces between 50,000 and 200,000 bottles a year, depending on the harvest. Winemaking, he says, is easy. “It’s a series of very simple things you have to do. You just have to do them correctly and in the right order.”
It’s an open question how much British wines will take off, even in Britain. Right now, English wines account for only about 0.25 percent of the U.K. market, and British winemakers produced only 4 million bottles last year, compared with Champagne’s 300 million.
But investment has soared. Some hope new English vineyards, some aiming at a million bottles a year, can secure up to 15 percent of the the U.K. market within a decade. “It’s going to be interesting to see who gets there and how they get there,” Lindo says.