Date Visited: Friday 15th April 2016
Location: Staplehurst, Kent
After several months in planning, we tentatively embark on our trip to a very rainy Kent early one Friday morning. It’s going to be a couple of cold, wet and rainy days, but we won’t let that put us off as the prospect of touring four of Kent’s vineyards and a tasting of their collective efforts more than makes it worthwhile. Pulling into Hush Heath Estate in Staplehurst I’m immediately at a gasp of the scale and beauty of the site. At the front a modern winery and tasting room overlooks a huge expanse of beautiful Kentish countryside, we know we’re in for a real treat here!
The manor house at the centre of the Estate has a long history dating back to 1503 (a number used on the labels of the Balfour 1503 wines produced exclusively for Majestic). Richard Balfour bought the manor in the 1980’s as a family home, and a subsequent purchase of surrounding land brining the total area of the estate to over 400 acres. With an ambition to transform the neglected land back to a place of natural beauty, Richard had a plan to grow both apples to produce cider and vines to produce English Sparkling wines. The resulting beautifully maintained landscape is open to the public all year round and the site is maintained with minimal intervention to allow for a ‘happy ecosystem’.
After a brief welcome to Hush Heath from Zoe Dearsley, we begin our tour with a walk through the 400-acre site. I know Zoe as she previously worked in my local Majestic store in Weybridge, her enthusiasm for English wine has always impressed me and it’s great to see her passion being put to great use at Hush Heath.
The first five acres of vines were planted in 2002 in an area named Oast House Meadow, with the familiar classic three varieties of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Grapes from this vineyard are used to produce Hush Heath’s signature product, the beautifully refined Balfour Brut Rosé. As a testament to the choice of location for the vineyard, the first wine released by Hush Heath, the Balfour Brut Rosé 2004, went on to win a Gold Medal at the International Wine Challenge 2008. Subsequent vintages of this wine have won similar local and international accolades, and the wine has gone on to become the first English Sparkling wine served in British Airways First Class and also on the Orient Express.
As we are touring in mid April we are at a crucial time in the year for the grape lifecycle. With buds starting to form and bud burst looming, the unpredictable weather in between March and May could wreak havoc on the buds if temperatures drop below 1oC, causing the new leaves to freeze, wither and die. At this time of year everyone is on stand by in case preventative measures are required; the placing of bougie candles between the vines to provide warmth. It is a time consuming and painstaking operation resulting in sleepless nights for the vineyard management team.
Continuing through an apple orchard we arrive at the next vineyard, Middle Strackney Wood. Walking through this immaculately kept vineyard we reach a rather interesting three rows of vines. A row each of Pinot Blanc, Arbane and Petit Meslier, the much less talked about grapes that can be grown in Champagne. Rather excitingly, this is allowing Hush Heath to produce England’s very first ‘Cuvée Six’ – a sparkling wine made by all six of the grape varieties permitted to be grown for Champagne manufacture. This will be a very small and exclusive Cellar Door release, and certainly one of interest for those looking for something unique and rare.
I took this opportunity to ask Zoe about other future plans for Hush Heath. Last year an additional 8 acres of land were planted with not only the three classic varieties, but also Bacchus and Pinot Blanc. With a still wine range that’s improving in quality and reputation every year it will be very exciting to see what Hush Heath could do with these grape verities! We conclude out outdoor tour through a beautiful woodland area; floors covered with a sea of vivid bluebell flowers and a bustling community of bees (there are actually a total of 100 beehives on site).
Returning back to the tasting room we travel through to the winery, which was built in 2010. The winery is compact, but immaculate in its presentation and full of polished stainless steel and state of the art equipment. At the centre of the winery is a 5 tonne magnum press, this is surrounded by are rows of steel fermentation tanks from champagne. The grape juice is fermented individually by plot and grape variety, before moving onto assemblage where the final blend is decided.
Hush Heath do not use any oak in their fermentation process, aside from a small portion of new American oak utilised for the Pinot Noir still wine. We had the chance for a quick chat with winemaker Victoria Ash, who joined Hush Heath in 2010 and formerly the assistant winemaker at Ridgeview. Victoria explained that their signature style is to let the natural flavours and expression of the fruit speak for themselves. Indeed it is an expression shared by consultant winemaker and industry veteran Owen Elias, who overlooks the winery with a watchful eye.
The blended wine is bottled on an Italian bottling line where yeast and sugar is added and the bottle is crown capped, thus beginning the secondary fermentation where the wine will become sparkling. An extensive period of on the lees (dead yeast) ageing then occurs, currently up to four years for the flagship Balfour Brut Vintage Rosé. This allows continued development and autolysis, which brings that lovely biscuity complexity we love in traditional method sparkling wines. After lees ageing is completed, the wine is riddled on gyropalettes before disgorgement, dosage, washing and labelling.
We conclude our tour at the tasting room, a lavishly decorated area surrounding by beautiful bottles of wine and a large tasting table in the middle. We sit down with Zoe and are taken through a thorough tasting of Hush Heath’s latest wine offerings. From a trio of delightful sparkling wines (including a rare English Sparkling red wine) to a pair of delicious still red wines, including the beautifully smooth and surprisingly textured Pinot Noir 2015. We also tried the flagship cider offerings; Jake’s Orchard Sparkling Cider in both Strawberry & Blackcurrant and English Nettle varieties. These premium ciders also go through a secondary fermentation in the bottle, just like the traditional method sparkling wines and are given the same winemakers approach as the wines.
Before I move onto my tasting notes of the wines we tried, I have to say that this is one of my most memorable English vineyard visits to date. The combination of the stunning landscape, the focussed vision of the winemakers and the great enthusiasm Zoe exhibited made this an unforgettable tour. A must-visit place for any English wine lovers planning a trip to Kent!
Balfour Brut Rosé 2011
Grapes: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay & Pinot Meunier
I’ve tried this wine on quite a few occasions now, and it just seems to get better and better! It’s is a blend of 40% Pinot Noir, 52% Chardonnay and 8% Pinot Meunier.
The Balfour Brut is lively and has a beautiful pale salmon colour. A very clean fresh nose of lemon, red berries with slight hints of darker fruit and creamy yeasty notes.
Very refined on the palate, the acidity is mild with just a hint of sweetness, this allows the fruit to do the talking. Think summer berry mix of raspberry and strawberry, with a creamy texture, fine mousse and just a hint of mineral and biscuit.
Very refreshing and and just perfectly balanced. In fact it's one of my top English sparkling rosé's, and it was great to have the chance to drink a glass at the place it was grown and vinified.
Balfour Leslie's Reserve NV
Grapes: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay & Pinot Meunier
The Leslie’s Reserve is Hush Heath’s most recent addition to their sparkling line up. It is a non-vintage blend of wine from the 2010, 2011 and 2012 harvest from 55% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay and 5% Pinot Meunier.
On the nose there are aromatics of red apple and refreshing citrus – it’s very clean and appetising.
The palate is quite vibrant and fresh upfront, red apples and lemon with some nice red berry hints. This wine has higher dosage of 19g/l, which balances the freshness and makes the wine very approachable, perhaps one for those that don't enjoy the really crisp dry style?
Overall a lighter style of sparking that’s very drinkable and accessible in both flavour and pricepoint.
Balfour 1503 Sparkling Pinot Noir
Grapes: Pinot Noir
This was a really interesting surprise; a sparkling red wine, made in England from Pinot Noir grapes in the traditional method.
This wine was a limited production of around 2,000 bottles and is unfortunately not going to be produced again for the foreseeable future.
The wine has a lovely bright red colour and is unlike anything I have tried to date from England. Classic Pinot character on the nose; red cherries and raspberries - you just can't wait to get started on it!
The bubbles on this are a little bit constrained, less persistent but this helps to let the red fruit flavours do the talking. A red berry fusion of cherry, raspberry and hints of ripe strawberry. It's very smooth and drinkable, a delightfully different sparkling red wine.
Nannette's English Rosé 2015
Grapes: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier.
This still rosé is a blend of the classic three grapes of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier.
This pale salmon coloured rosé has a beautifully rich nose; freshly picked strawberries, hints of red apples, cherry and a twist of crisp refreshing citrus zest.
On the palate there’s a beautiful elegance, it’s very smooth with a distinct strawberries and cream flavour profile. There’s also that signature clean apple and citrus streak running through, giving the wine structure and contrast.
This is certainly a wine I hope to revisit in the warmer summer months!
Manor Pinot Noir 2015
Grapes: Pinot Noir
I’m really impressed with how this youthful Pinot Noir from Hush Heath has evolved into their flagship still wine over the last couple of vintages.
This is the only wine from Hush Heath that utilizes Oak barrel aging (a small amount was aged in new American oak), but it has induced a beautiful texture and complexity to balance that fresh fruit vibrancy.
The nose is bright and fruity with red cherry and raspberry aromas, accompanied by a distinctive woody note with peppery spice and hints of leather.
The palate is a delightfully balanced experience, starting with a bright raspberry tang before moving to a really smooth cherry body. There’s a slight mouth coating texture to the wine that is just fantastic, as is the structured peppery spice on the finish. A super smooth and subtle tannin texture rounds off a pretty excellent English red offering.