It’s English Wine Week so as good a time as any to post this thing that I wrote for the Observer earlier this year for an advertorial spot sponsored by Tesco. Don’t let that put you off, as they pretty much let me write what I wanted though they did remove all the jokes from the finished article. That’s subs for you!
Ten years ago if you’d invited me to Bridge Place, a 16th century manor house near Canterbury, for dinner with a group of Kent wine producers, I don’t think I’d have been terribly keen. That’s mainly because the venue was then an over 30s only nightclub, notorious for what our cab driver Kevin called ‘grab-a-granny’ nights. But also because I wouldn’t have thought the wines would be that good. How things have changed: when I visited this spring, Bridge Place was about to open as a Pig Hotel and to celebrate, the Pig team had laid on a dinner for the Wine Gardens of England, a group of local producers. We drank some excellent old vintages of the sparklers, some very good still whites and even some ripe juicy reds (the 2018 Gusbourne Pinor Noir, below, is staggeringly good as is the 2017 Chardonnay).
It all felt so normal, winemakers showing off their best wines; it’s hard to recall how recent this success is. Richard Balfour-Lynn owner of Hush Heath Estate filled me in on how things used to be: “If you said you made English wine people would laugh at you. When you went abroad people would look at you like you were slightly odd.” He made his money in among other things a couple of hotel chains you may have heard of, Hotel du Vin and Malmaison. As he tells it, he became a vine grower in Kent by accident. When most of us buy something on a whim, it might be a hat or a particularly snazzy pair of shoes, but Richard bought a 400 acre farm not far from Tunbridge Wells called Hush Heath.
Always a wine fan, his wife suggested that he might want to plant vines there rather than France or Italy. This was back in 2002, and the first wine, a pink sparkler, came out in 2007, inspired by his favourite champagne, Billecart-Salmon rosé with a price to match. He’s nothing if not ambitious. It was an immediate success winning a gold medal and trophy at the International Wine Challenge. Since then the estate has won many other awards and production has expanded dramatically. It now produces a range of wines all from estate-grown fruit, all the way from £80 a bottle to two wines for the Tesco Finest range, a sub £20 sparkler and a still white blend. “The difference is stylistic, not in quality,” Richard told me.
I asked him why English wine had gone from joke to success story in such a short time. He was candid: “global warming, we could not do what we are doing 25 years ago.” But the climate is still very marginal, 2017 was a disaster. When I visited Hush Heath, they were bringing in the harvest in the pouring rain (I pinched a few Pinot Noir grapes and they were sweet, with ripe skins and an electric charge of acidity that makes them perfect for sparkling wine). What has also changed is there’s a more professional attitude in the industry. “People have invested in higher quality equipment,” Richard told me, “and we’re getting to know the area, finding out which clones and rootstock work where. We’re all starting out, there’s no real history here.”
Money helps too, you need deep pockets to make sparkling wine, particularly in England. Vines need time to bear fruit and the wine needs at least 18 months to mature in bottle. You won’t see a return on your money for at least seven years. Richard said that to establish a premium spirits brand is the work of 20-30 years. “I wish I’d started when I was ten,” he joked. Building a brand is important, those who don’t, will not survive, Richard thinks. Some producers might resort to selling their grapes rather than making their own wine, just like in Champagne. And yet, there’s no shortage of people splashing money around. In some ways it’s like California in the 1970s, only without the nice weather.
Another way the English industry is very like California is the emphasis on tourism. In fact, they do it a lot better than many established wine regions. I’m looking at you Bordeaux. Hush Heath has a magnificent tasting room with a restaurant and views across the Kent Downs. The Home Counties have a distinct advantage over most other up-and-coming wine regions in that they have a massive wealthy city on their doorstep: Hush Heath is 45 minutes from London Bridge station. Kent has become a food and drink lovers destination. No wonder the Pig group chose to open its first hotel outside the West Country near Canterbury.
Wine might be a young industry but Kent has long been famous for its high quality produce like apples and hops. Richard noted that areas where vines thrive, where there’s good drainage, sunlight and shelter from frost, were famed for fruit growing in the 19th century. There’s continuity in other ways: “We have the same viticultural team, the Turner family, since 2002. They’re third generation on the estate, the grandfather was head gardener. They are invested in the land.”
As I learned from my dinner at the Pig, the English wine business is very supportive. There are some wine regions where you couldn’t get all the local producers around the table but in Kent, they bask in each other’s success and Richard often has budding growers over to see how it is done.
Currently most producers are concentrating on the British market which, considering we drink something like 30 million bottles of champagne a year but only produce 3-4 million bottles of sparkling wine, is still relatively untapped. We also drink 100 million bottles of prosecco and Richard thinks that we shouldn’t be afraid to make similar wines which are much cheaper to produce. “English wine should be innovative,” he told me.
The home market is so strong that export is not a priority for most producers. Hush Heath currently exports about 10% of its production to America, Hong Kong, mainland China and, surprisingly, Spain, but this is likely to increase as the reputation of the England’s wines grows. The moment I realised that English wines had arrived was not when one came top in a blind tasting against champagne, or even in 2017 when Taittinger champagne planted vines in Kent (naturally it was pouring with rain that day) but when I gave a wine from one of Richard’s neighbours, Biddenden, to a French friend. She swore it was from the Loire. Exporting English wine to France, wouldn’t that be something?
If you want some English sparkling wine recommendations, here’s a round-up of my favourites I put together for BBC Good Food.