Since the first third of an acre of vines was planted at Biddenden in 1969, the Barnes family have poured their hearts into the creation of award-winning English wines and the development of the wider industry. Believed to be the oldest commercial estate still owned and managed by direct descendants, Vineyard editor Victoria Rose met with the second- and third-generation viticulturists and winemakers to reflect on an everchanging English wine scene, delights from the 2018 harvest and on-going development on the 25-acre estate.

Over the last five decades, ‘the sun always shines at Biddenden’ has become a much-loved mantra for vineyard owner and second-generation viticulturist and winemaker Julian Barnes.

In June 2019, as Julian, his wife Sally, and sons, Tom, Sam and Will, celebrated 50 years since Julian’s parents planted their first vines, this could not have rung truer and for each event I had the pleasure of attending, blue skies and a golden sun were in full appearance; very fitting for the estate’s golden anniversary. 

On 7 June the NextGen Fruit Group hosted its annual technical interim trip in Kent and while delegates were drenched in torrential downpours on an orchard tour in the morning, just 10 miles down the road at Kent’s first commercial vineyard they were greeted by glorious weather.

At the family-owned and managed estate’s 13th annual ‘Taste the Best of Produced in Kent’ food festival on 9 June, the good forecast drew huge crowds, who helped to raise over £6,000 for the Kent, Surrey and Sussex Air Ambulance, and left enlightened and enthused about English wine and the other locally produced goods being showcased by over 50 food, drink and craft producers.  

For the week beginning 10 June, the Met Office issued a yellow weather warning, with heavy, persistent rain and potential floods being forecast across the South East. Despite the bookies putting odds on June being the wettest on record, that Friday, as friends, family, colleagues, suppliers, trade customers and the great and good of Kent assembled in Biddenden’s newly concreted yard to listen to Julian’s speech, the sun was once again out in full force.

“I am very pleased to have achieved this milestone surrounded by and working with my family,” said Julian, whose mother, Joyce, had been inspired to plant one third of an acre of vines on the 40-acre orchard after frustrations over falling apple prices coincided with a feature about English vineyards being replanted aired on the BBC’s Woman’s Hour programme.

“Gradually, a diverse fruit farm began to take shape,” continued Julian. “The early days were a bit tame for a then 18-year-old, but the introduction of cider and juice production made for a happening place. In 1985 I married Sally and our own winemaking plus contract work at that time saw us producing over 250,000 bottles of English wine in one particular year.”

In his speech, Julian went on to talk about importing and selling pressing equipment and vines from Europe, something which son Sam, who has set up his own viticultural business and works with NP Seymour, now does too. Proving how far the business has come, Julian also reflected on the difficult years, remembering times when the bank manager came to ask for his money back and when Geoff Taylor at Camden BRI brought two suspect bottles of wine back to the vineyard, offering to help look after the process.

The golden child

Having originally planted Huxelrebe, Madeleine angevine, Ortega, Reichensteiner, Scheurebe and Seyval blanc, in 2000, the Barneses began to consolidate their approach to the vineyard, focusing on Ortega, which is the single-estate’s flagship, favoured varietal covering over half of the total 25-acres now under vine.

Each year, the aromatic German grape is used to produce two different styles of still white, a dry and an off-dry. In keeping with the estate’s golden anniversary theme, the 2017 Gribble Bridge White was recently awarded a gold medal in the 2019 Sommelier Wine Awards, along with a Best by the Glass trophy, which is bestowed by the competition to just eight wines from around the globe. 

“Ortega just goes down so well with consumers,” said Julian, who was joined in the vineyard and winery by sons Tom in 2011 and Will in 2016. “As a variety, I think it works so well here because if you grow anything on the edge of its comfort zone, you will get more flavour. Other regions are moving their vines into difficult places because it is not just about growing the grapes anymore, it is about getting the character and structure. We are lucky to still have some Ortega which was planted in 1972 and as the vines have settled down, we do get more concentrated flavours, with everything that little bit more enhanced.” 

While Julian believes that old vines are a very important part of what Biddenden does, there is of course an active replanting programme in place and as well as replacing odd inter-row vines, the estate has also seen new blocks of vines being established. Most recently the family has increased its acreage of Bacchus.

“We are known for Ortega and it will always be our main focus, but as Bacchus becomes known as the signature still variety of the English wine industry, customers naturally turn up at the estate looking for it and so we planted more to feed the demand,” said Tom, third-generation grower and winemaker. “The new block was planted two years ago, and we have just installed the trellis work. When we planted, we doubled our normal spacing of 2,500 vines per acre to 5,000, to get an almost full crop in the third year. The idea was to remove the additional vines, but we have since decided to keep the density and will instead look at reducing the buds per vine to allow each plant to put more energy into growing the fruit.” 

Unique growing system

Over the years, growers from all over the world have visited the estate and tried to give their two pence worth, but nothing is more valuable than knowing what works for your individual estate. With over five decades’ experience and harvests behind them, the Barneses have been able to develop their own unique system of growing and the practices being implemented in the vineyard today have been evolved to suit their varieties, land and production aspirations.

“We have two different systems for the vines, a take on a Double Geneva Curtain and a new system which has come about by looking at all the positives of the old and ironing out any problems,” said Julian. “Pruning needs to be effective but simple, so the new system, with the vines closer together makes it quicker, easier and there is only one cane to keep. We keep five or six buds per cane and the double-sided aspect gives us a reasonably sized, sustainable crop from Ortega. As a variety it is not a huge performer, but we need to be at least three tonnes per acre, which we weren’t getting with the old system.”

Across both vine training systems, Biddenden’s rows are kept wide and the vines tall, with fruit usually sitting 40cm higher than normal. This means the team can get bigger equipment down the rows, there is plenty of room for air flow and more light exposure, frost is less of an issue and when it comes to working with the vines, everything is at a sensible height, something which must have been a top priority for the Barnes boys, who as anyone in the industry will know, are all pretty tall. “It is not what everyone is doing at the moment but that doesn’t matter, it is about what works for us,” said Tom. “Our wider rows allow for more light and when we see the evening sun shining on the ground under the vines it is easy to see why we are doing it this way.”

To further promote air flow, the team will defoliate around flowering time. As well as being one of the key steps to keeping disease pressure down, Tom believes that Biddenden’s viticultural success comes from the ability to be thorough.

“The special thing about us is that dad walks the dogs round the vineyard every day, twice a day and we can react to any changes,” said Tom. “We take a very practical approach to the vineyard, we are very in touch with what is going on and with everything from spraying to harvest, we can pick up on things and target them instantly.” 

To read the full article, see the July 2019 online edition.