Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

A TASTER’S TOUR OF THREE KENT VINEYARDS

August 2017. Tasting trips usually entail long flights to vineyards in other lands, so it was pure luxury when, a day or so ago, I climbed into a friend’s car and was among the vines only 40 minutes after leaving home. The wineries were all English; and all in Kent.

 

Kent can boast quite a few vineyards. And since I live in Kent, they’re almost literally on my doorstep.

 

English wine was just a cottage industry a decade or two ago. In the interim it’s grown considerably. Today, some 130 estates on 2,000 hectares produce well over 6 million bottles annually.

 

CHAPEL DOWN 

 

One of the UK’s biggest producers of all is Chapel Down, which currently fashions some one million bottles a year and is aiming to up this to 1.5 million. Visitors are welcome – 90,000 come each year – and there’s a constant stream of buses, cars, and coaches all crammed with thirsty passengers.

 

Listed on the stock market, Chapel Down owns or leases close on 300 acres (around 120 hectares) of vines, with a wide range of grape varieties: Sylvaner, Muller Thurgau, Riesling, the three Champagne varieties – Chardonnay (CH) and Pinots Noir (PN) and Meunier (PM) – and certain others. Here, near the attractive town of Tenterden, the soil is a mixture of loam and clay. This part of the outfit used to be a harbour in the 12th-13th century. The loam facilitates drainage while the clay retains moisture. Quite a lot of Chapel Down grapes come from farther afield, bought in from farmers in several other southeastern counties.

 

The oldest Chapel Down vines date back to the early 1980s – a very respectable age for such a young industry (old vines give more concentrated juice and greater complexity).

 

The estate was founded in 1980 by Stephen Skelton M.W. I remember his name being bandied around in connection with English wine many decades ago. He’s still a minor shareholder – and occasional visitor – to this day. His name appears in the history of an untold number of English wineries. You could almost call him the father of English wine.

 

They frankly admit that most of their wines are “commercial”, i.e. made to please. But they have a range of serious quality wines too, particularly those from their Kit’s Coty vineyard, located at the charmingly named Bluebell Hill estate, close to the Pilgrim’s Way. The plot is south-facing, and the soil is of a different kind from that at Tenterden: largely chalk – ideal for white wines in general and for sparkling wines in particular. “It sits under the wind and captures the sun,“ says the knowledgeable Gavin Kean, who received me at the Tenterden complex and pours the samples.

 

The estate has five categories of wine and each and every parcel – there are 20 of the Bacchus variety alone – is vinified separately. As to viticulture, they’re in the process of changing from double Guyot to single Guyot, Gavin says. They do flotation prior to racking, with tirage in June. The small amount of oak they use – 50-60 French barrels ranging from new to 7-8 year old ones – is reserved exclusively for their Pinot Noir. They don’t riddle the sparkling wines by hand – a very labour-intensive process, which is dying out even in Champagne – preferring to use mechanical gyro pallets.

 

The wines are well made, the top ones being seriously good. Of more modest bottlings, 2016 Flint Dry, 2015 Bacchus Reserve, and Bacchus Tenterden Estate are all impeccably made and would make very good aperitifs or accompaniments to such seafood as crabs, prawns, plaice, and the like.

 

Altogether more individual than these, however, are the following:

 

2013 CHARDONNAY (seven months on lees)

A delicate pale yellow, this has an attractive flowery scent of white peach and nectarine. The flavour is smooth and expressive and, if lightish, quite intense, ending on a delicate note of pineapple. A linear wine that can be enjoyed now but will develop well over the next year or two.

 

2014 KIT’S COTY CHARDONNAY (100% barrel-fermented)

A richer yellow, this has a decent aroma – still a bit oaky – of apricot and yellow plum. Not surprisingly (oak intensifies a wine’s colour, body, and smell), that aroma is rounder and fuller, though remaining svelte. A bantom-weight wine that’s well balanced and shows a pleasing chalky minerality on the finish.

 

CLASSIC NON VINTAGE BRUT (CH, PN, PM + Pinot Blanc)

There’s a hint of blackcurrant leaf and apple mousse on a nose that also promises crisp appley acidity. That’s confirmed on the palate, with its distinctly malic finish. A light but lively sparkler with enough fruit and acidity to ensure steady improvement over the next few years.

 

ROSÉ BRUT (CH. PN, PM)

Mostly made with grapes from the excellent 2011 vintage, this gives off a somewhat bland scent of rowanberry and red cherry. It’s medium full in the mouth, with a reprise of rowan and cherry and a subtly spicy finish. It’s slightly rounder than the preceding, partly due to its lower acidity, with a pleasing bitterness on the finish.

 

2013 KIT’S COTY BLANC DE BLANCS (80% stainless, 20% barrels)

This has an intense silver-gilt look and gives off a vital, searching aroma of apple, newly baked bread, and fine yeast. The mousse expands in the mouth, geysering up energetically but without undue gassiness. An exuberant taste. The flavour is assertive but balanced, longish, and with a pleasant quinine-like bitterness on the finish. A clean-cut sparkler very much in the Champagne mode, sure to improve over the coming 2-6 years.

 

2009 BLANC DE NOIRS (PN & PM)

If you look at this wine’s rich yellow colour you can detect the faintest of blushes. That’s because it’s made entirely from red grapes. True, the juice of noble red grapes is white but a little of the pigment is sometimes leached out during the pressing. But the juice of red grapes, even when clear, is richer than that of white ones and this shows on a nose that’s full and round, promising bigness of body – a promise fulfilled in the mouth. It tastes like a meld of apricot, rowan, and Brazil nut.

 

Still young at eight years, it’s fuller and less acid than the preceding wines. Already drinking well, it will continue to round out over the coming years, developing tertiary aromas and flavours without loss of vitality.

 

2011 THREE GRACES (CH, PN, PM)

This wine’s green-gold colour is the most intense of all, due to a period in oak (the wine leaches extra pigment from the wood). The expansive aroma conjures up apricot and orange peel, dog rose, and pink grapefruit. The excellent flavour is lush and round, with pronounced minerality. The rolling aftertaste has an underlying steeliness that augurs well for the future. The wine continues to develop in the glass, showing genuine distinction: it could easily pass for a good champagne. A standout wine that’s a credit to English wine making – and to this country’s potential for sparkling wine production.

 

 

BIDDENDEN WINE ESTATE

 

Julian Barnes, 56, runs Kent’s very oldest vineyard (his Ortega vines date from 1972). Sturdy and broad-shouldered, with a forthright mien and weatherbeaten look, he’s the English counterpart of a French vigneron – a man close to the soil and to his vines. The original farmhouse still serves as the estate’s main building. It’s all very familial; young foreign helpers are often invited to join the family for dinner.

 

“My parents, who used to own a cotton mill in the north, moved here in 1958 when it was still an apple farm. My mother heard on the radio about Hambledon wine estate’s success and thought, we could do that too! Lenz Moser [leading Austrian wine producer] came over from Austria to advise us, recommending that we planted six varieties. We’re still very strong on one of them, Ortega – in fact, Ortega’s synonymous with Biddenden. The Ortega has its challenges but it’s a good variety.” He referred to it indulgently, as if referring to an occasionally erring, but sound, offspring. Today, the variety accounts for about half of total acreage.

 

Muller-Thurgau, another early planting, was less satisfactory. “It didn’t work and had to be pulled up.” That’s the sort of setback that can confront you when you start out from scratch.

 

Other varieties still in production include Pinot Noir, Reichensteiner, Scheurebe, Bacchus, Huxelrebre, Gamay, and Dornfelder.

 

Compared with Chapel Down Biddenden is tiny, just 23 acres, or around 10 hectares. Biggest ever harvest was in 2009 – a top UK vintage – with 90,000 bottles. By contrast in 2012 – a poor year – it dropped to 28,000. “Our problem? Not having the wine to sell to customers in one year and then having to attract them back the year after when we do have the stock!…”

 

As we walk through his vineyard, a vivid chlorophyll green in late July, he continues: “I’m from a farming background. I work independently, no contracts with supermarkets.” As we pass a row of old vines he nods towards them, saying: “I did the wire work on those when I left school.” He’s referring to two rows on Pinot Noir, which, a small sign informs us, were planted in 1972. 45 years old! Vines at that age are of incalculable value, especially when they’re Pinot Noir, a variety that doesn’t perform at its best until of venerable age.

 

Julian Barnes shows an infant bunch of grapes.

 

Like all true vignerons, he’s eternally vigilant, noting this or that change, whether it’s the development of mildew on a bunch of grapes or an excess of foliage here and there, or snapping off a damaged twig. Passing an open field with a promising looking slope, he says ruminatively: “With that heavy soil there, we could probably plant some more Ortega…”

 

I ask him about the wide spaces between the rows of vines (11 feet it transpires). “Same width as for apple trees!”, he replies. I smile at the thought that that spacing was dictated by an earlier, cider-making tradition rather than by a viticultural one.

 

As always, the biggest problems for English wine producers: wind and frost. “England’s maritime climate has its challenges… You’ve got to approach each harvest with fresh ideas. The problems start when the grapes start to develop sugar… You’ve always got to be ready to try something new, to break the boundaries…”

 

I realize we’ve been taking a delightful walk for fully 30 minutes, surrounded only by greenery: vines in full leaf, infant bunches of grapes gleaming through the foliage; emerald grass, dark copses, total silence save for our conversation. No sound other than our own voices and bird calls. And not a car, not a building in sight.

 

 

Back at the winery, a tasting.

 

2013 Gribble Bridge is a sparkler made from Reichensteiner, Pinot Noir, and Scheurebe. The pleasant, somehow pebbly aroma lies midway between apple and pear and leads into a soft, fruity flavour with a hint of melon on the finish. Medium long and a touch sulphury, it’s a bit low in acidity and clearly for current drinking.

 

Gribble Bridge Rosé, 100% Gamay, smells like pink grapefruit and rowanberry and, like the previous wine, can be drunk now and a couple of years on. 2010 Gribble Bridge Pinot Noir Reserve is more mature and has more substance. Its fine grapy scent conjures up almond and tropical fruit, with a twist towards white peach and rose-hip on the palate. A wine with personality.

 

Of still wines, the 2016 Ortega smells of greengage, yellow plum, and dog rose, leading into a crisp, dry flavour which ends on a note of crab apple. A characterful wine, forthright and honest. The 2015 Ortega is pale, with a full grapy nose and a round and forthright taste, midway in style between a Chablis and a white Côtes du Rhône. Quite full, it not only tastes like grapefruit but has a grapefruity bitterness on the finish.

 

The 2016 Dornfelder that concludes the tasting is, I’m told, very popular. Not, sadly, with me. It smells like sloe and elderberry and is on the thin side.

 

 

GUSBOURNE

 

Gusbourne, not far from the charmingly named village of Appeldore, is at once extremely ancient and extremely modern. It was first mentioned in 1410 as “Goosebourne Estate”, the property of one John de Goosebourne. As a wine estate, however, it dates only back to 2004, the year in which the first vines were planted. It was founded by Andrew Weeber, a South African surgeon who, with experience of wine production in Stellenbosch to draw on, quickly recognized Gosbourne’s potential as a “leading wine estate”. The first wines were released in 2006.

 

Charlie Holland, winemaker at Gusbourne

The total area under vine is now 90 hectares made up of two plots, one of 60 hectares and the other of 30. They’re quite a distance from one another. The Appledore plot lies on a coastal escarpment in Kent and is only six miles from the sea. Its terroir consists of Wealden clay and Tunbridge Wells sand, with a SSE aspect and low altitudes of 2 to 40 metres. The one in West Sussex is predominantly chalky and suffused with flint, with overlays of clay loam. Such a variety of soils, all eminently suitable for the production of fine wines, helps create complexity in Gusbourne wines.

 

Wisely, they’ve concentrated exclusively on the three noble grape varieties used in the Champagne region – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. The resultant wines are domaine-bottled in the truest sense: they only use grapes from their own vineyards and neither buy in grapes nor sell any to other producers. Each vineyard plot is vinified separately, and their overall aim is to make wines” that faithfully reflect time and place”. When desirable, they practice green harvest – snipping off a percentage of infant bunches so as to concentrate the remaining fruit.

 

2013 GUSBOURNE ROSÉ

This wine – harvested by hand in October – has a nuanced pink colour with orange reflections and a delicate, refined aroma of pink grapefruit, rowan and yellow rose. The flavour, too, is delicate and refined, shifting to cloudberry and strawberry. Like all well-made young wines, it steadily expands in the glass, growing more harmonious and expressive. But it’s still as tightly furled as a rose still in bud. It will slowly unfurl and blossom over the coming 2-3 years, with full maturity not arriving much before the mid-2020s.

 

2013 GUSBOURNE BRUT RESERVE

A pale but glittering green-yellow, with bubbles so small as to be well-nigh invisible, this blend of all three champenois grapes has an elegant, precise aroma of grapefruit and apple and is of striking purity. Barely four years’old, it’s still pretty closed up but shows telltale signs of excellent balance – fine acidity, intense but focused fruit, and a long finish with all manner of nuances waiting to emerge in time (several years from now). It possesses just the sort of crisp acidity that, in time, will guarantee length and vitality.

 

2013 GUSBOURNE BLANC DE BLANCS

This excellent wine confirms that the Chardonnay is well-suited to English soil. The greenish colour has a special luminosity, the nose is creamy, poised, and very subtle. I find myself thinking of apple, greengage, and white rose petals. Though still in crysallis, it opens up enough to reveal a burgeoning flavour that’s at once creamy, subtle, and beautifully crafted. The finish is long – and will grow longer as it matures. Great potential.

 

2013 GUSBOURNE GUINEVERE (Nine months in three-year-old oak casks)

A bright yellow, this exhales a composite scent of crab apple and Granny Smith with overtones of vanillin and the barest hint of resin derived from new oak. The flavour is medium bodied and full of vitality, the finish longish and nuanced. There’s a faintly dryish catch at the back of the throat, from the (very clean) wood. A very good wine with enough fruit to shed its oakiness in time. A few more years in bottle should do wonders.

 

2014 GUSBOURNE GUINEVERE (6 months in oak, 80% old, 20% new)

The colour, noticeably more luminous, has that special sheen, a quivery silver-gilt look, so typical of fine Chardonnay. The nose has a decisive quality, crisp and dynamic, hinting at greengage and crab apple. In the mouth, a lovely texture that caresses the palate. It has just the right level of viscosity needed to counterbalance the acidity/minerality, coating the palate but with no hint of flabbiness. The refined, honeyed aftertaste holds great promise.

 

2015 GUSBOURNE PINOT NOIR (still)

A bright crimson-purple, – a typical PN colour – with shiny highlights, this has a soft, distinctly Pinot aroma of redcurrant, raspberry, and red rose. Lovely Pinot Noir fruit on the palate, with everything in balance. It could easily pass for a Village from a serious Burgundy domaine. Harmonious and intense, with underlying elegance, it will improve for a number of years. Made from vines planted as recently as 2005/06, it’s a remarkable achievement given the vines’ extreme youth.

 

An impressive example of one of the world’s noblest red grapes grown on English soil.

 

In short, a range of superbly crafted wines, very much in the Champagne mode but with a delicate English accent, with an acidic structure and overall balance which will ensure steady improvement over the coming years. All are drinkable now, but it would be a pity to uncork them so soon. I predict that those who hold on to bottles will congratulate themselves on their foresight in the 3-10 years to come.

 

© Frank Ward 2017

Related article : New World Wine – Old World Terroir

 

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