Champagne in the northeast of France is best known for the production of Champagne, the sparkling white wine that bears the region’s name. Let’s bring the grape-infused sparkle closer to home, though, because Eddie Sauvao has found a mini Champagne in Corston. Melissa Blease gets the low-down…
AD43: The Romans arrive in Bath and name the city Aquae Sulis, after the goddess Sulis Minerva. Scroll forward some 1978 years and, high on a plateau around four miles west of Bath (in Corston, to be precise), New Zealand born Samoan Eddie Addicott-Sauvao is poised to reintroduce Bathonians to their powerful deity – and we’ll all be popping several corks by way of a celebration.
“The story of Minerva Wine, which produces Bath’s very first luxury sparkling wine, began when my wife Emily and I were looking at the succession of taking over the farm from her parents,” Eddie recalls. “We knew that we had to look at sustainability, as a priority. Emily started growing quinoa [which is another wonderful story in its own right – see corstonfieldsfarm.com] around five years ago. But on from that… Emily’s grandmother is French, and she took me over to meet the French side of the family. They took us on a wine-tasting day while we there, and I happened to look at the soil; it was very similar to the soil type on our farm. We joked about establishing our own vineyard, but when we came back we invited Vine-Works – one of the biggest established vineyard services in the county – over to take a look, just to see if my instincts were right. The ensuing report was really positive; apparently we had the ideal site, and ideal conditions for a vineyard. So basically, we started planting back in 2016.”
But there’s much, much more to a successful viticulture project than even the perfect site and hard work. “A lot of people plant vineyards in the UK but they just don’t work,” says Eddie. “So much of it is down to the site – you’ve got to be south-facing; you’ve got to be free-draining; you’ve got to be above sea level because you don’t want too much frost, but you don’t want to be too high because it’s going to be too windy. There are all those aspects to wrestle with and consider and even then, nobody can guarantee that the vines will actually establish a root system able to produce anything of real quality. But our dream was to produce an end result that aligned with premium quality at the luxury end of the market, so we planted the premium, flagship grape varieties used in the Champagne region: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier… we just went for it!” Aiming high? Yes indeed. But unbeknown to Eddie, the venture had ancient forces supporting it. “I only found out after we planted that the Romans had vineyards in this area, and established one just a couple of fields away,” says Eddie. “That remarkable story loaded me with confidence that we were doing the right thing and just needed to be patient; as time went on the vines backed our instincts up.”
The first vintage In 2019, those instincts were proved right yet again when Eddie harvested his very first vintage, ready for bottling. “It was the first time that we’d asked the vines to produce something of quality that meets the criteria of sugar and acidity for a premium sparkling wine,” says Eddie. “We’d had the same quantity of grapes in 2018, but if you compare the grapes to humans, they were only babies at that stage, just about learning to walk. When our wine-maker Emma Rice invited us for the very first tasting in May 2019, way before the bubbles arrived, she described it as really exciting, interesting and attractive. Up until that point, we still didn’t know whether or not we’d be able to continue what we were doing, so it was one of the the happiest days of my life!”
Our main aim is to focus on Bathonian individuals because I don’t want the locals to miss out. This is not my vineyard – this is their vineyard too; I want them to have full access to feel this place, feel the vibe and really enjoy this – their – special space.
The Minerva brand The corks are set to pop on the very first bottles of Minerva Wine towards the end of this year. But Eddie: why Minerva? “Roman goddess Minerva stood for three key areas: the arts and creativity, wisdom, and strategic warfare – those three elements are all part of our story, and our branding. Part of our mission is to look at the power of the next generation, and the power of women; my wife Emily is the first female farmer in this area since documented times and our daughters Rosa and Charlotte look up to their mum like that’s normal! I love that. Then there’s the cycle of life: no two years in the vineyard can ever be exactly the same; as a result, every year our wine is going to be different. We’re going to tell that story through a concept called Vine-Art, where the wine labels will feature the work of a globally renowned artist to interpret what Minerva means to them as they come along on our journey through the year with us. Our first artist is Victoria Topping – and here’s another wonderful coincidence: I didn’t know, when I sat down with Victoria in 2019 to discuss our plans, that she’d just published her children’s book Mythologica, a unique encyclopedia of Greek mythology like no other. How’s that for synergy? So the Romans had vineyards next door to ours, and then this; I firmly believe that the universe is supporting us!” So it comes as no surprise that, when it comes to how we mere mortals can support this sparkling venture too, there are strong elements of equitable symbiosis in that plan as well.
The forward strategy “We’re launching a countdown on our mailing list and our Instagram feed at the end of November, so you have to watch this space very closely!” says Eddie. “We’ve developed a tiered system of how you can become a Founding Member of Minerva with our very first vintage. Tier one: you buy a bottle. Tier two: you buy a bottle and a piece of art. And on you go, through the tiers, each of which offers more benefits and rewards… and every penny of the funding raised will go into development: more hectares, more vines. We’re forging strong links with selected hotels in and around Bath too; last year, we ran a handful of vineyard tour packages with the Royal Crescent Hotel which went really well and we’re working on more tour dates for next year too, and I’m hoping to put a couple of hundred bottles behind their bar. We’ve loosely partnered with The Pig Hotel as well, but our main aim is to focus on Bathonian individuals because I don’t want the locals to miss out. This is not my vineyard – this is their vineyard too; I want them to have full access to feel this place, feel the vibe and really enjoy this – their – special space. That’s why we’ve developed the tier system for Founding Members, so we can all be a part of Minerva.”
And the part of Minerva that we’re privileged to have the opportunity to own today will last way, way longer than the super-inviting bottle of English fizz in your fridge.
“This the beginning of a lot of plans that I’ve been working on for 10 years,” says Eddie. “We want to develop a multi-functional Tasting Centre, and we’re already planning on working with local chefs such as James Harris at Beckford Bottle Shop and the amazing Dan Moon, looking at dining events in the vineyard itself next year. We’re going to build a few luxury cabins too, so people can feel the land, get their hands dirty, taste the wine and stay overnight. By becoming a Founding Member, you get access to all of this, but after 3000 bottles of Founding Members, we’re not opening that up again; that’s it. But there are a lot of plans further down the line for us; I want to create a Learning Centre for young people, to get the next generation into viticulture. I’m already talking to vineyards in Australia, New Zealand and Chile with a view to encouraging young people from this area to follow the sun for the summer seasons, then come back here to further develop their career in wine: a sort of conveyor belt of learning about culture, viticulture and business. And that really ties into the strength around Minerva – wisdom, creativity and being battle-hardened, going out there when you’re young and being supported to build foundations for life. In everything that we do, you will see the Minerva theme intertwined, embracing and supporting us all.”