English wine is no longer ridiculed by the critics – it is now widely respected and reputed. Contributing to that is Richard Balfour-Lynn and his Hush Heath estate, who have been producing premium offerings since 2001. Eileen Leahy talks to the entrepreneur about his grape expectations.
IF THERE’S a dream job out there for a wine buff, then Richard Balfour-Lynn (above) most probably has it. The viticulturist is not only at the helm of one of the country’s most successful vineyards, he’s fortunate enough to regularly travel the world sampling interesting grape varieties, sourcing state-of-the-art technology for his winery, and discovering impressive brewing techniques to ensure his selection of award-winning wines and ciders are the best they can possibly be.
Add into the equation Hush Heath’s beautifully lush, picture-perfect location right in the heart of the Garden of England – think rolling green hills, apple orchards and oast houses as far as the eye can see – not to mention a stunning 16th-century timbered manor house to call home, and it’s fair to say that Richard has pretty much got it all.
But like any route to a successful business, it takes an awful lot of effort, steely focus and good old-fashioned hard work, and over the past 16 years Richard and his talented Staplehurst-based team have certainly grafted.
“We started with no experience,” admits Richard. “We have all learnt along the way.”
The idea for creating a vineyard came from his wife Leslie, who suggested it when the couple ended up buying 400 acres of land surrounding the family seat of Hush Heath Manor in 2001.
“My wife said to me: ‘You’ve always been interested in wine, so why don’t you plant a small vineyard?’ And that’s how it started…”
The couple initially began with five acres of vines and took the deliberate decision to only plant the classic trio of champagne grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir.
“We were one of the first vineyards in England to do this, as opposed to planting the more common Germanic grapes,” Richard explains.
They also took the bold decision to only make one wine – a pink fizz called Balfour Brut Rosé. “We just wanted to produce a really high quality pink sparkling wine that we hoped would compare with Laurent-Perrier and Billecart-Salmon Rosé. That was our strategy.”
‘What influences us most is making it a place where people come and smile and enjoy’
Thankfully the business flourished, and in 2010 the team opened a winery and added a selection of other sparkling and still wines to their portfolio.
“Our winery is very much state of the art. All the equipment has been made for us in France and Italy and it enabled us to start producing a whole range, including ciders and apple juice, from the fruit grown on the estate,” confirms Richard.
“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. We’re now exporting to the US, Hong Kong, Japan and Canada, so we’re seeing English wine being talked about and trialled in many other parts of the world.”
Hush Heath have also been selected as the official wine partners for the Times Business Awards taking place at Salomon’s on May 18 – something Richard says he is very pleased to be part of: “I’m a great believer in encouraging business, in particular young and growing ones, and anything we can do to recognise that we consider to be very important.”
So what are the key elements to his business, which aims to give the fine champagnes and premier crus of the industry a run for their money?
“The first important element is growing really high quality grapes. The viticulture team are all predominantly from one family and have been here since the beginning, and they’ve become real experts. We had no experience of clones, or what rootstocks of the vine were ripe, so every ten rows we had different ones to see how they did and gradually we refined our technique. We also saw what the microclimate does at Hush Heath, so it’s a combination of what works here and the soil type.”
After the winery was built, and more varieties were added to their repertoire, it was time to concentrate on another important element of the business: Tastings and improving visitor footfall.
“Wine tourism has become an important element of the UK wine industry,” Richard states. “When we opened to the public two years ago we had 1,500 people visit us. Last year it was over 15,000.”
There is talk of planting more vines and there are also plans to extend the winery in order to increase production and improve the tasting facilities.
“We want to make it fun for people to come here and have a proper experience. It’s aimed at people who are really interested in wine, who want to walk through a most beautiful estate and have the pleasure of seeing the vineyards, apple orchards and ancient oak woodlands. We want them to enjoy the tranquillity and learn about viticulture practice, and how we grow apples and grapes and make them into wine, cider and juice.”
Hush Heath now produces 15 different wines, but Richard says his favourite is still the estate’s original. “I think it would have to be the Balfour Rosé, which I think is an exceptional wine.
“It was the first English sparkling rosé served on British Airways first class worldwide and on the Orient Express to Venice, and it was the only English sparkling wine served at the London Olympics, so it has a very good reputation and we’re very proud of it.”
Such success has certainly helped their mission to transform the image of English wine from one of ridicule to reverence.
Tastings are available to the public seven days a week, and Richard is keen to stress that they are very relaxed and informal.
For true Hush Heath fans, a wine club has recently been set up, which Richard says is ‘a way of engaging more with people who are enthusiastic about English wine’.
“They can really get involved by participating in the harvest and in blending trials. Our whole thing is to be inclusive, to make people feel part of something.”
The estate has also recently acquired two pubs so the wine tasting experience can be made attractive to those travelling from further afield.
“We’re getting more and more guests coming from abroad, and what’s important to them is where they can stay at night and where they can eat good food. We thought, well we won’t do it at Hush Heath as we want to keep a more relaxed and quieter ambience there, so we bought two local pubs.”
They are The Goudhurst Inn and the Tickled Trout in West Farleigh, which were ‘completely overhauled’ to accommodate stylish rooms and great food in order to ensure anyone travelling from afar would have the best experience of Hush Heath and all it has to offer.
“Our whole ethos here is to be generous,” adds Richard. “If you’re going to build a premium brand you have to be generous, not only with your time and your tastings but in all aspects, and I think what influences us most is making it a place where people come and smile and enjoy.”
They’ve certainly achieved that, judging by the five-star ratings the tastings get on TripAdvisor.
“People seem to absolutely adore coming to Hush Heath, and it’s not just a place where the wines are great but it’s also about the people.
“You can walk into the vineyards and meet the team tending to the grapes and their knowledge and passion is something they are so keen to share.
“And I think that’s what distinguishes Hush Heath.”
Hush Heath Estate, Five Oak Lane, Staplehurst, Kent TN12 0HT, 01622 832794, www.hushheath.com