Published: 00:01, 20 September 2018
As the sun sets on a record-breaking summer of hot days and balmy nights, glasses are being raised in vineyards around the county.
Because while the glorious conditions may have caused many in the rural sector a few sleepless nights, for those growing vines, it has been a season to long remember.
Not only is the fruit of a high quality, there’s plenty of it. The 2018 vintage, it appears, could be one of the county’s best yet.
You’ll need a little patience however to sample the sparkling wines the county has become synonymous with - most will not be being quaffed for another six years.
“It started in 2017 when we had lots of frosts and a lower yield of grapes that year which meant the vines weren’t producing that much,” explains Tom Barnes, general manager at Biddenden Vineyards, as to why this year’s crop has been such a success.
“So this year the vines had much more to give. The sun was something else and it’s just pushed it all along.”
The heatwave ensured the sugar content in the grapes - caused by exposure to sunlight - reached the perfect levels to give fine quality fruit. It also meant the grapes were ready well in advance of previous years.
Adds Mr Barnes: “This year we started picking the grapes on August 27 - the earliest we’ve even done so by more than a week.
“It used to be you’d start picking on September 27 but it’s just got earlier and earlier.”
On a bright September morning the vineyard looks just as picturesque as the images which have accompanied the English wine industry’s relentless growth.
With the right soil conditions and a climate which has warmed over recent years, Kent has found itself able to plant vines and produce wines that rival the more traditional wine producing regions.
Its reputation has primarily come from its bubbles - prompting comparisons with the Champagne area of France; a result of the lime-rich, chalk soil from the same chalk ridge which stretches from the North and South Downs to the Champagne region.
As a result, the traditional sparkling wine grape varieties - pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay - are flourishing.
And with it has emerged a whole variety of increasingly well known names. Chapel Down in Tenterden, Hush Heath in Staplehurst, Simpsons in Canterbury, Gusbourne in Appledore, Squerryes in Westerham and Domaine Evremond in Chilham - best known for its Tattinger brand - to name but a few.
All have spent recent weeks gathering in a crop which will go under a similar process before being bottled and sold both near and far.
At Biddenden, which next year will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its first vines being planted, a small group gathers at around 9am ready for a day picking the tonnes of ripe grapes which hang in the modest 23 acres it cultivates.
It’s not just good fortune the grapes are so bountiful this year.
Julian Barnes, owner of the family-run Biddenden Vineyard and Tom’s father, explains: “Everyone knows the quality comes from the older vines, but what’s happened in fruit industry in Kent over last 10 years is the agronomy that has developed with growing fruit - it’s moved on massively.
“When you go out and look at vines planted in 1975. We know what that plant needs - and the agronomists walking around give us that information - we’re able to look after those plants, keep them a lot healthier and give them what they need when they want it.”
And that’s a lot more than just ensuring it is watered.
Adds Julian Barnes: “For example, we would go round at certain times of the year and take 50 leaves off the plant next to a bunch of fruit, take the leaf area off and just keep the petiole (the stalk that attaches the leaf to the stem) and send that to a lab in Faversham.
“They squeeze all the juice out of that, look at it and say ‘this plant is short of iron, short of this or that’ so we then feed it what it needs.”
And that blend of modern with tradition continues when taking a peak behind the scenes at the vineyard’s production process.
Walking past the vast cider storage tanks - Biddenden built its reputation on cider before the hurricane of 1987 wiped out its own orchards; today it processes apples from nearby farms under its own brand - it’s a refreshingly authentic experience.
The farm is a classic sprawl of outbuildings, but step inside and the barns and warehouses hold huge stainless-steel contraptions which turn the humble grape into a bottled treat.
Once picked - around 25 local workers are drafted in to bring in the crop - the grapes are pressed that same day.
Poured into a large vertical shiny cylinder tank they are squeezed with the force necessary to extract the juice. Too hard and too fast and the juice will contain some of the less preferential aspects of the grape, so getting a slow easy pressure ensures every drop is of sufficient quality.
Biddenden made a conscious decision some years ago to focus on quality and not quantity. However, it still produces a remarkable 80,000 bottles of wine a year - around 10% of which will be sparkling.
Its grape of choice - as first planted by Julian Barnes’ father - is the ortega. Traditionally used in German wine making, it flourishes in the Kentish soils and provides a fine still wine.
Explains Tom Barnes: “Once pressed, they are left to settle for as long as we want - normally around two days. This allows all the sediment to drop to the bottom and means we’re only distilling crystal clear juice.”
Then comes the transformation from grape juice into wine but the introduction of yeast for the fermentation period. It converts the sugar into alcohol.
He adds: “You get the fermentation going and manage that fermentation until it’s finished.Which at the moment could be anything from five to 10 days.
“You then let it sit for a few months. We won’t bottle anything until after the first couple of weeks of January.”
For sparkling wines, the journey is far from complete. A second fermentation process then takes place in the bottle which gives it the fizz and higher alcohol content.
“The sparkling wine produced from the grapes we pick this year won’t go on sale until 2024,” explain Tom Barnes of the long-term nature of the business.
The crop, says his father, is likely to be comparable to that of 2009 - another bumper harvest.
If only every year was like this.
“The problem is,” says the general manager, “we can have disappointing harvests every other year if the conditions aren’t right.
“But they’re saying we can expect more sun, so that would be great news for us.”