With its fine soils and mild climate, Kent – known as the “Garden of England” – has a long history of growing quality fruit and hops and is now home to some of the UK’s finest vineyards. The first modern vineyards in the UK were planted in the 1950s and since then, the wines produced have improved to the point where today truly world-class wines are being produced. Improvements in the climate, together with more experienced viticulturalists and winemakers and substantial investment, have made this possible. It is against this background that the Balfour vineyards were conceived. Much to the chagrin of the Champenoise, the enviable advance of English wines continues.
It is interesting to note that the vineyard names were selected from the first recorded field names in the 1840s, reflecting the historical fruit growing nature of the region.
The first Vineyard (2002)
Oast House Meadow – 4.14 acres / 1.68 ha
The first vineyard to be planted at Hush Heath was in 2002. Richard Balfour-Lynn was assisted in this endeavour by Stephen Skelton, Master of Wine, one of the UK’s leading viticultural consultants.
Originally an old Bramley orchard with what might generously be described as a south easterly aspect, the vineyard belies several of the sacred cows of vineyard establishment as well as reinforcing others. The site is well protected from the prevailing south-westerly winds as well as from the cold north-east. The soil is Wealden clay over Tunbridge Wells sands, and although it holds its moisture well in dry years, without drainage it can be problematical especially over the winter and spring, preventing access to the land and increasing the frost risk. Before planting the vineyard, the rich clay was meticulously sub-soiled, breaking up years of compaction, the old tree roots were removed and the whole site drained with a network of underground pipes.
The vines were hand planted in the spring of 2002. The rows are orientated towards the south-east with a row width of 2.30 m and 1.30 m between each vine, giving a vine density of 3,344 per hectare (1,354 / acre). The vines are grown on a vertical shoot positioned (VSP) trellis, with the fruiting wire 80 cm from the ground. The vines are pruned to a two-cane horizontal Guyot system (double Guyot) with an overall trellis height of around 2 m. In Champagne, the vines are planted at a much higher density (up to 10,000 / ha) with the fruiting wire closer to the ground and the overall height of the canopy much lower. Experience has shown that the system used at Hush Heath is ideally suited to English conditions giving the best balance of fruit to leaf in order to achieve optimum ripeness in this cool climate.
The three classic Champagne varieties of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier were planted using two clones of each variety and each clone on two different rootstocks. Having different clone and rootstock combinations mitigates to some extent against climatic variation, some clones perform better than others in any given year and it adds to the complexity of the wine. The varietal mix or encepagement (for those who swoon at the Gallic tongue) was selected for the express reason of producing a top quality rosé sparkling wine. There is therefore a slight bias towards the reds: 45% Pinot Noir, 45% Chardonnay and 10% Pinot Meunier. Pinot Noir for fruit, perfume and colour; Chardonnay for finesse and acidity; and Pinot Meunier for a little spiciness and je ne sais quoi.
This is a fantastically successful vineyard in terms of yield and quality. The 2004 and 2005 vintages were both International Gold medal and trophy winners and yields have been amongst the best in the UK.
Small Oast House Meadow (2007) – 0.7 acres / 0.3 ha
In 2007 a small area of mainly Burgundian clones were planted in an adjoining field. Burgundian clones have smaller bunches and tend towards higher sugars and flavour, with correspondingly lower yields than Champagne clones.
Old 8 Acre Field (2008) – 7.6 acres / 3.1 ha
May 2008 saw the planting of more vines at Hush Heath. The successful varietal mix and proportions remained the same, though with some new clone and rootstock combinations.
Hush Heath Vineyards at Bourne Farm, Sandhurst (2009) – 9.9 acres / 4.0 ha
The gradual planned expansion of the Balfour vineyards was continued in 2009 when grapes were planted at nearby Bourne Farm in Sandhurst by the owner, Chris Nicholas. There are two sites, one for the Chardonnay, the other for the reds Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, both being quite steep south-facing slopes. Planting density is slightly higher that at Hush Heath with a row width of 2.25 m and 1.2 m between the vines (3,703 / ha). The 45 / 45 / 10 proportions of the original Hush Heath planting were followed. A small but very ripe crop was taken in 2010 which bodes well for future harvests.
Middle Strackney Wood (2011) – 6.52 acres / 2.64 ha
In 2011 the latest plantings took place at Hush Heath. Middle Strackney Wood was previously an orchard and, as with the other plantings, great attention has been paid to the preparation of the site. In anticipation of planting in May 2011 the site was drained, sub-soiled and had remained fallow for 2 years.
The row orientation has been changed to north-east – south-west due to its narrow shape, giving longer rows (less turning etc) and to help the drainage of cold air and frost from the site. The Chardonnay – 46% of the vineyard – will be planted at the top of the site which will be less frost affected. Pinot Noir will make up 30% of the area, including some Burgundian clones for colour and flavour. The proportion of Pinot Meunier has been increased to 20% reflecting the results from the winery, which suggest that the grape is rather more interesting than was previously supposed. Out of interest 120 of each of the old traditional Champagne varietals – Petit Meslier, Arbane and Pinot Blanc – have also been planted (4%).
The total vineyard area of all of the Hush Heath vineyards is 28.86 acres / 11.72 ha.