Monday, May 9, 2011

Biddenden Vineyards.

Finding myself wandering through the town of Kent, I decided to stop by the oldest continually producing vineyard in the area. Biddenden’s former life as an apple orchard lives on in its production of ciders alongside its current line of wines. This 22-acre estate grows Ortega (a hybrid invented in 1948), Pinot Noir, Dornfelder, Gamay, Scheurebe, and Huxelrebe among other experimental varietals. No more apple trees can be found here, but Biddenden buys apples from local orchards and does cider production on-site.

Here’s a little history of the estate: Biddenden was established in 1969 by Sally and Julian Barnes. They invested in a sole acre of land after an article appeared claiming vines were the next big cash crop in the Kent area. They slowly expanded, planting land they bought with German varietals as they went. After three years of perfecting their training and pruning methods, Biddenden had its first official harvest in 1973.

Ortega vines outside Biddenden's tasting room

The Barnes’ turned to mainly German varietals due to the availability of information regarding the adaptation of these grapes to the unique Kent terroir. The cool climate is similar in some ways to the grapes’ native terrain; Kent, however, is much wetter, often being enveloped in fog. This humidity brings the area’s major problem: powdery (oidium) and downy mildew. Luckily the weather dries out a bit in the crucial months of March through August, but mildew and rot are challenging enough to require numerous copper sulfate sprays.

This estate’s philosophy is to express their winemaking skill in the wines they offer. Terroir is not the focus here; rather, the ability of the winemaker to turn a difficult area for grape growing into a prime winemaking opportunity is the highlight. It’s quite interesting to taste these unique wines, especially if one knows the history behind the wine region here.

cider tanks at the Biddenden estate

Ciders, on the other hand, are really what this estate makes to perfection. In fact, Biddenden’s ciders are so good that the local pubs will only sell them by the half-pint… they are crafted in such a delicious manner that the alcohol lurking underneath is rarely even sensed, making these delectable drinks quite dangerous on a hot day.

I was welcomed pleasantly by my hostess Vikki Wright and offered a taste of both lines of wines (Gribble Bridge and Biddenden) and the line of ciders. Here’s what I tasted:

2009 Gribble Bridge Ortega

A simple but nice display of Ortega grapes grown in a rather warm year. Crisp and mild with medium acidity. Full of soft apples and white peaches. Nothing remarkable, but pleasing nonetheless.

2009 Biddenden Ortega

Similar aromatic and flavor profiles to the Gribble Bridge version: Red Delicious apples and white peach, but with a little more acidity. Again, nothing spectacular, but a nice example of Ortega.

2009 Gribble Bridge Dornfelder/Acalon Rose

Probably two grapes most people have never encountered. Acalon, by the way, is not a certified fine wine grape, but is a French varietal used typically for making jam or eating. Here it acts as an experimental varietal. This rose was truly interesting… full of funky, earthy cherries, with a gamey aroma that would make it pair nicely with rabbit. A hint of sourness in the background; I’m not sure if that is from the Acalon or Dornfelder, or from a natural wild yeast in the area.

2009 Gribble Bridge Dornfelder

Again loaded with sour cherries. This wine would be a great replacement for a Beaujolais Villages, or a Gamay from the Loire. I would serve it slightly chilled. This one was pretty good.

2004 Gribble Bridge Sparkling White

A blend of Reicht, Sheurebe, and Ortega. This wine is not intended to be Champagne-style, though it is made by the Champagne method. In this area the people have developed a taste for aged sparkling wines. This one exemplifies the creamy style preferred here. Aging on the lees for over 9 months gives a yeasty character; fruity apples and a clayey minerality give it character.

2007 Gribble Bridge Sparkling Rose

This 100% Gamay sparkler was the most impressive wine I encountered in the lineup. Sweet cherries and rose petals make this one a delicious, easy drinking summer wine.

The 2009 Biddenden Gamay was unfortunately not available for tasting, but Jancis Robinson covers it well here

And on to the ciders. I tasted through the line of ciders and loved every one of them. However, use caution: the dry Strong Kentish Cider tastes exactly like the best apple juice you could ever imagine, but packs a powerful 8.4% alcohol. The medium Strong Kentish Cider tops out at over 9% alcohol (though the label says 8%), and again, you would never even guess it had been fermented. Also on the menu are a sparkling cider with hints of licorice and refreshing fine bubbles (unfortunately only available in the tasting room), a “Special Reserve” cider fermented in whiskey casks weighing in at 13% alcohol (absolutely phenomenal), and the “Monk’s Delight” spiced cider. I recommend every single one of these if you have the opportunity to taste them!

If you’d like to visit Biddenden, or for more information, check out their website or email Vikki Wright.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The history of English winemaking.

UK vineyard locations today

Many are surprised to hear of wine production in England. Very little of the wine ever makes it out of the UK. Sommeliers around the world typically have no opportunity to taste these wines unless they pay a visit to the regions themselves. So when people read about the wines of England they naturally think this is a relatively new development. But a reading of the history of English winemaking below will definitely surprise most and change opinions…
Roman amphora discovered in Kent, England

The first wine production in what is now England occurred during Roman times, about 2000 years ago. Oxford Archaeology has discovered many artifacts telling of the consumption of wine throughout the Roman era, including an amphora from BC times (see above). The small-scale winemaking enterprise was welcomed among the conquered: they had developed an appreciation for wine due to the importation of the beverage from the Belgae before Roman occupation. But some historians believe that the production was, in fact, so small-scale that hardly any wine was produced at all, and that the ceremonial tending of the vineyards and making of the wine was more a remnant of the homesickness of the Romans than an actual productive business.

Conquest of the Normans

The departure of the Romans and the subsequent Dark Ages mostly resulted in these small vineyards falling into disuse and disrepair. The adoption of Christianity under King Alfred encouraged a bit of winemaking to produce wine for the church, but more widespread interest didn’t begin until the entrance of the Normans in 1066.

By the time of the Norman conquest vines were certainly grown in quantities that allowed a significant amount of wine production. Evidence abounds throughout cities in England of the importance of wines (street names such as Vine Street, for example). The Normans were heavy drinkers who enjoyed wine in particular, and their skills as winemakers were finely honed. The Domesday Book reported 46 vineyards in the south of England in 1085-1086, and English production nearly matched imports in volume. Of these only 12 were tended by monasteries. The rest were property of noblemen, producing wine for their personal pleasure. At this time wine was being produced in the coastal area in the southeast and in an area including present-day Somerset, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, and Worcestershire.

Thereafter the number of vineyards suddenly declined. There is a popular debate regarding a potential climate change that may have taken place during the Norman times that might explain this demise. Some say that the summers became colder and winters became warmer, and that the climate in general became wetter, making grape growing a much more difficult task. Others attribute the change in vineyard land to the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII in 1536. Still others point to the change in agriculture following the Black Plague due to a dramatic drop in population. Importation of the wines of Bordeaux, Champagne, Germany, and Portugal may have had an effect as well. By the late 1300s more than half of all the wine in Bordeaux was loaded onto British ships and sold within England. Unfortunately we have very few records to help us figure out the exact reason or combination of events that led to the fall in vineyard acreage.

A tavern frequented by wine drinkers in 18th century England

In the 17th century and onward there was once again a rise in wine production, mostly due to private enterprise. A few influential figures were key in boosting the home industry such as the Hon. Charles Hamilton in 1740, who developed the vineyards at Painshill Park in Surrey which has been recently restored. John Tradescant planted 20,000 vines on the estate of Lord Salisbury in Hartfordshire. The Marquis of Bute planted vines at Castell Coch in South Wales in the late 19th century, considered to be the last great experiment in viticulture prior to the modern period. His wine was not thought of as the finest: a joke existed about it, posing the question “How many men does it take to drink a glass of the Marquis’ wine?” The answer is 3: one to drink the wine, and two more to hold him down while he does. After World War I a labor shortage hit the wine industry heavily, leaving many vineyards untended for years.

Wrotham Pinot Noir, discovered by Edward Hyams

The modern revival can be traced to a couple of influential figures. Ray Barrington Brock, a research chemist, developed a research lab in Surrey where he experimentally planted over 600 grape varietals to study their growth in the English soils and climate over a period of 25 years. He introduced the relatively well-faring Muller-Thurgau (Riesling Sylvaner) and Seyval Blanc (Seyve Villard) to the English countryside. Edward Hyams, a writer and journalist, used his skills to popularize viticulture, winemaking, and wine consumption. He collaborated with Brock in Surrey and discovered a number of “native” vines still growing in England, including Wrotham Pinot (an interesting clone of Pinot Noir, cultivated a little now in California). George Ortish, another who impacted England’s wine industry, studied horticulture in Champagne and upon returning to his native Kent realized the similarity of the region to Champagne. He planted a vineyard in 1938 and proved himself to be an excellent winemaker.

Major General Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones in his vineyard

The first modern 100% commercial vineyard was planted by Major-General Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones in 1951. A few others slowly followed suit, planting mostly Seyval Blanc and Muller-Thurgau after the recommendations of Brock’s research. The period immediately after 1976 saw a huge boom in vineyard land for winemaking. Currently the growth has slowed, and there are 1,215 hectares planted today.

During the last couple decades sparkling wines, roses, and oak-aged reds have become the norm of English production. Germanic-style fruity, easy to drink quaffers are slowly being replaced by more serious examples, though grapes such as Huxelrebe and Scheurebe still constitute a large amount of production. Beside those, Chardonnay, Ortega, and Optima constitute most of the white blends. As for red varietals, Rondo, Dornfelder, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier are favorites. A comprehensive list of varietals grown commonly can be found here. In addition, the Quality Wine Scheme (England’s AOC, DOC, or AVA setup) can be found here.

I visited Kent recently to do a bit of wine tasting myself. I'll post a couple of writeups of some Kentish vineyards over the next week.