A business built on sustainability, a respect for nature and a love of wine - Fruit & Vine

A business built on sustainability, a respect for nature and a love of wine

As a pioneer for English sparkling wines, Balfour Winery has a long and celebrated history. Editor Rachel Hicks caught up with Balfour’s head winemaker, Fergus Elias, to find out what it takes to win gold on the world wine stage.

Balfour Winery

Fergus Elias is the head winemaker at Balfour Winery, and has been working within the business for over a decade, having started at the very bottom of the ladder. “I am fortunate in that I was born and raised in English wine – my father was head winemaker at Chapel Down and now consults, so I literally grew up in a winery and vineyard.”

After working weekends and holidays in the shop, vineyard and winery, as an “act of teenage rebellion”, Fergus decided he didn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps and work in wine – instead studying ancient history for his first degree, with plans for a future career in law at the back of his mind. “It wasn’t until I finished my degree that I took a job at Balfour. From that point, everything changed,” Fergus explains.

“I realised that working with wine was what I really wanted, and that it was absolutely the future for me. I never looked back, and any thoughts of a career in law were quickly forgotten.”


Balfour Winery, based at Hush Heath Estate, is one of England’s leading wine producers – a pioneer for English traditional sparkling wines, as well as a new wave of English still wines.

The beautiful Tudor Estate comprises 400-acres of vineyards, apple orchards, wildflower meadows and ancient oak woodland, rich in flora and fauna.

Sustainability and conservation are of paramount importance and reflected in the practices used across the Estate. Balfour is, in fact, a founder member of Sustainable Wines of Great Britain, which is the UK’s premier sustainability scheme for winemaking.

Hush Heath Manor has been part of the Balfour-Lynn family for three decades, but it wasn’t until Richard and Leslie purchased the attached 400-acres that Balfour Winery’s story began.

It was Leslie Balfour-Lynn’s idea to plant the original vines in 2002, with a view to making a pink sparkling wine of a similar quality to Billecart Salmon Rosé – Richard and Leslie’s favourite pink Champagne. And so, the first site of around 4ha was planted, with the aim of producing a wine the couple would love. At the end of the day, they figured that if they couldn’t sell, it, at least they could drink it!

Fortunately, when Balfour Brut Rosé was launched in 2004 it quickly became a major success, winning a gold medal and trophy in the International Wine Challenge for its first vintage.

The accolades did not stop there, and Balfour Brut Rosé was the first English sparkling wine served on British Airways First Class worldwide. It was also chosen as the official English wine of the London 2012 Olympics.

This initial planting has grown extensively over the years, in blocks of 1–5ha. As time went on, Richard and Leslie formed a team of viticultural and winemaking experts who assisted them in creating a state-of-the-art winery and tasting room on Hush Heath Estate, which opened in 2018. The winery allows full control of winemaking, from receipt of grapes to pressing, fermentation, bottling, riddling, disgorging, labelling and packaging. Today, Balfour is the UK’s only gold-medal winery (according to VisitEngland).

In 2023, the vineyard enjoyed a record-breaking harvest, which will see the winery team produce over 800,000 bottles for the first time.

Balfour is still proudly family-owned, and the team is focused on creating enjoyable, accessible wines, as well as sharing Leslie and Richard’s beautiful home with visitors all year round.

Harvest at Balfour

winemaking at Balfour
Father and son, Owen and Fergus Elias manage all aspects of winemaking at Balfour. Awarded UK Winemaker of the Year on six occasions, Owen is in the unique position of having over 25 years’ experience in English winemaking, while Fergus is part of an exciting new generation of young winemakers graduating from Plumpton College

Balfour harvests on average three tonnes per acre at its Hush Heath Estate vineyard. According to Fergus: “Harvest is the epitome of our dedication to quality and tradition. Our meticulous craftsmanship, sustainable farming, and profound respect for the land are brought to life during this time.

“We carefully hand-pick each bunch to capture nature’s finest flavours at their peak – it’s a labour-intensive process, which promises an exquisite vintage.

“Everyone at Balfour pitches in at harvest, but it’s our vineyard and winery teams who work around the clock to bring in, process and care for our grapes.

“The summer of 2023 was unlikely to go down in memory as an especially hot or dry one for most of us. But for our grapes, conditions were much more suitable. A (reasonably) dry early summer gave way to a damp August. But that only helped to swell the already-set fruit on our vines.

“The main cause for concern last year was disease pressure due to the wet summer. But at Balfour, we’re lucky to have a superb viticulture team (headed by Cath Smith), who diligently kept on top of the situation. The dry autumn then provided perfect grape growing conditions.”

Balfour Winery

In fact, 2023 saw a record vintage for Balfour – from its vineyards in Kent, plus its estates in Essex and Sussex, Balfour will produce over 870,000 bottles in 2023 – a 132% increase on 2022 (375,000 bottles) and far beyond any other previous record in its 21-year history. Around 66% of the bottles will be sparkling, produced using the Traditional method, and 33% will be still wines.

But, as Fergus explains, it’s not just the quantity which blew the team away, commenting: “Whilst much of England’s fledgling wine reputation is based around sparkling wines, 2023 could see a rise in more still wines and, in particular, English Chardonnay being drunk in the UK and beyond.

“In 2023 we’ve seen a real surge of interest in English Chardonnay and we have even secured a fantastic export deal to Norway for our Skye’s Chardonnay 2022. We predict that trend will continue to grow, as this year’s harvest has seen some of the best Chardonnay I’ve ever been lucky enough to work with,” he explains.

Working around the clock

Across all of its vineyards, in 2023 the Balfour teams harvested an area equivalent to over 277 football fields in just over four weeks – harvesting an eye-watering 400,000 vines. This was made up of over 96,000 Chardonnay vines, 115,000 Pinot Noir, and even 7,000 Albarino vines (the last crop to come in).

The winery team worked around the clock, taking in over 820 tonnes of grapes – the same weight as over 200 elephants. Every single grape was processed, crushed and added to one of Balfour’s 112 tanks, ready to make wine.

And to keep them going, Fergus says the winery team also got through a record 57 Cornish pasties, 148 crumpets, and 7kg of coffee.

Keeping in control

Each of Balfour’s vineyards has been carefully chosen and planted to complement its winemaking philosophy. Located on either clay, chalk or greensand, each vineyard is an expression of its unique terroir. Over half of Balfour’s vineyards are located on Hush Heath Estate, and the business also manages other vineyards in Kent, planted by Balfour’s long-term grower partners. These vineyards are planted on greensand, known for wines of poise and balance; and chalk, showing wines with a lean, clean character.

Clonal selection is the key to Balfour’s winemaking philosophy. In every vineyard, each clone of each variety is monitored individually throughout the year and ultimately harvested separately, only when optimal ripeness is achieved. Vineyards located on Hush Heath Estate alone account for over 100 different clonal and varietal combinations.

To allow for Balfour’s precision harvesting and small-batch winemaking approach, the winery is equipped with two 4t presses. Complete control over the winemaking process is possible with the winery’s own bottling and disgorging line.

However, areas which are less within Balfour’s control include the supply lines, which Fergus says are extremely delicate. “Much of what we need comes from Europe, where the wine industry is better established. The fact of the matter is that the support industries that come with more established wine regions are yet to fully establish in the UK. This makes it harder but not insurmountable. Brexit certainly hasn’t helped,” he comments.

Working hard in-house

Balfour Winery
Balfour wines are known for their clean, fresh and precise style. Brilliantly clear colour, distinctive fruit on the nose and a wonderful balance of fruit and vibrant English acidity on the palate, giving way to a long mouth-watering finish

At Hush Heath, Balfour primarily uses double and single guyot trellising systems, with leaf thinning to ensure good airflow and sunlight penetration.

The majority of the vineyard work is carried out in house, with contractors only being used for planting and help called in for harvest, which is mostly sourced locally. Usually, they are able to use those who have recently been apple picking within the estate, as this season dovetails well with the vineyard.

Spring frosts are a big problem for Balfour, so as well as ensuring under-vine weeds and grass are controlled, Cath and the team use candles and tractor-trailed frost busters. So far, they’ve not used irrigation/fertigation systems, and with such a significant amount of productive vines already in place, this isn’t something Balfour is considering implementing – but Fergus says he’s seen it in action elsewhere, commenting that it’s “clever stuff”.

In terms of disease and pests, the mildews and botrytis are the main concern, along with birds, wasps and badgers when fruit is starting to ripen.

Cellar door extremely important

While Balfour wines are available online and within many hotels and restaurants (including Balfour’s own 10 pubs/hotels), Fergus explains that the cellar door remains extraordinarily important to the brand, commenting: “This is where we can achieve maximum market and build up a customer base.”

Wine tastings and tours, themed nights, overnight accommodation, weddings and more are all diversifications offered by Balfour, which welcomes over 20,000 visitors per year to the estate, and the business intends to grow the tourism side even further in the future.

Grower Profile

  • Owners: Richard and Leslie Balfour-Lynn
  • Location: Balfour Winery, Hush Heath Estate, Tonbridge, Kent
  • Total vineyard size: 50ha within a total 162ha estate
  • Soil type: Wealden clay
  • Aspect/terroir: Predominantly easterly, undulating hills with extensive land drainage
  • Varieties grown: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier make up 70% of the plantings; the remainder is split between Pinot Blanc, Bacchus, Arbanne, Petit Meslier and Pinot Gris

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