Kent is still called the ‘Garden of England’ and was famous for its orchards and hop farms. The orchards and hops are disappearing fast being replaced by vines. The wineries are producing some excellent English wine, equal to the best produced by France and Germany. It is very different to the dreaded British wine produced using grape concentrate.
Hush Heath Winery is set deep in the Kent countryside reached down a narrow winding road. The winery is in the bottom of the valley, in a frost pocket. The vines are planted half a mile away on the top of the hill. The clay soil favours the Champagne grape varieties of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. These are thin skinned so having the best chance of ripening in an English Summer.
As well as the vines, there are orchards planted with Coxes, Bramleys and Egremont Russett apples which are used to make ciders.
The winery is a large modern building with a shop and outside seating area to enjoy the wines. The guided tour begins with a visit to the winery, followed by a tasting.
The vines can be harvested two years after planting but it is five years before they produce full yields. The vines flower from the end of May and are self fertile. Picking begins in mid/end October and can continue into November, a month later than in France.
The grapes are hand picked in small baskets to prevent damage from crushing and have to be processed quickly to preserve their quality. They are tipped into the magnum press and pressing takes 4-5 hours. This is deliberately slow to stop the pips and skins being mushed and making the wine acidic.
After pressing, the juice can be fermented immediately or can be stored for several months in holding tanks under a layer of argon gas which stops any change in the juice before it is fermented.
The juice for the first pressing is used to make sparkling rosé. The non sparkling wines are made from later pressings as they contain more ‘impurities’ adding flavour.
Once the juice e is collected, it is placed in the large fermentation tanks and yeast and sugar is added. The temperature is carefully controlled – 16˚ for white wines and 20˚ for rosés.
The natural sugars are turned into alcohol and carbon dioxide gas escapes through the gas bubble tubes at the top of he tanks. This takes about ten days and produces a 10-11% still white wine. The yeast dies when the sugar is all used up and forms a sediment at the bottom of the tank. The wine is filtered through a series of diatomic clay filters which removes any yeast. The wine is then bottled.
The colour of a red or rosé wine comes from the skin and pips. The grapes are lightly crushed and the contents placed into the fermenting tanks with yeast, The skins break down and float on the top. The grape juice is gently cycled, being pumped from the bottom of the tank onto the top of the layer of skins. As it slowly percolates through them, it picks up flavour and colour.
Sparkling wines are made traditionally by secondary fermentation. The still wine is placed in bottles with more yeast and sugar and left to ferment for another 24 months. This boosts the alcohol content 10 11-12%and carbon dioxide produced is dissolved in the wine. This secondary fermentation takes about 5 days. The yeast then dies and forms a sediment at the bottom of the bottle. Over the 24 months, the yeast cells break down adding complexity to the wine.
At the end of 24 months, the bottles are placed in a gyro palate which gradually shakes the bottle and the yeast resulting in a clear wine with a plug of dead yeast cells in the neck.
The necks of the bottles are frozen in glycol and then transferred to a machine which removes the top of the bottle. The frozen yeast plug is forced out by the pressure of the sparkling wine. The bottles are topped up with wine and a little more sugar as the wine may be a bit too dry for modern tastes. The bottles are corked , the wire top attached and labelled.
Ciders are made in the same way, although the apples are pressed by a neighbouring farm.
The wine testing afterwards included samples of five wines made by the winery and named after the children as well as two ciders. The wines were served in small flutes and were large enough to really appreciate and taste the wine but not too large to make us tipsy.
The tasting began with the Balfour Brut Rosé, which is the flagship wine and the first style to be made as the owner was determined to prove it was possible to produce a high quality sparkling rosé wine. He succeeded producing a wine with a very long length, with the flavour lasting well in the mouth. With its crisp clean taste, this is designed to be drunk as an aperitif.
This was followed by the Leslie’s Reserve which is a sparkling white wine, which is less dry and with a fruitier flavour.
The Skye’s English Chardonnay is a crisp dry wine designed to be drunk young. Unlike many Chardonnays, it is unoaked, making it more ‘accessible’.
Nannette’s English rosé is made using juice from the first pressing and has more floral notes. Again it is designed to be drunk young.
The final wine was Hush Heath Manor Pinot Noir which is a light red wine with a fruity flavour, similar to a cool climate beaujolais. It is easy drinking at only 11%.
As well as producing traditional cider, Hush Heath also produce two speciality sparkling ciders made by the Champagne method. The first was flavoured with nettles which completely alters the taste and doesn’t taste like a cider. The second is flavoured with strawberry and blackcurrant which gives the cider a pale blush colour. The strawberry flavour comes through making the cider taste more like a fruit wine than a cider. They were interesting to try and a surprise if you were expecting a traditional cider.
This was an excellent visit. The winery tour was interesting and the process described clearly and succinctly. There was a good range of wines to try.
The winery also offers self guided tours through the vineyards, orchards and woodland. These taking up to 90 minutes.