Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Content in Kent - The Garden of England Day 1 (of 3)

Well that's not true for a start as I spent a lot of my time in East Sussex and my evenings in the very pretty and ancient town of Rye, East Sussex.

This was my little excursion to the vineyards of south east England just last month (August 2015). The phrase 'content in Kent' was actually said to me by Graham Barbour of Woodchurch Estate, the last vineyard of the 6 I visited over 3 days. Having travelled the world on business, Graham had taken a keen interest in fine food and drink and decided winemaking would be for him. After careful consideration of many areas around the world he decided to focus on Kent for a vineyard site because he was indeed 'content in Kent' having spent most of his life there. More of Graham and the beautiful first vintage of Woodchurch wines in day 3, first we must return to the beginning of the story.

My wife Louise planned a trip away to Spain with her sister, and this gave me an excellent opportunity to visit an area of the country that I'd never been to before and to visit some of the fantastic English vineyards along the way.

Having selected Rye as a good base to stay I scanned my English Wine Producers map for vineyards I could visit. Having selected about 8 vineyards to approach I fired off an email introducing myself and hoping for the best. I should say that many of the vineyards are open to the public in any case but some only accepted private tours.

Top of my list to visit was Chapel Down, probably the leading English wine producer in terms of brand awareness. Although it would have been nice to have a private tour I was offered the chance to join one of the many tours they conduct daily at 1pm on the Monday. Leaving the West Midlands early I arrived for lunch in the pretty town of Tenterden just a few miles away from Chapel Down for lunch and the first of about 20 soakings from the terrible rainy weather that accompanied my week. At this point I also realised that I had forgotten my wet weather coat and had to rely on an umbrella until I had chance to purchase something new to protect me from the incessant weather.
No matter the tour of Chapel Down was a joy. Begun in 1977 with a planting of 6 acres by Stephen Skelton, after a few changes of ownership the plot has now expanded to 26 acres at the original site; 72 acres near Aylesford plus a further few hundred acres of vines grown under contract throughout the south east.
A fantastic welcome beckons at Chapel Down

The visitor centre is fitting for one of the UK's most high profile and largest producers. Beautifully appointed with a lovely walled herb garden, wine and fine food shop, tasting area, as well as the vineyards and winery. Our tour was conducted by Gavin, who clearly knew pretty much everything there was to know about the operation, and the wines when we came to taste them later. The tour lasted around 40 minutes and included the vines and all of the winery.
Our tour guide Gavin amongst the vines

I was delighted to see for the first time the full disgorging process where the plug of ice containing the lees is removed, the dosage added, followed by the corking and bottles then labelled. The whole process takes around 6 minutes and we all watched mesmerised as the bottles made their way across the winery, starting crown capped and unlabelled to finished product ready for sale. Fascinating, well for me anyway.
The fascinating disgorging process (slightly blurred)

Chapel Down have become so large now that they have outdoor temperature controlled fermenting tanks as they are not allowed to build any more sheds. The tour complete we returned to the shop and a tasting of 7 of Chapel Down's 17 wines available for purchase. I've tried my best to get into the still wines but it really is the sparkling wines that are of the most interest and the English Rose Sparkling at £20.99 got a 9/10 from me. All soft and delicious like a comfort blanket I could happily drink it all day.
The full list of available wines, beer and cider - And a few tasting notes from me

Chapel Down now also make beer, and most recently cider; their Curious Brew 4.7% ABV lager that is re-fermented using Champagne yeasts is a particular favourite with myself and a gold medal winner at the International Beer Challenge 2012. On departure I purchased a case and enjoyed tasting the 'Curious Apple' cider too.

Before leaving Chapel Down I just had to get a photo with my car and the Chapel Down entrance in shot. Ta dah:-
Glory of Wine outside Chapel Down!

Chapel Down are clearly only going to get bigger, their wines already have a significant presence on the aisles of Waitrose, and are a great British (or should I say English) success story. I left having thoroughly enjoyed the tour and tasting looking forward to more of the same.

A section of the wine list dedicated to just Sussex
and Kent sparkling wines. Wow!
I should say that throughout my three days the rain barely stopped and my afternoon and evening in Rye was spent mostly sheltering from the weather. Rye is a beautiful, quaint ancient town with quirky shops and passageways and some beautiful cobbled streets. My final word must go to English wine again though. In the window of the The George, a very fine hotel in Rye was the wine list containing a whole section on Kent and Sussex wines. To see that show's how established English Sparkling Wine is now. And that is great to see.

In Day 2 of my journey through English wine in Sussex and Kent I will be visiting Hush Heath Estate, one of the finest vineyards in southern England, discovering Oxney Organic Estate, a new kid on the block and telling about my four vineyard visits in one day.

Thanks for reading. Please come back soon. Please do follow me on Twitter and Facebook to here about my upcoming events or maybe book an event with me yourself. Details at my website www.gloryofwine.com

Until next time. Enjoy your wine.

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