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Tina Caputo: an American wine editor's first experience of English wine

Published:  30 September, 2011

Last week I ventured into a strange new wine-tasting territory: Kent. While visiting London for a two-week vacation/work stint (I'm normally based in Sonoma County), I was able to tag along with a group of British journalists on a visit to Hush Heath Estate, boutique producer of rosé sparkling wines.

To be honest, I'd never heard of Hush Heath before I went there, and I'd never before tasted an English wine. Wine from England? I'd heard rumours of its existence, and that some of it was even drinkable, but I'd had yet to see or taste the proof.

On the train ride down from London, my PR hosts, Emma Wellings and Ali Mann, filled me in on some of the particulars. Hush Heath is fairly new on the English wine scene - the winery's first vintage was 2004 - and owner Richard Balfour-Lynn is also the chief executive of property investment group Marylebone Warwick Balfour (MWB), which owns two boutique hotel chains.

Assisting Balfour-Lynn with his winery venture are renowned vineyard and winemaking consultant Stephen Skelton and former Chapel Down winemaker Owen Elias. Earlier this summer, Balfour-Lynn unveiled Hush Heath's new self-contained winemaking facility.

The story sounded more than a little familiar to my Californian ears. I could almost see the headline: "Wealthy Businessman from Another Industry Builds Shiny New Winery Staffed by Top Vineyard and Winemaking Consultants."

As we traveled south, I kept looking out the window for a glimpse of English vineyards. Where the hell were they? I saw plenty of pretty green countryside and assorted sheep, but there were no grapevines among them. Were they ferrying in the grapes from France?

I didn't see any vines when we first arrived at the winery, either - but I was assured that just across the field, next to the apple orchards, there were actually vineyards on the estate. The winery facility looked like many others I've seen in the US and in other countries - but more compact and perhaps a bit cleaner.

Then it was time to get down to business: a sit-down, vertical tasting of Balfour Brut Rosé from vintages 2004-2008. Our group was joined by Balfour-Lynn, Elias and Skelton.

Balfour-Lynn outlined his goal for Hush Heath in no uncertain terms: "Our aim is simply to take on the best rosé Champagne producers," he said. So there you have it!

The wines were all a pale salmon colour, which I usually see as a good sign for rosé. (Let's just say that I'm not big on the almost-red, overblown rosés California producers tend to favor.)

While we tasted through the vintages, Balfour-Lynn and Skelton told us about the winery's stylistic goals and winemaking techniques. Balfour-Lynn said he's a fan of very dry sparklers - the winery adds very little dosage - and bracing acidity. "When you really compare the acidity between English sparkling wines and non-English," he told us, "it's the acidity to me that actually leaps out as being spectacularly different and, in that sense, English."

He wasn't kidding about that.

I found the wines to be quite dry, with a fair bit of acidity. They had lots of fine bubbles, and showed pleasant aromas and flavors of red fruits, like strawberries and currants, along with citrus notes. They didn't have the sort of yeasty, bread-dough characteristics that Champagnes often display, nor did they have the roundness of California sparklers. What they did have was a lively freshness.

Frankly, a couple of the wines had bit too much acidity for my taste, but overall, I found them to be well made and enjoyable - and not just for English wines.

After the tasting, we toured the estate's manicured gardens - you certainly don't see anything like that in Sonoma - and Skelton led us on a walk through the vineyards, which are flanked by apple orchards. (Balfour-Lynn also produces apple juice. Does the man ever sleep?)

At the end of the day, I came away with the impression that Balfour-Lynn and his team are aiming admirably high with Hush Heath, and it shows in everything from the solid copper ice buckets we used for spitting to the immaculate winery facility and estate vineyards.

Maybe in a few years' time the idea of English wines won't be so novel to American wine drinkers - or journalists.

* Tina Caputo is editor in chief of Vineyard & Winery Management in California