The Sark Project
First published Decanter, Summer 2012
Sark island rises on 11-metre high granite cliffs, neatly sliced on all sides as if suddenly pushed upwards from the English Channel with an angry shove. Geographically and emotionally set between France and England, this is not a place that you stumble across by accident. There are no flights to the island – you have to first get to Guernsey or Jersey, then take a 50-minute boat over, weather permitting.
Once there, the only transport is by foot, bike, horse-drawn carriage or at a push tractor. There are no cars, only cobbled or dirt-track streets, no street lights, no cash machines, just a cluster of old-fashioned shops, street-signs which give distances as ‘minutes to walk’ to places like Smuggler's Cove or Gull’s Chapel, and a pretty churchyard where the gravestones read in both English and French. You could be in the 1950s; the 1850s isn’t too big a leap. Laurie Lee could walk around the corner at any moment – or perhaps Victor Hugo, who was exiled for 18 years here.
It’s easy to be caught up in the romanticism of Sark; a place that is technically part of the Guernsey Baliwick, but is independent of UK laws and was run until 2008 as the last remaining feudal state in Western Europe. But it doesn’t take long off the boat to realise that, under the surface, two communities here are engaged in a tug of war. On the one side are the traditional islanders, headed up by Seigneur Michael Beaumont, whose family has presided over the island for centuries. And on the other side are the island’s most high profile investors, Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay, the billionaire twins and owners of The Daily Telegraph and the Ritz. The brothers own four of the six hotels on Sark, and 22.7% of the overall land.
Although the relationship might not be easy, they are important to the local economy. Their hotels employ 150 staff, and use local suppliers wherever possible. Over 90% of the fish served in their restaurants comes from local waters, they are planting pear and plum orchards, harvesting local honey, and are looking at creating their own oyster beds. Sark Estate Management, which runs the hotels, has introduced far-reaching green initiatives, from replacing bins with recycling stations to converting sewage water into Grade A river water. And as part of the plans to create a successful eco-tourism destination, the Barclays planted in 2010 their own vineyard, with the intention of making a high-quality sparkling wine.
‘Vines had never been planted on this island before,’ says Alain Raynaud, the Bordeaux consultant who is heading up the project, ‘and I had to question at first whether it was even possible to make a serious wine here’.
‘Sark is on the 49th parallel, a touch further north than the Loire and Champagne, and even with the softening effects of the Gulf Stream, this is an exposed location. Just getting equipment onto the island proved a challenge, as a low, narrow tunnel at the harbour made it tough to even bring a grape press onshore.’
Walking through the vines with Raynaud, the trellising system instantly reveals one of the other issues he faced. High, up to 1.8 metres tall, with five wires in vertical steps up wooden posts, tightly stretched to protect the grapes from winds that in 2011 reached up to 54 knots per hour. You can see the sea from almost every part of the 2.1 square mile island, a snatch of blue or grey behind hedgerows and houses, and both wind and fog can whip up quickly.
‘But once I analysed the soil, and studied the figures, I knew we could do something interesting. The terroir is a mix of schist and granite, and the climate is warmer and dryer than the UK mainland.’ And besides all this, for Raynaud the challenge to create wine on Sark was something more than simply a technical one. ‘There are very few times in your life when you are offered the opportunity to create something entirely from scratch. It was too much to resist.’
Vineyards today cover just over 3% of the land, with 10 hectares – 100,000 vines – of pinot gris, chardonnay, pinot noir, gamay, muller-thurgau and albarino. The intention is to reach 15 hectares over the next few years. From 2011, a weather station measures rain, wind and sunshine to minimise the use of any vineyard treatments.
Raynaud initially brought on board two young winemakers from Bordeaux, but Sark is a long-way from home, and the population shrinks back to barely 600 during the winter time (of which only 100 are under 35). Both recently headed back to France, and have been replaced with two oenologists from Champagne, Louis Wicke and Elsa Tichaudr. The new hires sound promising, having picked up experience with Joseph Drouhin in Oregon, Roederer and Nicolas Feuillatte in Champagne.
Vines are planted to 10,000 plants per hectare, with roots cut and bathed in a blend of manure, soil, water, bentonite and cow dung to strengthen them before planting, a practice called pralinage. ‘It’s a painstaking process, but is how all vines were once planted. Now it is restricted largely to biodynamic farming,’ says Raynaud.
Although the vines are still young, barely setting their roots into the soil, they already look at home – but to really understand the Barclay brothers’ project, you have to leave Sark, and sail a few hundred metres to the west, to the smaller island of Brecqhou, the private home of Sir David and Sir Frederick, where they also have a vineyard project underway.
Cars are allowed here, and a golf buggy zooms down the granite pathway to pick you up, delivering you up to the mock-Gothic castle that dominates the island, complete with turrets, battlements, three-foot granite walls and a carved motto over the doorway declaring in Latin 'To do or die'.
Brecqhou was bought for £2.4 million in 1993 by the Barclays, who then set about demolishing the existing manor house, and building a £60 million property, enlisting the work of architect Quinlan Terry. An English pub, the Dog and Duck, stands next to a tiny village green and a traditional English phone box. Sixteen full-time staff live on the island, with any children heading off to school on Guernsey by boat or helicopter.
Although there are currently just 0.7 acres of vines on Brecqhou, it shows the direction the Barclays want to take on Sark. The island is better sheltered than Sark, as a result of 190,000 trees and shrubs planted over the 16 years since the Barclays arrived, and similar wind-breaks are now being planted near the vineyards on the main island. There are over 2,000 species of plant on Brecqhou. Rainwater, surface water and sewage water is all recycled, everything is organic. Pride of place is given to the kitchen garden, where four full-time staff work year-round on supplying vegetables, herbs and fruits for the island’s table. And year round means just that – poly-tunnels, light-heaters and greenhouses means a 365-day production of Savoy cabbage, strawberries, apples, rocket, broad beans… No wonder they don’t apply the normal timescales of vineyard management to their new pet project.
‘They are not always the easiest people to work for,’ says Raynaud diplomatically, but with a fully-formed Gallic shrug. ‘Things are done to their timescales – there is simply an expectation that everything will be done immediately. ‘
Raynaud is there to check on the best location for new plantings, as the plan is to extend by another acre (enough in theory for around 2000 bottles of wine). The grapes on Brecqhou are mainly chardonnay, but the new plantings will be pinot noir, pinot meunier, albarino and muller thurgau. For this, Raynaud needs to find suitable clones, suitable rootstocks, and to work on land which has not supported vines before. We are here in February, and planting is expected in April – giving very little time to fly to Burgundy, Spain and Germany to get suitable clones, which ordinarily would then be tested for a year before planting. Somehow, two months later, everything has been assembled and planting underway.
Clearly Raynaud’s qualities as a diplomat as well as a winemaker come in handy. But no matter how skilled he is, back on Sark, it’s tough to avoid the politics. The planning permission for the new winery stubbornly refuses to materialise – even though the plans are for an underground building that will make barely a ripple on the island’s contours. For now, wine is made in a room in an old manor house, called La Jaspellerie (‘so we are making not a vin de garage, but a vin de salon’ says Raynaud). The equipment comprises a row of 60 litre vats, a small laboratory, a tiny horizontal pneumatic press. When the winery is finally built, these premises will turn into a tasting room and visitor centre, with views out over the cliffs and sea beyond.
As for the wines themselves, they are barely out of the starting blocks. Two barrels comprised the entire production of the 2011 vintage. Still, the harvest in 2012 is due to reach 10 barrels, and the quality signs are good. Oz Clarke was among the first critics on the island, and he likened the flavours to ‘Cox’s Orange Pippin…. aromatic, oozing ripeness and texture. It has a biting acidity, which is what I want. I can see the sea all around me, and I want some of that freshness. I’m absolutely sure you could make an excellent sparkling wine out of this.’
There’s undoubtedly something about Sark. And if the wine manages to translate just a tiny part of the haunting beauty of the place – so fiercely fought over by its residents old and new – it will truly have bottled something worth tasting.
Size: 2.1 square miles, or 806 acres, across Big Sark and Little Sark – two separate parts of the island joined together by a strip of land known as La Couple. The Barclay Brothers own 247 acres of the two, and are the biggest employers on the island.
Location: Latitude 49° 25' 48.69"N, Longitude 2° 21' 39.25"W
Laws: Among its many feudal laws, policemen are simply local islanders taking a two-year rotation to keep law and order, residents pay £280 per year tax, regardless of income, and wife-beating is allowed, providing the husband uses a narrow stick and doesn’t draw blood. Women were only granted equal property rights in 1999.
Size: 200 acres, entirely owned by the Barclay Brothers since 1993, when they purchased it for £2.4 million from the inheritors of former owner Leonard Joseph Matchan .
Population: 16 (family and staff), raising up to around 60 at busiest times of the year, such as Christmas.
Location: Latitude 49° 26' 03"N, Longitude 2° 23' 17"W
Laws: Although dispute exists over this, the Barlclays do not recognise Brecqhou as being governed by Sark laws. Unlike Sark, a helicopter operates on the island, for ‘aerial search, fire fighting, medical evacuation and VIP transport, and can be used by all Channel Island Emergency Services). The island has its own stamps.
In the gardens, the private chapel has a plaque outside indicating it was consecrated in 2002 by the Archbishop of Winchester (Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, a friend). The pews inside were created from the wooden staircase of the island’s original manor house.