Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Content in Kent - The Garden of England Day 2 (of 3)

Day two of my trip to south east England saw me visit four vineyards and ended with an apple crumble. All will become clear.

I started the day with an appointment to meet Sheryl, Sales Executive of Hush Heath Estate at 10.30am. Of all the vineyards I contacted to visit Sheryl was the only one to phone me directly to confirm an appointment, for which I thank you. Looking at the website I was sure I was it would be an enjoyable morning and so it proved. For a start, it was the only time during my three days in the south where the rain stopped for long enough for me to enjoy a walk in the vines.

The journey from Rye took around 40 minutes and found me fairly deeply in the Kent countryside, a few miles from Staplehurst. I say this now, having looked at a map. As with most people these days I was relying entirely on my sat-nav and when this deposited me on a typical country lane with no sign of a winery. No matter the winery was just a few hundred yards further down the road.

I was bang on time for my appointment but took the opportunity to snap a few pictures in the car park. The reception area at Hush Heath is a joy. Beautifully appointed with all of their products, including still wines, sparkling wines, cider and juices neatly displayed along with a variety of branded goodies to promote the Hush Heath name.
Arriving at the fabulous Hush Heath Estate

Cheryl was waiting to meet me. She inquired of my available time and when I said I had an hour offered to take me out in her car to see the vines. I should explain that the vines are some distance from the winery. If you visit be aware that the walking tour of the vines can take around 90 minutes (At other vineyards it will be much shorter) and dogs and buggies are not permitted.

In my journey around the estate we passed by the gorgeous Hush Heath Manor. Built in 1503 it was in some disrepair when purchased by the Balfour-Lynn family in the 1980s. Today it is the gorgeous flagship of a stunning estate producing sensational wines, cider and apple juices. I understand it was Richard, head of the family, that wished to produce the best sparkling wine possible, especially rosé, and boy have they achieved that.

My tour complete I had a full tasting of the full range of Hush Heath produce. For me two products were outstanding; the Balfour Brut Rosé 2010, a hauntingly beautiful sparkler that really is one of the best English Sparkling rosé's around and has the awards to prove it. Sparkling red wines tend to be an Australian specialty but the Balfour 1503 Sparkling Pinot Noir surpasses the ones's that I have tried. For some sparkling red is an acquired taste but I love it. A bottle of each was purchased and a big thank you to Cheryl for taking time to show me around the estate.

I cannot leave Hush Heath without mentioning my meeting with Cathy and Stefan in the vineyards. This husband and wife team are the second generation to work on this land and their passion for the vines really showed. Cathy spoke with such knowledge and understanding of viticulture it is no wonder the wines are so sensational. The vines and orchards are in good and safe hands. I even persuaded them to pose together for a photo for me which Cheryl explained was a real rarity. I have already emailed it over but here it is again.
Cathy and Stefan from Hush Heath
 On leaving Hush Heath I just about had an enough time for a panini for lunch at Kino in Hawkhurst before hurrying to meet Ben at the Oxney Organic Estate. I think it would be fair to say that we are talking about potential for this vineyard. A large estate with recently planted vines (2012) that have only produced one vintage of still rosé wine (2014) so far.

The 850 acres of the estate comprises much farmland, woodlands as well as the vineyards. Organic methods are used throughout and the vineyard is the fourth largest organic vineyard in England. On my arrival the rain had started hammering down again so Ben and myself spent time chatting in the very neat and tidy winery. It has been build by converting an old oasthouse, which are all over Kent, and was built with small vessels to allow for experimenting with small batches of grapes. Too early to say much more at this stage but definitely a winery to watch for the future. A big thank you to Ben for coming in out the rain to show me around and to owner Kristin Syltevik for allowing me to visit.

Ben in the winery of Oxney Organic Estate

In the afternoon I made two further visits to vineyards, which to be honest were rather disappointing. Sedlescombe Organic Vineyard seems to be slightly rebellious as it has no association with the English Wine Producers, the body that most vineyards belong too. I hadn't organised an appointment but noticed it on my route. Owner Roy Cook styles himself the godfather of organic viticulture has been making wine here for over 30 years and I happy to acknowledge pioneers. But.....

The tasting room was rather ramshackle and dated. I was invited to conduct a tasting of their wines for £5. They are currently trumpeting an award for the Sedlescombe 2011 Regent, the first international recognition for an English red wine. They are also happy to declare it England's most expensive red wine at £49.50 a bottle. WHAT? I hear you cry. Yeah, I know I thought it too. And frankly it's not even that great. Sorry, I can only say what I think. No-one in their right mind would pay such a price for this wine. The international award was an obscure one, which garnered much publicity at the time, which is great but there are many better vineyards around. The other wines I tasted were okay but nothing special. I would have left disappointed but for the fact that I got a great photo of Sonia and Pauline who were also enjoying a tasting.
Sonia and Pauline - Cheers ladies!
If Sedlescombe was a disappointment then Carr Taylor Vineyards was even more so. The winemaking here dates from 1971. On my arrival the rain was now hosing down in biblical proportions. A walk around the vines was out of the question.

I ventured inside the tasting area which was tired and dated. The walls have some pictures of David Carr pouring sparkling wine near the Arc de Triomphe with Frenchman looking on in shock and awe. They date from the mid 1980s, possibly earlier. The style of the labels probably also date from that era. All of their wines are made from German cross varieties, popular in the early days of English wine making. No attempt to grow the three noble Champagne varieties has been started.

One of the white wines is called Cannonball. No, really it is. I felt so sad because this vineyard was once clearly cutting edge. I had a cursory tasting of the bland, boring wines and left immediately, having stayed less than 5 minutes. As I left a family of Chinese origin came in. I really wanted to shout "go somewhere else, this isn't English wine anymore"

I really hate having to be critical because I love English wine and want it to go from strength to strength but these two vineyards left me as sad as the inglorious English weather we were getting. I made a brief visit to Hastings which was horrible in the rain, but at least I finally got a new coat to protect me from that rain.

Fortunately I would be perked up the next morning when I met an owner of a vineyard. Meeting Graham Barbour of Woodchurch Wine was fantastic and I will tell you all about it my next blog (part 3).

I mentioned at the start, if you can remember that far back, about the ending with apple crumble. That ending was a few days later when the three glorious Bramley apples that I was given at Hush Heath were baked. And absolutely delicious it was too though I'd still much rather be drinking the fabulous rosé fizz from the estate.

See you next time. In the meantime enjoy your wine. Details of my wine tasting events business can be found at www.gloryofwine.com.


Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Content in Kent - The Garden of England Day 1 (of 3)

Well that's not true for a start as I spent a lot of my time in East Sussex and my evenings in the very pretty and ancient town of Rye, East Sussex.

This was my little excursion to the vineyards of south east England just last month (August 2015). The phrase 'content in Kent' was actually said to me by Graham Barbour of Woodchurch Estate, the last vineyard of the 6 I visited over 3 days. Having travelled the world on business, Graham had taken a keen interest in fine food and drink and decided winemaking would be for him. After careful consideration of many areas around the world he decided to focus on Kent for a vineyard site because he was indeed 'content in Kent' having spent most of his life there. More of Graham and the beautiful first vintage of Woodchurch wines in day 3, first we must return to the beginning of the story.

My wife Louise planned a trip away to Spain with her sister, and this gave me an excellent opportunity to visit an area of the country that I'd never been to before and to visit some of the fantastic English vineyards along the way.

Having selected Rye as a good base to stay I scanned my English Wine Producers map for vineyards I could visit. Having selected about 8 vineyards to approach I fired off an email introducing myself and hoping for the best. I should say that many of the vineyards are open to the public in any case but some only accepted private tours.

Top of my list to visit was Chapel Down, probably the leading English wine producer in terms of brand awareness. Although it would have been nice to have a private tour I was offered the chance to join one of the many tours they conduct daily at 1pm on the Monday. Leaving the West Midlands early I arrived for lunch in the pretty town of Tenterden just a few miles away from Chapel Down for lunch and the first of about 20 soakings from the terrible rainy weather that accompanied my week. At this point I also realised that I had forgotten my wet weather coat and had to rely on an umbrella until I had chance to purchase something new to protect me from the incessant weather.
No matter the tour of Chapel Down was a joy. Begun in 1977 with a planting of 6 acres by Stephen Skelton, after a few changes of ownership the plot has now expanded to 26 acres at the original site; 72 acres near Aylesford plus a further few hundred acres of vines grown under contract throughout the south east.
A fantastic welcome beckons at Chapel Down

The visitor centre is fitting for one of the UK's most high profile and largest producers. Beautifully appointed with a lovely walled herb garden, wine and fine food shop, tasting area, as well as the vineyards and winery. Our tour was conducted by Gavin, who clearly knew pretty much everything there was to know about the operation, and the wines when we came to taste them later. The tour lasted around 40 minutes and included the vines and all of the winery.
Our tour guide Gavin amongst the vines

I was delighted to see for the first time the full disgorging process where the plug of ice containing the lees is removed, the dosage added, followed by the corking and bottles then labelled. The whole process takes around 6 minutes and we all watched mesmerised as the bottles made their way across the winery, starting crown capped and unlabelled to finished product ready for sale. Fascinating, well for me anyway.
The fascinating disgorging process (slightly blurred)

Chapel Down have become so large now that they have outdoor temperature controlled fermenting tanks as they are not allowed to build any more sheds. The tour complete we returned to the shop and a tasting of 7 of Chapel Down's 17 wines available for purchase. I've tried my best to get into the still wines but it really is the sparkling wines that are of the most interest and the English Rose Sparkling at £20.99 got a 9/10 from me. All soft and delicious like a comfort blanket I could happily drink it all day.
The full list of available wines, beer and cider - And a few tasting notes from me

Chapel Down now also make beer, and most recently cider; their Curious Brew 4.7% ABV lager that is re-fermented using Champagne yeasts is a particular favourite with myself and a gold medal winner at the International Beer Challenge 2012. On departure I purchased a case and enjoyed tasting the 'Curious Apple' cider too.

Before leaving Chapel Down I just had to get a photo with my car and the Chapel Down entrance in shot. Ta dah:-
Glory of Wine outside Chapel Down!

Chapel Down are clearly only going to get bigger, their wines already have a significant presence on the aisles of Waitrose, and are a great British (or should I say English) success story. I left having thoroughly enjoyed the tour and tasting looking forward to more of the same.

A section of the wine list dedicated to just Sussex
and Kent sparkling wines. Wow!
I should say that throughout my three days the rain barely stopped and my afternoon and evening in Rye was spent mostly sheltering from the weather. Rye is a beautiful, quaint ancient town with quirky shops and passageways and some beautiful cobbled streets. My final word must go to English wine again though. In the window of the The George, a very fine hotel in Rye was the wine list containing a whole section on Kent and Sussex wines. To see that show's how established English Sparkling Wine is now. And that is great to see.

In Day 2 of my journey through English wine in Sussex and Kent I will be visiting Hush Heath Estate, one of the finest vineyards in southern England, discovering Oxney Organic Estate, a new kid on the block and telling about my four vineyard visits in one day.

Thanks for reading. Please come back soon. Please do follow me on Twitter and Facebook to here about my upcoming events or maybe book an event with me yourself. Details at my website www.gloryofwine.com

Until next time. Enjoy your wine.