Visiting Biddenden during our recent tour of Kent was particularly exciting for me – I was already very familiar with their Ortega, having included it on my Wine List at The Wingerworth following the English Wine Producers Trade & Press Tasting in London in 2014. I was eager to explore where the wine had started its life and to see what else Biddenden Vineyards had to offer. Unfortunately, we were greeted at the vineyard by a torrential downpour, which somewhat curtailed our customary walk through the vines. Nevertheless Victoria Rose, Biddenden’s Sales & Marketing Manager, greeted us enthusiastically and we battled the elements the best we could. The first thing to note was just how established some of the vines looked in comparison to others we had seen that weekend, and I was fascinated to discover that Biddenden is the oldest vineyard in Kent. The vineyard’s history is evident everywhere, from the traditional look of the branding and labelling, to the focus on Germanic grape varietals and the seventeenth-century horse-driven pack press that stands proudly by the entrance to the cellar door. Victoria told us that their iconic branding had now become a piece of the vineyard’s history, so whilst the new Gribble Bridge range had enjoyed a youthful and modern facelift recently, the core wines would always retain their nostalgic charm.
The land occupied by Biddenden Vineyard has been owned by the Barnes family since the 1920s, originally planted as an apple orchard to produce cider. This part of the business is still very evident in the continuing contract cider production for many other local growers. It was also fascinating to note that if you were to come across a supermarket food product containing cider in some form, the cider element has almost certainly passed through Biddenden’s doors at some stage. When apple prices began to fall in the 1960s, the Barneses were forced to consider their options and after hearing a feature about English Vineyards on BBC Woman’s Hour, Mrs Barnes decided that grapes were to be the answer to their problem.
The backbone of their operation is now firmly in wine, with the first vines being planted in 1972 and gradually expanding until all 23 acres were under grape rather than orchard. Over half of the production is Ortega, which Victoria told us was perfect for the English climate – with the hardy vines producing low acid, stone fruit flavoured wines. Indeed, following our more recent trip to the English Wine Producers Tasting in May 2016, we can confirm that Biddenden's Ortega is the pick of the bunch! So much so, that we Commended the wine in the Other Single Varietal White category in our mini awards after the event.
The current owner Julian Barnes and his son Tom are now charged with running the vineyard and they have a very hands-on approach, with everything up to disgorgement (which is done at nearby Chapel Down) happening in house. The grape selection is very much handled by the father and son team too, now with 10 additional varietals to the Ortega; Bacchus, Pinot Noir, Gewürztraminer, Dornfelder, Huxelrebe, Reichensteiner, Scheurebe, Shönburger, Acolon and [hold your breath Beaujolais lovers!] England’s only planting of Gamay. I recently watched the incredible wine documentary, Somm: Into the Bottle for perhaps the twelfth time since it was released a few months ago, in which Beaujolais was unanimously considered to be the most underrated wine region in the world by the Master Sommeliers – well, could this be Britain’s equivalent?...
It’s refreshing to see that Biddenden are focussed on producing the wines that they love rather than, as Victoria aptly put it, “chasing the Champagne dream”. The focus is on producing delicious, approachable, affordable and accessible wines, designed to be drunk within a few years. Their real passion is for sweet wine, but whilst they produce a sweet Schönberger through noble rot, they do not think that our climate is quite warm enough to make this their primary focus. Whilst it wouldn’t be viable for too many vineyards to occupy this niche, it is wonderful to see that not only is someone filling this gap in the market, but filling it extremely well.
The wine itself bears no oak – it’s all about the fruit. The character is fresh and the wines are designed to be drunk young. The range is constantly evolving too, with the first release of the Pinot Reserve arriving just a few months ago in November 2015. Returning to their roots, Biddenden are launching a new cider this Summer and they are the only people in the country to produce a red apple juice, which is have to say is quite delicious! They use the same farmers within a 15 mile radius to source their apples each year and it was a surprise to hear that in the local area, Biddenden Vineyard is known much more for its cider and apple juice than its wine.
As with many English Wine producers that we visit, Biddenden do like to keep things local – it enables a control on their product and are they very selective in who they sell to. Victoria explained that they do not sell to wholesalers or large supermarkets because they only want people who have a real passion for the brand to stock their products. It is ideal then, that their location sits between quiet, picturesque villages amongst the Kent countryside – this is where their key demographic happens to live, as well as a smattering of small independent wine shops, delicatessens and farm shops.
So what about their diverse and unusual range? Well, here’s what we thought about the wines:
Date Visited: Friday 15th April 2016
Location: Biddenden, Kent
This is the new vintage of Biddenden’s Bacchus, which was only released two weeks ago. Only 500 Bacchus vines make this a relatively limited release each year, but the end product is exactly what you’d expect from a good English Bacchus.
There are clean, crisp and defined flavours of green apple, underripe pear, elderflower and nettle – green and fresh is the name of the game here.
Biddeden’s primary focus is on Ortega, with over half of their plantings devoted to the grape. Quite right too as, lb for £, it’s their best wine. Fuller than their other whites on the palate and slightly off dry, the Ortega has richer and riper fruit too.
There's red apple, ripe peach and nectarine and some pear too. There is a floral edge to the finish, which just cuts through and tames the ripeness of the fruit. There you have it – Ortega. An unusual grape done well. Really well!
Gribble Bridge White 2014
This Ortega-led white is fermented for longer, resulting in a drier, more crisp and clean wine. The fruit is dominated by fresh, zesty citrus, with some white peach and just a hint of aromatic white blossom, which really adds a bit of interest.
Is it refined enough to sidle up with the other [more premium] Gribble Bridge labelled wines? Perhaps not. But it would be delicious with a nice piece of white fish on a warm summer’s day!
Gribble Bridge Rosé 2014
Our exploration of the Gribble Bridge range took us next to a rosé made from the thin-skinned red grape, Dornfelder. The appearance of the wine was certainly striking – a vivid pink. Sadly the flavours didn’t shine through quite as much.
Slightly funky on the nose, with watermelon, underripe strawberry, tart red cherry and cranberry on the palate. A little disjointed and bitter, it just wasn’t Biddenden’s finest showing.
Gribble Bridge Dornfelder 2014
Unlike its rosé counterpart, the red Dornfelder was a triumph. As expected from such a thin-skinned grape, the palate was very light and low in tannin. The flavours of black cherry, blackberry, wild strawberry and raspberry mingled beautifully with a slight peppery note.
True to Biddenden’s ethos, this was all about the fruit, with no oak to distract from that. The silky, smooth, supple mouthfeel really stole the show though, luring you into agreement when offered just another drop.
I suppose this is the closest example of the Germanic sweet wine dream that Biddenden’s owners are chasing. An inviting and intriguing palate of sweet, ripe melon, lychee, elderflower and wild honey tick all of the boxes, but I can’t help but feel that the alcohol should be a touch higher.
It needs a bit more weight and viscosity to hold the flavours together, whilst currently they seem to dissipate into a watery nothingness quite quickly. That said, the flavours are delicious and my opinions on the ABV are of course subjective.
Pinot Reserve 2010
Grapes: Pinot Noir
Biddenden’s Pinot Reserve is made from 100% Pinot Noir – no Meunier here! The result is a very light, delicate and fruity sparkling wine, with underlying flavours of lemons, wild strawberry, brioche, cream and biscuit.
Very clean and bright, with perhaps a little less red fruit than expected for a Blanc de Noirs, but lovely all the same. A fine mousse sets all the fruit off and gives a lovely mouthfeel. Adorned with Biddenden’s new modernised branding, this is sure to be a crowd pleaser.
Gribble Bridge Sparkling White 2009
Grapes: Pinot Noir, Reichensteiner and Scheurebe
An unusual sparkling blend of 60% Reichensteiner, 30% Pinot Noir and 10% Scheurebe. Honestly, it felt a little confused – almost as though Biddenden felt they needed a Classic Cuvée but didn’t have the right grapes available.
Considering the ethos is fruit-forward wines, this really didn’t offer too much in the way of fruit. Some crisp green apple and lemon rind, along with dry toast and biscuit from the lees.
Very clean, fresh and dry. Even as I write I’m trying to understand it, but sadly I just don’t.
Gribble Bridge Sparkling Rosé 2010
With a somewhat flat experience of the Gribble Bridge range so far, we raised an eyebrow at the Sparkling Rosé after hearing it was made from 100% Gamay. But hurrah, we were entirely wrong because this wine was delicious! The palate was singing with bright, red fruit – strawberry, red cherry, cranberry, raspberry and just a little lemon to cut through.
The fruit was seasoned with a wonderful little touch of white pepper. Delicate bubbles, great length and fruit expressed in exactly the way I think Biddenden intended. What a fantastic finish to our tasting of the range!