FEATURE23 May 2023

Chapel Down CEO Andrew Carter is counting on a new appreciation of English wine

x Sponsored content on Research Live and in Impact magazine is editorially independent.
Find out more about advertising and sponsorship.

FMCG Features Impact People UK

Andrew Carter has his eye firmly on a future that is fizzing with potential. Jane Simms sits down with the chief executive of wine producer Chapel Down to talk leadership, building brands and buying British.

a photo of andrew carter standing in a vineyard

When Andrew Carter joined the UK’s leading wine producer, Chapel Down, as chief executive in September 2021, he rolled up his sleeves and, as he puts it, “learned from the bottom up”.

It was harvest time, so he helped pick the grapes and did night shifts alongside colleagues to help process them. “I may be ‘an industry veteran’,” he says – he has held senior leadership roles at Bacardi, Treasury Wine Estates and Bulmers, among others – “but you’ve got to understand every part of the particular business you’re joining; how it operates, what people do.”

Before he joined Chapel Down, which is based near Tenterden, on the edge of the Kent Weald, he’d been managing director of Chase Distillery, leading the growth of the gin and vodka business across 30 international markets before selling it to Diageo.

He was hired by Chapel Down’s non-executive chairman Martin Glenn – the man who, as chief executive of the FA, appointed England football manager Gareth Southgate (“No pressure there then,” jokes Carter.) Glenn describes Carter as “a very complete chief executive, who understands that, however good the product and the brand, it’s people who make the strategy happen”.

Glenn says his track record of success in a range of different environments, along with “willingness to learn, and real wine empathy”, made Carter “the right man for the job” – which was to accelerate the profitable growth of an already successful business, turn it into the foremost and most celebrated English winemaker, and permanently change perceptions of English wine throughout the world.

In January, Carter was recognised in the 2023 Power List from Walpole, the UK trade body for luxury brands, as ‘one of the 50 most influential people in British luxury’. He was included in the ‘Rainmakers’ category, which recognises ‘business leaders who magically bring the revenue in, ensuring prosperity for their company’.

“Yes, I do have a lot to live up to,” he laughs.

His first job, after a degree in economics and agricultural economics at the University of Exeter, was in brand management at consumer goods company Reckitt Benckiser (RB), based in Hull. After six years, he switched to the drinks industry – and far preferred the ‘emotive’ category to the ‘functional’ brand makeup of RB. But his role at Chapel Down feels like coming home. “My passion was always wine,” he explains.

When he joined Chapel Down, he set out to double the size of the business by 2026, by: improving the quality of the wine through transforming the vineyards and winery; increasing the proportion of higher-margin English sparkling wine versus still wine; and growing distribution in the on- and off-trade, in the UK as well as overseas. Underpinning these operational challenges would be a robust marketing and communications strategy, and a leadership team and culture that could help him achieve his objectives.

Chapel Down, in common with many English vineyards that have developed over the past three decades, had been entrepreneurially led, and, while it had built a strong brand, it lacked the business systems that would guarantee sustainable growth.

Thirty years ago, the English wine industry was largely making still wines, predominantly using the bacchus grape to create an equivalent of sauvignon blanc. In the early 1990s, English growers began to plant sparkling grapes, and are now producing world-class, award-winning wines. Consumer perception has changed accordingly, but for all the “enthusiasts, hobbyists and family businesses, who have all done a great job”, says Carter, the next stage of growth requires a far more professional approach.

photo of two chapel down branded glasses with wine in them

Carter describes himself as “authentic, passionate and results-driven” – a leadership style that’s already paying dividends.

The company’s premiumisation strategy is reflected in a 10% rise in net sales revenue for the year ending 31 December 2022, to £15.6m, driven by a 53% surge in sales of sparkling wine – which, with a record 790,000 bottles sold last year, now accounts for 70% of value sales.

Sales rose in both on-trade and off-trade, thanks to a threefold rise in distribution outlets, to around 1,500 (Chapel Down sparkling is served in establishments such as Le Gavroche and the Savoy, and pub groups such as Mitchells & Butlers and Greene King) and a rise in supermarket listings, which now include Tesco and Morrisons.

A 164% rise in export sales revenue, albeit from a small base (exports account for just 3% of sales), reflects growing overseas interest and potential for English sparkling wines, notes Carter. The brand is in 14 markets, of which the US, Scandinavia, Japan and Hong Kong are the most important.
Much of this success comes from rising brand awareness. Chapel Down has a clutch of high-profile partnerships with sporting and arts bodies – and for a man who’s almost as passionate about cricket and horse-racing as he is about wine, it is a source of satisfaction to Carter that the brand has sponsored a race at Ascot for the past five years. Last year, it also became the ‘official sparkling wine’ of the England and Wales Cricket Board.

But there is still “so much to go for”, he enthuses. Figures from industry body WineGB (Wines of Great Britain) put the total UK sparkling wine market at around 223m bottles, of which 29m are champagne and 5.8m are English sparkling wine, with the balance made up of prosecco and cava. According to champagne industry body CIVC, the French produce 330m bottles of champagne every year, 180m of which are exported.
“The opportunity for growth, at a UK and international level, is vast,” says Carter.

Currently, just 35% of sparkling wine drinkers in the UK (according to BrandVue) are aware of the Chapel Down brand, he notes, despite a slew of awards ( 38 in 2022 ) recognising its quality. “But over half of the company’s current consumers think Chapel Down sparkling is as good as champagne, with around two in five preferring the taste, according to a Chapel Down brand survey in 2022.”

However, though it is 20-25% cheaper than champagne, it’s a lot more expensive than the ubiquitous prosecco and cava: how will Chapel Down persuade more people to trade up, particularly in an economic climate where many are having to tighten their belts?

The “absolute bullseye” target consumer for Chapel Down English sparkling is 25-40 years old and ABC1, says Carter. “However, on the whole, we tend to focus on the typographic element of our consumer target – a group we call ‘the discoverers’, people who, irrespective of age, enjoy new food and drink, and are interested in its provenance, how it’s made, the story, and so on.” The wine is currently drunk predominantly in London and the South East, but distribution will become more national over the next 12-18 months.

Price aside, English sparkling wine has an intrinsic appeal, Carter continues. People like buying British, particularly when the alternative involves hundreds or thousands of food (or, in this case, drink) miles. “That’s an increasingly important consideration for people,” he says. A bottle of English sparkling is also a more “interesting” choice than champagne, he observes: “When you have a bottle of English sparkling with your friends, or gift a bottle, you’ve really thought about it.”

photo of chapel down vineyard

Nevertheless, Carter has charged Liam Newton, formerly vice-president of marketing at Carlsberg Group – whom he hired as chief marketing officer in October 2022 – with “exciting consumers and making them fall in love” with the brand.

Chapel Down Sparkling is being relaunched this month (April), based on qualitative research by The Big Picture in August 2022, and underpinned by a communications strategy that positions it against champagne – which will be reflected in a digital and press campaign. In addition to building brand awareness and trial, Newton is developing the e-commerce direct-to-consumer channel, and building the thriving tourism part of the business.

To sell more wine, however, you need more grapes – and ensuring you are producing enough to meet growing demand for the wine is, says Carter, “the biggest operational challenge” for any wine business. By the summer, Chapel Down will have more than 900 acres of vineyard and, as well as extending its winery at Tenterden, it is building a new and more efficient winery just outside Canterbury, to increase its processing capacity.

After a poor harvest in 2021, 2022 delivered a bumper crop, including a record tonnage of the key sparkling wine grapes chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. Carter attributes the success not just to last year’s long, warm summer, but also to continued investment in viticulture and ‘“the skill and dedication of the talented team”, led by Josh Donaghay-Spire, whom he appointed as operations director and head winermaker in early 2022.

Donaghay-Spire is one of more than half of the 75-strong team at Chapel Down who stayed on after Carter joined, and who, says Glenn, “have thrived on the change of emphasis” he has ushered in. “Andrew works very hard on extracting the right talent and inspiring and motivating the people he’s got,” notes Glenn. “He has helped drive a high-performance culture, leading by example and promoting the people who demonstrate the right values.”

Newton describes his boss as “a balance of challenge and support, big picture and detail”. He’s ambitious, challenging and restless, he says – “you get a constant stream of WhatsApp messages, but they are all thoughtful and designed to move things forward and make us as good as we can be”. Carter doesn’t have a big ego, he adds – and, importantly, “he enjoys the category and has fun”.

Notwithstanding the team of what Glenn calls “competitive completer-finishers”, Chapel Down has suffered from a shortage of seasonal employees to work in the vineyards and winery throughout the year. “We would typically have about 150, but Brexit has really affected that,” says Carter. “We hope the government will expand its seasonal workforce scheme.”

Carter believes England is “on the cusp of being a truly established wine region of the world”. How have we reached this point? The Romans grew grapes in Britain, in small pockets and probably of dubious quality, and let’s not forget, says Carter – although the French prefer to – that it was an Englishman, Christopher Merrett, who first documented the English production of sparkling wine in 1662, 35 years before the French monk Dom Pérignon. But much of the success of the past 30 years is to do with climate change, he says.

“The bitter-sweet part of global warming for us is that temperatures in the UK have risen by a whole degree over the past three decades, meaning that summer temperatures in south-east England are the same as they were in the Champagne region in France during the late 1980s.” We also share the same ‘terroir’: the chalk seam that starts in Épernay and Rheims, and dips under the Channel, to emerge in the white cliffs of Dover and down into the English sparkling-wine-growing territory of the North Downs.

photo of wine expert checking a glass of chapel down wine

“The only thing that’s different is that we have more of a maritime climate than a continental climate, which means we have fewer hours of sunshine, and a little more rain, but our growing season is longer,” Carter continues. “That means the grapes we produce are on the vines slightly longer, which is why they produce wines that are slightly more elegant, crisp and fresh than champagne.”

That’s all well and good, but the French know a good thing when they see it, too. Pommery and Taittinger, along with Spanish-German company Henkell Freixenet, have already snapped up land in southern England. Will there be a land grab for grapes?

There is plenty to go for, says Carter: there are already 10,000 acres of vineyard in the UK, and a great deal of suitable land, currently used for arable or fruit, still to be negotiated over. As the climate warms, wine growing will spread, he predicts.

“The South East will be the heartland of English wine, but there are already eight vineyards in Yorkshire, a couple in Scotland, and they go as far west as Wales and Hereford,” he adds. “We will see vine-growing regions start to establish themselves all over.”

In the meantime, Carter is relishing “the exciting and unique opportunity” he’s been given to spearhead the creation of a new and celebrated wine region. “It’s a huge legacy-style project.”

When will he know he’s succeeded? “When the French start drinking Chapel Down English sparkling wine,” he grins.

This article was first published in the April 2023 issue of Impact.