Eric Heerema, 56, (pictured right) acquired the millions that enabled him to buy the vineyard by selling his stake in the maritime business built by his father – a convicted Nazi war criminal
It is the Queen’s favourite fizz, a sparkling English wine produced in deepest West Sussex that critics have called ‘mouth-watering’.
Not only does Buckingham Palace receive regular cases of award-winning Nyetimber, it is also served at Downing Street, where visiting dignitaries are quietly informed over canapes that it is every bit as good as French prestige champagne.
Another devotee is Pippa Middleton, who, as a party planner, knows a thing or two about popping corks. She is expected to order some for her wedding in May.
In many ways the story of how Nyetimber found Establishment favour is gloriously British.
At its heart is indomitable optimism and a can-do spirit: a small team of wine enthusiasts, led by the vineyard’s owner Eric Heerema, take on the mighty French winemakers and, despite frequent reminders that our much-mocked climate is ill-suited to grape growing, beat them at their own game.
But there is a rather unpalatable secret behind Nyetimber’s success.
The Mail on Sunday can reveal that Mr Heerema, 56, acquired the millions that enabled him to buy the vineyard by selling his stake in the maritime business built by his father – a convicted Nazi war criminal.
Pieter Schelte Heerema was one of a number of Dutch nationals who joined the notorious SS organisation, whose members were fanatically loyal to Adolf Hitler.
He had previously been a member of a Dutch fascist party.
Pieter Schelte Heerema (pictured centre) was one of a number of Dutch nationals who joined the notorious SS organisation, whose members were fanatically loyal to Adolf Hitler
After the German invasion of the Netherlands in 1940, Pieter expressed his fervent support of Nazism, giving a speech in which he spoke of the ‘model’ German race and adding: ‘The Jewish race by comparison is parasitic... therefore the Jewish question must be resolved in every Aryan country.’
He joined the Waffen-SS in 1941, training in Bavaria before being stationed in Ukraine. He rose rapidly to become an Untersturmführer – the equivalent of a second lieutenant.
He then returned to Holland where he worked as a technical director of the Nederlandsche Oost Compagnie, which dispatched Nazi-sympathising Dutch farmers to Ukraine to develop the area agriculturally.
When he married Erna Kühnen, the daughter of a carpet merchant, in December 1942, he wore his black SS uniform, and received a congratulatory telegram from Heinrich Himmler, the SS chief regarded as the main architect of the Holocaust.
Nyetimber is the Queen’s favourite fizz, a sparkling English wine produced in deepest West Sussex that critics have called ‘mouth-watering’
Guest of honour was Hanns Albin Rauter, the most senior SS officer in the Netherlands, who was responsible for sending 110,000 Dutch Jews to concentration camps.
After the war, Rauter was executed by firing squad for crimes against humanity.
After the war, Pieter was arrested in Brussels, and imprisoned in Holland. He was put on trial at the Hague in 1946 and convicted of SS membership.
At the trial, Pieter claimed he had quit the Waffen-SS and renounced the Nazi regime midway through the war and had helped a Dutch resistance unit.
Friends said information he collected was used by the Allies.
Several resistance fighters testified in his favour at his trial and the judge believed Pieter’s claim that he changed sides.
He was sentenced to two years’ prison but immediately walked free because of the time he had already spent in detention.
However, some historians are convinced he got off lightly.
One, Dr David Barnouw, an expert on the German occupation of the Netherlands, called his trial a ‘farce’ and said the resistance group Pieter assisted comprised ‘about two people’ and served as cover for collaborating Dutchmen who had a sudden ‘change of heart’.
But another historian, Professor EJH Schrage, maintains the resistance unit was ‘legitimate’ and says Pieter’s sentence was justified.
After the war, Pieter, was penniless. But having previously been a marine engineer he moved to Venezuela and started working for oil contractors.
In 1958 he invented a concrete pole resistant to corrosion by salt water. Three years later he returned to the Netherlands where he became one of the founders of the thriving Dutch offshore industry.
By the time of his death in 1981, Pieter’s Heerema Group, an offshore oil services company, had long been a towering success.
His five sons, including Eric, inherited the business. He and three of his siblings carved up an estimated £388 million when the other brother bought them out.
Former lawyer Eric Heerema, a wine buff and Anglophile, bought Nyetimber, complete with the medieval manor house that was once home to Henry VIII’s wife Anne of Cleves, for £7.5 million in 2006.
Wine buff Heerema bought Nyetimber, a medieval mansion that was once home to Henry VIII's wife Anne of Cleves, for £7.5 million in 2006
Back then, Nyetimber was already at the forefront of the English wine revolution.
The vineyard, in the lea of the South Downs, was established in 1986 after geological similarities were discovered between southern England and the Champagne region of France.
Mr Heerema had grand ambitions to turn what was effectively a cottage industry, then selling 25,000 bottles a year, into a professional business.
Recalling the first time he tasted Nyetimber, he said: ‘I bought a bottle from my local shop and was astonished, positively astonished.
I was really surprised how good it was. It was then I realised it would be possible to realise my dream in this country. But my dream is far bigger. The vision is immense.’
Mr Heerema and his 35 workers planted another 150 acres of vineyard and vastly increased production. The Nyetimber reputation swiftly grew.
In 2010 its £25 Classic Cuvee 2003 beat Bollinger in a blind taste test to be named the best sparkling wine in the world.
The Queen served Nyetimber at her golden and diamond jubilee celebrations and it is now stocked by Waitrose. Last year it sold 340,000 bottles, though the company registered a loss of £2.8 million in its 2015 accounts.
In 2010 its £25 Classic Cuvee 2003 beat Bollinger in a blind taste test to be named the best sparkling wine in the world. Pictured, the Nyetimber estate
The holding company for Nyetimber is registered in the offshore tax shelter of Jersey.
Mr Heerema and his Scottish-born wife, Hannah, 29, also own a 7,000-acre estate in Inverness-shire, which includes the mansion known to millions as Kilwillie Castle from the TV series Monarch Of The Glen.
Since 2015, though, the couple have been resident in Monaco.
Earlier this month, details emerged at an employment tribunal case in London that suggested life at Nyetimber was far from rosy.
Former head of sales, James Mason, who is bringing an unfair dismissal claim, claimed half the workforce of 59 either quit or were sacked in less than two years because of Mr Heerema’s aggressive behaviour.
Mr Mason, 41, told the hearing that Nyetimber was blacklisted by The Savoy after the Dutch tycoon flew into a rage, smashing glasses and insulting bar staff at a drinks reception sponsored by Nyetimber where Savoy waiting staff were serving drinks.
Former head of sales, James Mason, 41, told a hearing that Nyetimber was blacklisted by The Savoy after the Dutch tycoon flew into a rage, smashing glasses and insulting bar staff
He claimed Mr Heerema swept a table full of Savoy-branded glasses on to the floor and shouted at a bartender during the event at the Burlington Arcade in London.
The incident is said to have prompted the head of food and drinks at The Savoy to write to Nyetimber saying that he would no longer do business with the vineyard because of Mr Heerema’s ‘appalling behaviour’.
A source close to Mr Heerema denied the allegations made against him.
‘Nyetimber were meant to have their own stand at the event – they were sponsoring it – and the Savoy were setting up on half their space and he just asked them to move it, and when he went back they hadn’t moved it.
‘He has no recollection of smashing anything but he does have a recollection of expressing in as polite a way as he could his concern that the space he believed they were sponsoring was being shared.’
Mr Mason says he was unfairly sacked after his relationship with Mr Heerema deteriorated.
Nyetimber said that he was fired for gross misconduct and accused him of being ‘lazy, incompetent and lying’ in his handling of a major order.
The tribunal panel is due to rule on the case early next month.
Last night Mr Heerema declined to comment on the Nazi link to Nyetimber.
Two years ago, one of his brothers, the owner of a Dutch shipping company, was forced to change the name of one of its ships – which was named after his father – following an outcry from Jewish groups.
A leading rabbi claimed that allowing the ship to be named Pieter Schelte would have been as offensive as naming a boat after Hitler.
Jonathan Romain said at the time: ‘The name Pieter Schelte may not carry significance here in the UK, but once people realise its Nazi associations it will be as unwelcome as it would be allowing a pleasure cruiser named Adolf Hitler to sail up the Thames Estuary.’
A friend of Mr Heerema said: ‘Eric has had to confront this his whole life and he has always felt burdened and damaged by it.
‘It has been very difficult for him. He personally doesn’t have any fascist or Nazi sympathies – he is quite the reverse and has friends of all nationalities, creed and colour.
‘Ultimately, he believes his father was a good man.’