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.