When Simon watched the 25 year old Chardonnay grape vines being pulled out of the ground recently he couldn’t help feeling emotional. These were the first vines his parents had planted two and half decades ago when they began their adventure into viticulture as a retirement project. Since then, Ridgeview has grown to become one of the most prestigious wineries in the UK, having one numerous international awards for its sparking wine ranges.
“After 25 years the vines have reached the end of their productive life. It is a pity to see them go but exciting to plant new ones”. Simon and I stand near the building that houses the vast stainless steel containers where the wine is stored, mixed and bottled. It is like a great church to the god of grapes. Behind us, the vineyard is washed with Autumn light, the leaves transparent, buttery and lemon yellow with just the odd small sweet grape hanging on.
“It wasn’t my intention to take on the vineyard. I studied marine engineering and wanted to design and build boats, but after a while, helping out, I realised I loved the grapes and eventually the whole technical aspects of wine production. I have been in charge of blending every single year.”
“What exactly is blending?” I ask, “Is it like the Nose in perfume making?”
“ I guess so! I have to taste all the different wines that come in from our own 16 acre vineyard plus the grapes from our partners from all over South England and Kent (160 acres) . I identify their particular flavour, then we store them in separate barrels. At the beginning of the season I decide what kind of blends I would like to have and start thinking about which blends can be mixed with which. Our 2016 blend had 16 different wines and the year before had almost 40! Then it is just a matter of creating a job sheet and letting the mixers know how many litres of each wine we want.
“ We produce three sparking wines here, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot precoce but each of them will be different each year depending on the base wines that we use to create them.
How do you prepare for the tasting?
“Well I make sure I don’t eat any spicy food or things like coffee, maybe have some fizzy water before I begin. I listen to myself closely as some days it is harder than others to be sensitive to the flavours. Occasionally I call a meeting and a few of us sit round the table to help me make a decision about which wines to include.”
As in Champagne, Ridgeview sparkling wines are most often blendings from multiple year’s harvests though if there is an exceptional harvest, the wine might be made up solely of that year’s production, earning the label ‘ vintage’.
What about the perils of nature?
“Yes we have bird scarers and kites, especially around the the ripe season. A flock of starlings can decimate a crop within days. We do limited spraying and anti fungal treatment but don’t need to irrigate as grape vines have deep root systems and will find water. Sometimes deer and foxes help themselves but the deer tend to move on after a couple of weeks. The predatory brown apple moth can be a problem. We have planted an area of species away from the vines that it likes to attract it away from our grapes. It is the frosts that are out main problem in the Spring when the emerging leaf buds are still tender. We have 600 candles, one for every 5 vines, that we light and put out and tend all night. It actually does work”. Simon looks weary when he says this, obviously some long worried all-night shifts loom in his memory!
Growing grapes sounds perilous in the UK but since the Romans introduced them there has almost always been vineyards in the UK. The Doomsday book lists 40 of them, in Henry XIII’s day there were over 120 and today there are 450. Even French companies are purchasing large tracks of land, particularly in Kent, as the UK summers are cooler than the French ones, which are becoming warmer each year.
“We plan to expand from producing 250000 bottle to 600,000 bottles. Storage has been an issue because of this year’s lockdown. Also as demand has decreased because of what is happening to catering companies we still need facilities to keep the bottles safe- the grapes don’t stop growing!”
Ridgeview is a family run business with 33 employees. Walking around I found the atmosphere to be very friendly. “ We have kept things small and concentrated on quality. The great majority of our sales are from people who are celebrating special occasions. I’m proud to have a hand in that and it makes all the hard work worthwhile”.