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Kent vineyards fighting to keep their fizz due to coronavirus

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One of the county's fastest growing and most exciting industries is fighting to keep its fizz as sales slump during the coronavirus lockdown.

The pandemic has hit commercial vineyards across Kent hard, forcing the cancellation of tours and tastings and slashing revenues due to the closure of all hospitality venues.

The award-winning Chapel Down Vineyard near Tenterden
The award-winning Chapel Down Vineyard near Tenterden

It is a blow to the more than 50 commercial outfits in the county, which has developed a reputation as the fine wine capital of England.

Kent's oldest producer, the Biddenden Vineyard, was planted 50 years ago by the Barnes family and sells wines, ciders and apple juice.

Managing director Julian Barnes says it is an especially challenging time for the business, which has seen its revenues collapse by 70%.

"It virtually happened over night. We had calls cancelling orders and still don't know if we will be paid for the outstanding invoices," he said.

Julian Barnes of Biddenden Vineyard
Julian Barnes of Biddenden Vineyard

"Most of our produce goes to restaurants and pubs which have closed, and our contract work to supply organisations like English Heritage and the National Trust has been pulled.

"Obviously we have had to shut our shop and can no longer host visits and tours.

"It makes you wonder whether its worth cultivating this year's crop because we just don't know how long it will last and what sort of economy we are coming back to.

"But we've cut every expense to the bone to try to get through it. It's so sad because the wine industry in Kent has such huge potential for tourism."

Charles and Ruth Simpson of the Simpson Wine Estate
Charles and Ruth Simpson of the Simpson Wine Estate

One of the newer businesses to establish itself in recent years is the Simpson Wine Estate at Barham, near Canterbury, which is already producing award-winning wines.

It is run by Charles and Ruth Simpson, who also have a successful wine estate in France.

Mr Simpson says the closure of all hospitality venues is a big blow to viticulture.

"There is no doubt that we face challenging times and are having to adapt rapidly, particularly as so much of our business is sales to hotels and restaurants, which are now shut," he said.

The 85-acre Simpson Wine Estate has the capacity to produce up to 300,000 bottles of sparkling and still wine every year.

About 40% of its produce goes directly to the hospitality trade but has now been lost, leading the business to switch it focus to retailers.

"Supermarkets and other outlets have reported a recent surge in alcohol sales because pubs and bars have closed and we hope to benefit from that," said Mr Simpson.

"We are now looking to do more business with shops like Waitrose and wine specialists Majestic, and are also offering free home delivery.

Grapes being harvested at the Simpson's Wine Estate at Barham
Grapes being harvested at the Simpson's Wine Estate at Barham

"Viticulture is an agricultural pursuit and the vines continue to grow and need to be cared for. But we are fortunate to have such a dedicated and flexible team and will keep on carrying on.

"Clearly the health and wellbeing of our staff is paramount and one good thing is that because our people are largely working outside in our vineyards, it's easier to keep the necessary social separation."

The Simpson Wine Estate near Canterbury (32676093)
The Simpson Wine Estate near Canterbury (32676093)

The Simpsons founded a seven-strong group of Kent's major vineyards called The Wine Garden of England to help promote a tourism wine trail of the county.

Mr Simpson says the group is now meeting online regularly to focus on the latest issues, discuss the best way forward during the crisis and share ideas and resources.

"It's like group therapy because you realise you're not alone in this and we all face similar issues," he said.

"But we will get through it and be ready for the economic bounce when things get back to normal."

The best-known and biggest English winemaker is Chapel Down at Tenterden, which also produces its own vodka and gins, as well as the Curious Brewery beer brand.

It's shop and restaurant are now closed and tours cancelled, which has hit the business at a usually busy time.

Chapel Down managing director Mark Harvey
Chapel Down managing director Mark Harvey

Managing director Mark Harvey says sales to the hospitality trade have caused a 35% slump in income on top of the loss of revenue from having to cancel vineyard tours and close its own shops, bar and restaurant.

But he reports that a surge in sales through supermarkets is helping to compensate.

"We would normally be very busy at this time of year and the situation has led to us having to furlough some staff in the relevant areas," he said.

"But there has been a dramatic increase in sales through supermarkets and online as customers continue to enjoy our wines at home.

"Chapel Down is a well-established brand and we hope that it will lead to some new customers perhaps trying English wine for the first time.

"We are conserving cash where we can and will continue to cultivate our vineyards. It is a tough time, but we will ride it out."

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