As some of you may be aware, for the last two years I’ve been co-ordinating a small-scale wine society for members of my amateur orchestra. We’ve been doing a series of tastings and have visited a number of wine bars over the last couple of years, but I wanted to help the group learn a bit more about the art and the science of wine making – through visiting a vineyard. Like a lot of people, I’d been pleased to read that over the last few years the stock of English wine has been gradually rising and, in particular, that the sparkling wines of Kent have been taking the international wine scene by storm. I’d found a few vineyards advertised in various trade presses and on the internet, but by far the most helpful and eager to facilitate were Hush Heath vineyard in Kent (http://hushheath.com/). Straight away I got the feeling that they were keen to have us visit them, something that some of the other vineyards certainly made me feel.
So, last Saturday (6 July 2013), 14 of us made a trip down from London to visit this vineyard. It was easy enough to get to Staplehurst (the nearest train station – an hour from Charing Cross) and we had arranged for taxis to take us from the station to the vineyard, which should have been a ten minute drive. [Side note: my taxi took quite a bit longer as the cab driver didn’t seem to know where to go (it’s never a good sign when the cabbie asks you “do you know how to get there?”, when you get in the cab!)]. We were extremely fortunate with the weather for this trip and as a result found ourselves greeted at the vineyard by glorious sunshine, the perfect accompaniment for a wander around a vineyard. We were greeted by Richard Balfour-Lynn, who has owned the site since 2002 and who personally oversaw our tour (along with his gorgeous Dalmatian, Gigi). Richard went into great detail about the vineyard and was evidently extremely passionate about it; it is immediately apparent that many of the decisions about the vineyard are made by him directly, in conjunction with a number of experts that he employs. The focus in the vineyard is one on making seriously good wine; he does this by emphasising the need for continuous excellence throughout the wine making process. As an example of this, we could see that there were signs on the end of each row of vines detailing what grape is on the row, along with what clone number it comes from and what root it is attached to; allowing them to keep an accurate record of exactly how the crop has been made.
Care and attention to detail is paramount throughout, Richard took obvious pride in demonstrating how healthy the leaves are on the vines. Two of the most impressive aspects about the vineyard for me were the way that the whole place was set out to allow rolling frosts to escape the vines and thus reduce damage to them and also the use of natural hedges to create subtle micro-climates within the vineyard. It was also apparent when walking around the estate that there was a real focus on experimentation from Richard and his team; they have experimented with varying their East-West rows with some North-West rows and are also experimenting on some slightly more unusual grape varieties to see what will get the best results from the terroir. The vineyard’s main focus is on growing the three grape varieties that are traditionally used to produce Champagne – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.
However, the estate also boasts an impressive series of orchards focussing on production of a wide variety of apples; some dessert apples sold to Harrods, but the rest for production into their cider.
The estate is also flanked by some gorgeous medieval oak forests, home to deer, buzzards and many other animals. Richard was equally as impassioned talking about how they retraced and reinstated, medieval “rides” (logging paths) in these forests, as when he was talking about vineyards. Throughout the tour it was certainly apparent that being environmentally responsible was exceedingly important to Richard.
After the tour of the grounds, we were shown around the bottling plant where we could see the other side of the vineyard’s business. The facilities were impeccable; everything was clearly kept in pristine condition, which is unsurprising given that it was all made-to-order in France and Italy. Richard took a great deal of time to explain every step of the process required to make his sparkling wines to us, which from collection to bottle ready is around three years.
After this and having walked around a sweltering vineyard, we were more than ready to get into the tasting room – and it certainly did not disappoint!
We started with a glass of Nanette’s English Rose (2010), which uses the same three grapes that make up the sparkling wine (namely, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier). The first impression on pouring was how light and elegant the wine looked, a faint salmon colour to it. On the nose it smelt softly of strawberries and it had a very pleasant taste – enhanced by the sharpness from the acidity. This is a perfect wine for summer, low alcohol, refreshing and eminently quaffable.
Next we tried the vineyard’s jewel in the crown, the Balfour Brut Rosé (2009). This wine has won many accolades around the world (see: http://hushheath.com/balfour-brut-rose/awards/ ), right the way from their first vintage (2004) which was entered as a bit of a joke. Increasingly this wine is making its way onto more and more wine lists and is drawing considerable admiration from France, too. To my eyes, this wine was a little darker than the Nanette, but the bubbles were impressively small and vigorous – a good sign. The nose was subtle; I detected slight fragrances of herbs and spices and the taste was exquisite – bags of big, juicy raspberries in it. What was also pleasing was the length of the finish – a good minute had gone past after swallowing and I could still taste the wine in my mouth. Another excellent sign for this wine. Richard was clearly immensely proud of this wine and I admire his view that each year they will make a vintage, expressing the conditions that took place that year (unlike major Champagne houses, which only release vintages when the stars are all aligned and the augurs are boding well…)
After this we moved on to the estate’s ciders, which are produced under the “Jake’s Orchard” brand. First we tried a couple of their still ciders; the first infused with elderflower and the second with strawberries and blackcurrant. Richard explained that they tried to apply the same principles to their cider that they do with their wine – and one can immediately tell the difference. This is so different from any kind of West Country scrumpy or overly-processed cider in a can; it is crystal clear to look at and bracingly fresh to taste. In fact it tastes so different from regular or traditional cider that they are struggling to find an appropriate name for it. I suggested “apple wine”, but apparently they had already considered this and it was not possible. After these two still ciders, we tried one of their sparkling ciders which had been infused with nettles. The sparkling effect on this wine was achieved by the same method that they add bubbles to their Balfour Brut. This was a fantastic drink, light and delicately flavoured with nettles (which in itself gave a surprisingly pleasant taste), but with the added pleasure of light bubbles running through it.
All-in-all, we spent a very enjoyable afternoon at Hush Heath and I can highly recommend a trip to their vineyard and their wines. It is pleasing to see that English wine is on the up, there are certainly exciting times ahead.