Grape expectations: how English fizz became something to celebrate
19 December 2019
Not long ago you wouldn’t have brought English wine to a dinner party. Now, says Henry Jeffreys, it’s giving French wines a run for their money
Ten years ago if you’d received an invite to Bridge Place, a 16th-century manor house near Canterbury, for dinner with a group of Kent wine producers, you might not have been keen. And not just because the venue was then an over-30s-only nightclub … English wine’s reputation just wasn’t there.
How things have changed: when I visited this spring, Bridge Place was about to reopen as a Pig hotel, joining a small set of smart, fiercely foodie countryside hotels. To celebrate, the Pig team had laid on a dinner for the Wine Garden of England, a group of local producers. On the menu: some excellent old vintages of the sparklers, some very good still whites and even some ripe, juicy reds.
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, recalls how it 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.”
Grape harvest time on the estate
Balfour-Lynn, who has a background in hotels, became a Kent vine grower almost by accident. When most of us buy something on a whim, it might be a hat or a pair of shoes, but Balfour-Lynn bought a 160-hectare farm not far from Tunbridge Wells, called Hush Heath. His wife Leslie suggested that he might want to plant vines here – 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. Balfour-Lynn is 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, including an £80 bottle and two wines for the Tesco Finest range: a sub-£20 sparkler and a still, white blend. “The difference is stylistic, not in quality,” he says.
Tesco introduced Hush Heath’s sparkling wine in 2016, answering a growing demand for homegrown bubbles, and followed up with their still white this May. It’s been a collaborative process, the supermarket’s wine expert Charlotte Lemoine, explains. “Our team gets together with Hush Heath to blend the wine each vintage,” she says. They each create their own blend from the vats and test them together. “The best blend wins” and goes off for bottling and labelling. “We love working with Hush Heath,” she says. “It means we can provide greater access to a wonderful wine producer, and respond to the growing demand for first-class English wine.”
So why has English wine gone from “joke” to success story in such a short space of time? Balfour-Lynn is candid: “global warming – we could not do what we are doing 25 years ago.” But the climate is still marginal – 2017 was a disaster, while 2018 “was a fantastic vintage”, says Lemoine, because “it saw a lot of sunshine”.
When I visited Hush Heath, they were bringing in the harvest in the pouring rain – the pinot noir grapes were sweet, with ripe skins and an electric charge of acidity that makes them perfect for sparkling wine.
What has also changed is the professional attitude in the industry. “People have invested in higher-quality equipment,” Balfour-Lynn says, “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.”
You need patience 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. Balfour-Lynn says that establishing a premium wine brand is the work of 20-30 years. “I wish I’d started when I was 10,” he jokes. Some producers might resort to selling their grapes rather than making their own wine, just like in Champagne, but there’s no shortage of people investing. In some ways it’s like California in the 1970s, without the year-round sunshine.
Wine might be a young industry, but Kent has long been famous for its high-quality produce such as apples and hops. Balfour-Lynn notes that the 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.”
Tesco introduced Hush Heath’s sparkling wine in 2016, answering a rising demand for homegrown bubbles
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 Balfour-Lynn often has budding growers over.
Currently, most producers are concentrating on the British market. Considering we drink something like 30m bottles of champagne a year but only produce 3-4m bottles of sparkling wine, this is still a relatively untapped market. We also drink more than 100m bottles of prosecco, and Balfour-Lynn thinks that we shouldn’t be afraid to make similar wines which are much cheaper to produce.
“English wine should be innovative,” he says, adding that the vineyard is expanding to meet the demand for bubbles. Hush Heath Estate will increase its production by 300% in the next four years – something Tesco has supported, says Lemoine: “It’s so exciting to watch what was such a small set up initially scale and grow, producing such distinctive wine.”
The home market is so strong that export isn’t a priority. Hush Heath currently exports about 10% of its production, but this is likely to rise as the reputation of English wine grows.
Indeed, 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 planted vines in Kent, but when I gave a wine from one of Balfour-Lynn’s neighbours, Biddenden, to a French friend. She swore it was from the Loire.
Exporting English wine to France, wouldn’t that be something?
A wine romance
Tesco’s wine team works with vineyards across the world to give customers access to the best blends, but English wine is now a key area of focus.
“English wine has been a big thing for us for a few years now, reflecting the investment, passion and care that’s going into vineyards across the country,” says Charlotte Lemoine, Tesco’s wine expert since 2014. “We’re excited to be working with such an innovative winery to produce distinctive, home-grown wines which our customers absolutely love.”