This Saturday sees the launch of English Wine Week. Eileen Leahy examines why our home-grown grapes – especially here in Kent – have gone from being ridiculed to revered, and raises a toast to the best producers in the area
In the 1970s and 80s, if you’d offered a glass of English wine to guests at a dinner party they would more than likely have politely declined. It’s fair to say that up until around 15 years ago our indigenous viticultural offerings were deemed rather insipid and inferior to their French, Italian and New World counterparts.
Fast forward a few decades, and now the UK wine industry couldn’t be in a more buoyant place. In the last ten years grape growing acreage has soared by a whopping 135 per cent, and some of our esteemed producers have even beaten Champagne makers in prestigious industry awards ceremonies.
Only last year, Nyetimber was favoured by a group of French judges in a blind tasting in Paris, with many of them convinced it was a classic Champagne and not a sparkling wine from West Sussex.
So what happened? Well, it would seem that English producers – after a number of years of trial and error – have learned how best to grow grapes on our favourable chalky, clay soil that’s not too dissimilar to the nearby French terroir.
Richard Balfour-Lynne, from Hush Heath, admits that it has taken years to develop their award-winning wines, and much experimentation, too: “We started with no experience,” Richard revealed to me recently. “We have all learnt along the way. It’s only in the last couple of years that English wine has become popular and talked about – or recognised as being something worth trying. We’re still very much in our infancy and it will take many years to develop further, but there now seems to be interest in English wines, not just here but from abroad, too.”
Hush Heath, which is based in Staplehurst, also offers its wine tasting fans a variety of gourmet foods to enjoy either pre or post-tasting at its pubs The Goudhurst Inn and The Tickled Trout in West Farleigh (pictured).
According to experts at English Wine Producers, the UK’s wine industry looks set to further continue its ‘impressive growth’ with the news that a record-breaking one million new vines will be planted here over the rest of the year. This, they report, is in ‘recognition of the increasing importance and popularity of UK wine’.
So, to toast the upcoming English Wine Week, which begins this Saturday (May 27), why not visit one of our many local vineyards and sample for yourself their quality tipples all home-grown for your enjoyment? Here’s our pick of the best:
This vineyard near Tenterden produces over 1 million bottles of red, white, rosé and sparkling wines a year from its 100 acres of vineyards. Despite only starting in business 15 years ago, Chapel Down is now considered one of the market leaders on the English wine scene. Main grape varieties include Bacchus, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Their Kit’s Coty Chardonnay is a perfect blend of creamy character with shots of fresh apple aromas. (£19.99 www.chapeldown.com)
Gusbourne Estate is located in Appledore, near Ashford, and dates back to 1410. It started planting vines in 2004 and has now mushroomed to seven different sites in Kent and West Sussex. In 2010, the debut vintages of Gusbourne Brut Reserve 2006 and Gusbourne Blanc de Blancs 2006 were released to critical acclaim. In 2015, they were awarded six gold medals for their prestigious sparkling wines, which also include a rosé which is a delicate pink fizz with subtle red fruit flavours and hints of herbs.
The first vines at Biddenden were planted in 1969 on what was originally an apple orchard. Known as Kent’s ‘original commercial vineyard’, this family-run enterprise is now in the hands of the second and third generations of the Barnes family, who manage the estate. They now boast 11 different grape varieties and produce over 80,000 bottles of red, white, rosé and sparkling wines every year. They also produce
a range of ciders and juices. Almost half of the vineyard is given over to the Ortega grape, which boasts fresh zingy notes of crisp apple, freshly cut grass and grapefruit. Perfect for summer sipping. (£10.80 www.biddendenvineyards.com)
Located in Staplehurst, the Hush Heath estate stretches to some 400 acres, with 37 of these dedicated to the classic Champagne grape varieties of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Hush Heath has been producing wine since 2001 – most notably its award-winning Balfour Rosé sparkling wine, which is served in first class on British Airways and on the Orient Express to Venice. It now produces a range of other wines, ciders and juices, but its original pink sparkler with its subtle blend of berries and spice remains its flagship fizz.