Spread over 24 acres of Kentish countryside, Biddenden Vineyards produces up to 80,000 bottles of wine and over a million litres of cider and juice every year.
Run by Julian Barnes and his family, South East Farmer met with Tom Barnes, third generation grower and winemaker, to tell us more about his family business.
The first vines were planted in 1969 when Tom’s grandmother and her husband, who were cotton mill owners from the north, moved to Biddenden and were enticed into viticulture after listening to a piece on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. The first bottle of wine was produced in 1973.
Tom explained: “After the apple trees blew over in the storm of 1987 we started buying in apples for cider making from growers around the county and continue to work with them today.”
All aspects of wine production is also undertaken on the farm, from canopy management, through to picking, pressing, bottling and distribution.
“This way we have full control of the operation,” Tom explained.
“Everything comes from a very tight knit area. We work closely with Produced in Kent to make sure our farm shop is stocked with local goods and we try to employ people from the local area.”
Biddenden Vineyards is dedicated to making local produce a benefit for the whole community and the workforce is rarely made up of people from outside Kent.
“On the whole, our entire team, from office to van drivers to grape pickers are from around here. At certain times of the year we do have groups of Eastern Europeans for leaf stripping because it’s a job which needs doing quickly in a short time window and our regular team in the vineyard would struggle to cover enough of the vines.”
Now almost in its fiftieth year, the Barnes family produce white, red, rosé and sparkling wines for the UK market, using 11 different varieties – as well as ciders and fruit juices. With an emphasis on still wines, the family have gone on to win a number of awards, including a silver at this year’s Decanter world wine awards with a bottle of their 2014 Ortega.
Tom commented: “We don’t tend to enter many awards but it’s a good way to see where you sit in the market and also where others place you. Our position seems fairly consistent.”
Around 40% of Biddenden’s products are sold directly through the established farm shop that has now been running for more than 40 years while the rest is sold through independent pubs, restaurants, farm shops and corner shops.
Biddenden Vineyards also attend a lot of events including county shows, point to points and food festivals, to help in getting their name into the public eye.
With popular free tours available to the public every Wednesday and Saturday the farm thrives on agri-tourism.
“We’re keen to get people onto the farm because it’s an opportunity to show people where their drinks come from and creates more of a drinking experience.
“At the moment we offer cream teas and ploughman’s to group visitors but in the future we would like to open a restaurant and make the farm shop much bigger with more on offer.”
The vineyard also welcomes passersby, private tours and events such as an open air theatre in the summer.
Tom, who studied agriculture at Plumpton College in East Sussex and worked on a Surrey beef farm for five years, rejoined the family business as vineyard manager five years ago.
“It was important for me to go out and learn about another area of agriculture but after five years I decided to take on more of a challenge and become more involved on the family farm.
“The English wine industry is looking really positive at the moment with a lot of new people getting involved. It is set to grow massively over the next ten years and with Tattinger buying land in Canterbury they are really helping to raise the profile of English sparkling wine.”
Tom also identifies access to sprays as a huge challenge for the English wine sector.
“As with other areas of agriculture there seems to be an unlevel playing field with European vineyards having access to a wider range of products that are not allowed in Britain, yet their products are available on the same shelves.”
As probably the country’s oldest continuously owned family run vineyard, Biddenden are continuing to carry the English wine sector from strength to strength.