Updated: Nov 2, 2021
Special Case Study - Biddenden Vineyards
Having seen three previous vintages with outstanding growing conditions through 2018-2020, this year’s harvest, and in fact the 2021 growing season as a whole has certainly come with its fair share of challenges for English wine producers. However, for Biddenden, with well over 40 vintages under their belt and three generations of winemaking expertise to call upon, it’s been more of a return to the winemaking conditions in the UK they are used to – and can most definitely work with.
From the late frosts in April, to rain at flowering time, long runs of days with little sunshine and then warm, wet weather into harvest, it’s been Biddenden’s unique growing methods, a keen eye for and understanding of the importance of plant health & nutrition and the ability to react quickly, calling on their years of experience that has paid dividends in producing a crop which sees a good volume of juice now in tank for the 2021 vintage.
Back to Normal
Contrary to many of the vineyards which have been planted in recent years, often with a focus on Champagne varieties (Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier & Chardonnay), the majority of Biddenden’s 23 acres is made up of early ripening varieties, something which has played in their favour and meant that grapes were off the vine and in the tank well before the weather turned and deluges of rain began. Although harvest began 10 days later than in 2020, on 20th September 2021, this is closer to a ‘normal’ start date and unlike younger vineyards who may deem this a late harvest, this is where the knowledge built over many years puts Biddenden in a place they are very familiar with. And it wasn’t just an early start this year, but a swift harvest too, as picking was complete in less than a month with the final variety, Gamay Noir, picked on 18th October 2021.
It Starts in the Vineyard
Julian Barnes, Managing Director, comments “We very much work to the belief that winemaking happens in the vineyard and in a year like 2021, this is proven. With a strong focus on agronomy, we’ve been meticulous about ensuring the vines have been at optimum health to ensure the best possible picking at harvest time.” He continues “That said, our growing systems have also been a large contributing factor to the success of this year’s harvest. Higher, wider rows mean that on the whole we are not affected by frost and that we maximise sun contact, with some days seeing sun reaching the fruit right through until 5pm.” Growing a total of 12 varieties also has its benefits, as each variety is picked as & when it is ripe, in its individual block, rather than having acres of one variety which then needs to be picked in one go. Picking at Biddenden is carried out by local people who work through each variety by hand, before being pressed on site at Biddenden. The maximum distance the
grapes will travel is 600m from the far end of the vineyard to the press at the winery, meaning all fruit is pressed within hours, often minutes, of being picked.
Timing is Everything
Tom Barnes, General Manager, explains “As a family we live here on site and so are able to constantly monitor the grapes and be totally reactive. The moment we feel each variety is perfectly ripe it will be picked. With a mix of grape varieties, harvest is naturally spread over a number of weeks, which means we can give each variety our full attention and ensure it is at the very best quality possible for any given year. Ortega, our signature variety, is always the first to be picked, before working through other white varieties including Bacchus and Reichensteiner, then on to reds such as Dornfelder and Gamay Noir.”
Man or Machine?
Whilst experience has been essential to a successful harvest, the Barnes family are always looking at ways to innovate, and this year has been no exception. Third generation Tom and Will, both of whom work within the business full time, have collaborated with their brother Sam, who owns SJ Barnes and contract harvests with two Pellenc harvesters, to trial machine harvesting vs hand picking on one area of Bacchus.
This is the first time a trial like this has been undertaken in the UK, with grapes picked from the same block of the vineyard and pressed on the same day. Winemaking will now be undertaken to produce three wines – one which is machine harvested, with the berries removed from the stems on-vine, a second which is hand-picked and pressed in whole bunches and a third that has been hand-picked and destemmed before pressing. Each wine will be treated in exactly the same way in-tank and only time will tell whether the way in which the grapes are picked has an influence on the end product or if winemaking really does take place in the vineyard.
A Sweet Finish
Tom adds “Despite being one of the most challenging seasons we have ever seen, I’m excited about all the wines we have in tank and how they will develop. We’ve seen very strong sales over the past 12 months, with more people wanting to support local producers and explore the quality wines we are able to produce here in the UK. The first of this year’s wines will be released early in 2022. In the meantime, we have just released our Biddenden Ortega 2020, and are seeing strong support for our Biddenden Ortega Late Harvest 2018, a dessert wine produced using the sweetest grape must ever recorded in the UK, following what can fairly be described as a harvest of a lifetime, which allowed us to produce this very special wine.”