Not so hush hush anymore…

Features Posted 23/08/15
England’s wine revolution continues to rock the viticulture world, but what does it take to succeed in the notoriously fickle British climate? We visit a Kent vineyard that is already branching out in new business directions.

There’s a sense of destiny in the air at Hush Heath Estate. Wine producer Richard Balfour-Lynn planted the first vineyard here in 2001, after fate conspired to give him the chance to buy 400 acres around his home near Goudhurst. But this wasn’t just any old land sale – this was a ‘once in several lifetimes’ opportunity.

“The land had originally been sold in 1870 by the people who owned our house at the time, when they ran out of money,” Richard explained. “In 2001, we bought it back from the same family who had bought it in 1870.”

Something of a homecoming then – and the land did not fail to repay its new owners. After a three-year wait, Hush Heath harvested their first crop in 2004; three more years passed before the first wine was released. But patience certainly proved to be a virtue, as the Balfour Brut Rose went on to win England’s first gold medal at the International Wine Challenge. This blind tasting competition saw the Kent tipple emerge victorious in a field of 20,000 wines from all over the world, but for Richard, blind faith was not required.

“English wine needs to work hard to prove it is a serious contender. But here in Kent, due to global warming, our temperature can now be compared to the Champagne region and there’s not a lot of difference. This area is great for sparkling wine; you don’t want the weather to be too warm, because you want the acid in the grapes. There’s no question that southern England has a great opportunity to make high quality wine – we have the right soil and also, winemaking techniques have developed considerably over the years. We’ve produced a good crop every year.”

The investment in this business has been considerable. Richard advises anyone looking to start a vineyard that they should expect to spend between £10,000 and £15,000 per acre. Then, if you’d like to follow Hush Heath’s example and build your own state-of-the-art winery on site – they put theirs up in 2010 – you’ll face a bill of up to £1.5million.

“Growing our own fruit here and bottling it on site meant we could be completely self-sufficient as an estate, and be more flexible and experimental,” Richard said. “We now produce a whole series of sparkling red, white and pink wines. There are several different ranges in terms of price and we make three still wines, along with a range of ciders. We grow apples on the estate – the old English types: Cox, Bramley and Russet – and we make the cider in the same way as we make the wine, with the Champagne method in stainless steel vats. Just as our wine is made with 100% grape juice, the cider is made with 100% apple juice. Because we grow very clean fruits, the taste is very precise and crystal-clear.”

Although Hush Heath’s success has proved Richard and his team were right to have faith in England’s soil, weather and ecology, surely running a business that relies so heavily on the cooperation of the weather must have its nervous moments? The key, according to Richard, is to be thoroughly prepared for the worst.

“Rather than bad weather as such, our nightmare scenario would be mildew,” he said. “If you get damp, warm weather, you’ll get mildew. Another vineyard in the area lost all its crop in 2012, but I would argue that you just need to manage things properly on a daily basis. We have a weather station here in the vineyards and an agronomist (someone who specialises in crop diseases) walks the vineyards every seven days. A meteorologist provides us with 10-day weather forecasts for Goudhurst and if it’s going to be warm, we start spraying in advance. The weather we had during Wimbledon this year was good – that’s when the grapes flower and we want even-sized bunches, so warm weather is great.”

Describing Hush Heath as a boutique winery, Richard explained that when it comes to the wine business, compromise inevitably has to be made somewhere. For him, the compromise has been the production volume.

“There are a lot of approaches to the wine industry,” he said. “Some people want to produce a million bottles, others like us release 100,000 to 120,000 bottles per year, while others still will make just a few thousand. We want to make high quality wine at a relatively low volume, because the bigger and more commercial you get, the more compromising you have to do. I would not really call us a business; it’s a passion to create a great brand and to do that, you have to be uncompromising on the quality.”

Keeping volume at a certain level will naturally restrict revenue, but Hush Heath has found other income streams – some are typical for a vineyard, such as guided tours and wine tastings (although at Hush Heath, you can enjoy a self-guided visit for free), while others are a bit more creative. The estate recently hosted its first wedding, although Richard intends to restrict these events to just a handful a year.

Most interesting is the decision by Richard and his wife Leslie to buy and completely refurbish the nearby Goudhurst Inn, as a place to both showcase the wine and to extend the appeal of a visit to the estate.

“We wanted a restaurant for the winery and a hotel for guests who have come down from London, or wherever,” Richard explained. “When you’ve been walking around the estate for two or three hours, it’s nice to have a bite to eat and if you’ve been travelling, you might want to make a night or weekend of it. We didn’t want to build on the estate, but a pub that is five minutes away was the perfect solution.”

With a background in hospitality, the leap from field to fork wasn’t a huge one for Richard. In fact, he and Leslie are steadily creating a group of pubs, restaurants and hotels – they already own two in London and have bought a second Kent place, the Tickled Trout near Maidstone.

So Hush Heath is branching out in many ways, but when it comes back to basics, what does it take to make a vineyard work? When pressed for his top tips for aspiring winemakers, Richard focused firmly on the practicalities.

“First of all, you need to get very, very good advice on whether the land is suitable for it. Lots of people plant vineyards in the wrong location, but if you’re going to do it, you’ve got to do it properly – cut corners and you’ll regret it later. Secondly, try to understand how to sell the wine. The notion of growing wine seems very romantic, but what’s less romantic is wondering how you’re going to sell it; that’s why countries like Australia and New Zealand over-produced and ended up with lakes of wine they can’t get rid of. Only by knowing what your market is and having a very clear marketing strategy will you make it work.”

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