Date Visited: Saturday 16th April 2016
Location: Woodchurch, Kent
A particular priority during our trip to Kent was to visit a vineyard in its infancy, so when the opportunity arose to see Woodchurch, we were delighted to add them as the last stop on our tour. I must admit that although I had spotted the vines falling away down the gentle slope to my right, I sailed past the entrance on my first pass and had to perform a rather questionable 20 point turn on a narrow country road to get back on track. There was no signage or elaborate visitor centre, just a corrugated shed, a tractor, Graham Barbour, and his vines – and you know, I quite like that.
Graham has always lived in Kent and leaving a successful career in publishing in the City behind him, his ambition was to produce wine that was completely representative of the county – a wine that 'tasted of Kent', you might say. His wife Donna worked in the United States for some time and was initially keen for them to move the family and set up a vineyard over there, but thankfully they ultimately decided against the idea.
Graham and Donna very much tend to the vineyard themselves so it seems that we visited at exactly the right time – Graham’s favourite time of year, when the pruning and tying is complete, everything is under control and all he has to do is keep a keen eye out for late frost and wait for the buds to burst.
The couple bought the south-facing plot at auction in 2009 planting the first Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier clones in 2010. As with many producers that we speak to, Graham was clear that site selection was critical and their meticulous preparation was immediately rewarded (as best as it might be…) by their first harvest – the devastating wash-out of 2012.
On the crest of a hill, Woodchurch recorded a significantly lower rainfall than even the Kent average and the younger, more disease-resistant vines yielded 2,000 bottles each of the Blanc de Blancs and Classic Cuvée, when many of the already established producers scrapped the entire vintage.
The smaller harvest may have actually benefitted in the development side of the business, as it allowed the Barbours time to experiment and really fine-tune their product. For example, the keener-eyed of you may notice that not only are the first harvest’s bottles individually numbered, but the original bottles were green and subsequently changed to a darker glass from 2013 to better protect the wine.
The wine itself is vinified by Kevin Sutherland at Bluebell Vineyards, who was chosen from a shortlist of contact producers because he offered the couple a very direct connection to the winemaking process, which Graham quite rightly felt was important. They gave Kevin a detailed brief of how they hoped the end product would taste, from which Kevin produces 7-10 different base wines each vintage. After much sampling and discussion, the final blend is decided upon and after three vintages it seems they are much clearer and closer to achieving the end goal. The other real attraction of working with Bluebell is rather more technical – the number of fermentation tanks that were offered for the production of the wine. Whilst other contractors offered just four or five tanks for the contract, Kevin ferments each of the 12 clones of the three varietals separately. This attention to detail really does pay dividends in the end product and the wine has been winning awards from the outset, not least recognition from the IWSC and Decanter.
In 2013 the Rosé Brut was added to the portfolio following a much better vintage, yielding around 6 times as many grapes as the previous year and producing around 23,000 bottles in all. Some grapes were sold to recover start-up costs and recoup some of the losses from 2012, but their brand was growing successfully. The packaging was conceived by Donna and the end result is not only striking, but beautiful and would certainly draw the eye on any major retailer’s shelf.
In 2014 the Barbours hoped to add a still Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to the portfolio, but the final result on the Chardonnay was not entirely satisfactory, so the wine “went back into the mix”. The Pinot is still in barrel and I am extremely eager to try some once available – I’m sure that Great British Wine will be reporting on it for you as soon as it is released. Having tried some sublime still English Chardonnay and Pinot Noir this year, we do hope that Woodchurch have made another attempt at the Chardonnay, as their signature style would create a very interesting and exciting wine.
If this year’s vintage goes to plan, Graham aims to keep some of the wine back so it's with great anticipation we report that we may also be seeing a non-vintage sparkling wine from Woodchurch in the near future. They are also planting their first Bacchus vines this year, with first harvest planned for 2018 and another still wine hitting the shelves in 2019. There are much grander plans for the vineyard site in the near future too, with ambition to expand by two or three fold. An interesting concept for a cellar door and tasting room made from shipping containers was also excitedly explained and drawn out in the air by Graham, who told us that work should be well underway this summer and planned for completion by the end of this year, or early 2017.
I’ll leave you with a lovely sentiment from Graham about the English Wine world, who he tells us is extremely close-knit and supportive – he firmly believes that he and Donna couldn’t have got to where there are now without assistance and advice from the wider English Wine community and is extremely grateful to everyone along their journey. I can’t help but love the vision and simplicity of the Woodchurch set-up as it is now, but I sincerely wish them every success in their future development because the wines borne from their first few vintages are truly excellent.
Woodchurch Classic Cuvée, 2013
Grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier & Pinot Noir
Whilst the challenging 2012 vintage forced their hand to only using Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier in their Classic Cuvée (technically a Blanc de Noirs?), Woodchurch have more traditionally added Chardonnay to the blend for 2013.
There is typical English vibrancy and freshness on the palate, but Donna’s insistence on the Chardonnay receiving a lick of oak has really brought the best out of the wine by adding a bit more texture, weight and all of those delicious associated flavours that I personally adore.
The fruit is certainly Kentish, with apples and pears at the fore, notes of summer berries and melon and then a clean, citrus finish that just seems to keep unfolding on the palate.
Woodchurch Blanc de Blancs, 2012
The fact that this was my favourite of the three shows that perseverance was justified in 2012. A higher dosage of 15.8g was needed to pin back the higher acidity, but the fruit has certainly not been quelled by the additional sugar.
The nose is distinctly of red apples, with lemon zest and white peach joining the party on the palate. There is a touch of vanilla and brioche too, imparted by Donna’s beloved oak.
There are fine, elegant bubbles and again, a clean, persistent finish. I found myself asking Graham if he’d recommend this as an aperitif, but who am I kidding – it would be equally brilliant before food, with food or even instead of food!
Woodchurch Rosé, 2013
Grapes: Pinot Meunier & Pinot Noir
A precise blend of 68% Pinot Noir and 32% Pinot Meunier produces this delicious sparkling rosé. Whilst they all retain their Kentish heritage, the Woodchurch wines each have their own unique character.
The palate is alive with vibrant red fruit; wild strawberries, raspberries and cranberries followed by watermelon and white pepper on the finish.
A slight creaminess cuts through the freshness and the fine bubbles dance all of the flavours across the tongue beautifully.