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Kent wine tour: Top wineries to visit

Among the country’s prime territories for top-quality sparkling wines, this southeastern county also offers plenty of classic English charm. Enjoy pretty villages, stately homes and fine gardens set in historic landscapes, and a wealth of great local produce on the menu.

There’s a good reason why Kent is described as the Garden of England. With much of it edged by the sea, stretching from the Thames Estuary all the way round to the English Channel, you’ll find a verdant landscape of rolling hills, blossom-filled orchards, white-cowled oast houses (hop kilns), and timbered villages with tile-hung cottages. Thanks to its eastern location, Kent gets more sunshine and higher temperatures than much of the UK, which explains why it’s famous for its fruit.

These days, of course, there’s another crop grabbing the headlines – grapes. Make way for the Wine Garden of England.

In fact, this is the very name chosen by a ‘friendly collective’ of Kent winemakers who have got together to tell the world about this fast-changing corner of southeastern England – namely GusbourneChapel Down, Simpsons’ Wine EstateDomaine Evremond, Biddenden, Squerryes, Balfour and Westwell.

Drive down the M20 today and you would be forgiven for thinking you were in the Champagne region, with row upon row of vines shimmering in the breeze on south-facing chalky slopes.

Last year (2023) provided a bumper crop in a near-perfect year, which should help producers keep up with demand. Restaurants from Manhattan to Tokyo are eager to list English wines and those closer to home continue to fight over allocations – which can be a problem for the wine tourist, as we found out – with limited supplies on Kent restaurant wine lists.

The output of the UK wine industry might still be small fry compared with other wine-producing counties, but it has come a long way fast since its first commercial vineyard –  Hambledon – was planted in Hampshire in 1952, winning high-profile awards and trophies mainly for its sparkling wines, fuelling some serious investment in land.

Add to that the continuing interest from Champagne brands, including Taittinger, who established Domaine Evremond near Faversham in Kent with UK partner Hatch Mansfield. The state-of-the-art visitor centre is now well underway and the release of the first vintage is expected later in 2024.

Getting around the Wine Garden of England

It makes sense to start your tour of Kent wineries at Squerryes near Westerham, just a 10-minute drive from the outer reaches of Greater London, and within rumbling distance of the M25.

With its winery, craft brewery, notable restaurant, Garden Café, newly expanded deli and farm shop as well as Saturday market, it’s beginning to look a lot like California. The 300-year-old estate is run by eighth-generation family member Henry Warde, who tells how a prestigious Champagne house came calling back in 2004 talking of perfect conditions and partnerships, and how in the end they decided to do it themselves. ‘Their confidence gave us the confidence,’ he shrugs, pouring tasting samples of his sparkling wine, a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier made from the estate’s own grapes.

Jump back on the A21 and push on deeper into Kent, making time if you can for a stop at the historic spa town of Royal Tunbridge Wells, with its collonaded Pantiles, before continuing to Staplehurst, where you’ll find Balfour Winery.

Owner Richard Balfour-Lynn has pumped enough cash into the winery to more than triple capacity and has recently expanded its visitor centre with two new tasting rooms. Add to that a busy restaurant, numerous events on offer, plus a vast wooden deck that shouts summer weddings.

It’s surrounded by more than 50ha of vineyards, ringed by ancient woodlands, which you can wander through aided by a free map before grabbing a table and tasting through the range of wines, including a delicious biscuity, leesy 2018 Blanc de Blancs, now available in magnum.

Next stop, Chapel Down: one of the UK’s largest wine producers, which now owns, leases and sources from more than 400ha, of which 300ha are fully productive. Take in the ranks of gleaming tanks and presses and peruse the winery shop complete with deli counter stocked with local products. Add to that a range of winery experiences and on-site two AA rosette-restaurant, The Swan, and you really could be in Napa. Chapel Down has also been granted permission to build a new winery at Canterbury Business Park, and aims to be producing 6 million bottles per year by 2032.

Chapel Down Kit Coty vineyard

Chapel Down’s Kit’s Coty vineyard lies on the edge of the North Downs near Aylesford. Credit: Chris Gale

Not so at nearby Biddenden Vineyards, this year celebrating its 55th anniversary and clearly not chasing the Champagne dream. With its flower-filled hanging baskets and cider fermenting away in outdoor tanks next to the winery, it offers a more traditional experience, as visitors enjoy a range of crowd-pleasing wines including the sweetest wine ever made in England, a late harvest Ortega from the 2018 vintage. And then bam, we’re back in California again with Gusbourne’s sleek, recently expanded visitor centre, The Nest.

You can smell the sea in Gusbourne’s vineyards, located on a hill not far from the must-visit medieval coastal town of Rye. Since Conservative tycoon Lord Ashcroft came on board as a majority shareholder in 2013, he has injected millions in cash, which has expanded the business substantially. The vintage fizz is where it’s at, with the impressively creamy, lemony, late disgorged 2013 Blanc de Blancs a standout, and which can be sampled in a tutored tasting if booked ahead.

Simpsons’ Wine Estate, in the picturesque village of Barham just outside Canterbury, entertains locals and visitors alike with its hook-ups with local restaurants and Friday night Sunset Session tours. Owners Charles and Ruth Simpson also own Domaine Sainte Rose in the Languedoc, but have been scooping up awards for their English sparkling wines. Notably, the 2018 The Roman Road Chardonnay won Best in Show at the 2020 Decanter World Wine Awards.

Westwell is the latest winery to join the Wine Garden of England club, in 2022. Found on the Pilgrims’ Way near Charing, 10 minutes from Ashford, it’s managed by head winemaker Adrian Pike, who is well known for his experimental winemaking (his pét-nat is currently de rigueur in East London eateries). Every vintage there’s something new, alongside the flagship sparkling wine Pelegrim (which means pilgrim in Middle English). There is a strong focus on sustainability here with minimal intervention in the winery, all of which you can see on tours which finish with a tasting in the rustic but uber-cool tasting room, where pizza nights and open-air cinema rule.


My perfect day in Kent

Morning

After a quick stroll around the quintessential Kent village of Westerham with its brooding statue of former local resident, Sir Winston Churchill, start the day with a late breakfast at Squerryes’ Garden Café overlooking the vines, washing down plates of local charcuterie and cheese, or a bacon panini with artisan coffee, chased by a glass of the winery’s finest fizz. Then motor on to the lushly situated Balfour Winery and follow the (free) self-guided walking tour of its vineyards and ancient woodland, before rounding things off with a tasting in its smart visitor centre.

Lunch

Repair to The Swan at Chapel Down for a late lunch at the UK’s chicest vineyard restaurant, where you can enjoy dishes such as grey mullet, Essex crab and apple salad or cep focaccia, washed down with a glass of Flint Dry 2022. Or for something more casual, make tracks to the Balfour Winery-owned Goudhurst Inn and nibble on a selection of small plates and pub classics.

Afternoon

Walk off lunch with a stroll around poet and writer Vita Sackville-West’s famous garden at Sissinghurst Castle, where 3,000 French sailors were once imprisoned during the Seven Years War. Then climb the tower for the far-reaching views over The Weald (don’t miss the stunning White Garden, at its floral peak in July).

Evening/Overnight

Drive to the quaint timbered village of Biddenden and settle down for a stellar dinner and a stylish overnight stay at family-run The West House, where chef-owner Graham Garrett turns out innovative plates of food that make the best of local produce, alongside an interesting wine list compiled and served by Garrett’s affable son, Jake.


Balfour Winery’s bluebell-covered ancient oak woodland. Credit: Sylvia Wu


Your Kent address book

Accommodation and dining

Boys Hall

Built by aristocrat Thomas Boys in the 17th century and recently revamped, this cosy yet impressive restaurant with nine bedrooms showcases the best the region has to offer. Co-owner Brad Lomas has amassed an impressive selection of some of Kent’s finest wines.

The Bridge Arms 

The latest opening from the owners of the nearby Michelin one-star Fordwich Arms, The Bridge Arms is also making waves, part of a new generation of gastro pubs that are turning heads thanks to ex-Clove Club chef and co-owner, Daniel Smith.

The Lighthouse Champagne Bar 

There are a bunch of new bars and restaurants on Folkestone Harbour Arm that stock English wine, but the Lighthouse Champagne Bar bags the best spot, with sweeping views along the coast and of the town itself. Enjoy oysters and savoury crêpes with a line-up of English fizz, including the Blanc de Blancs from Simpsons’ Wine Estate.

The Pig at Bridge Place

A few miles southeast of Canterbury in the charming village of Bridge sits this old building with a rock-n-roll vibe (Led Zeppelin once played here). Think secret stairways, panelled rooms, and hidden nooks, plus The Pig’s trademark kitchen garden-led menus and a fine selection of English wines.

The Swan at Chapel Down

Arguably the country’s most ambitious winery restaurant, this snazzy 80-seater, with a smart wine shop and deli below, offers a chef’s table and an outdoor terrace overlooking the vineyards and delivers sophisticated, well-executed cooking.

The Sportsman

A 20-minute drive from Domaine Evremond’s vineyards, this unlikely destination restaurant in what looks like a local boozer delivers the kind of cooking most of us only dream about – locally sourced ingredients, some of it homegrown, cooked to perfection by charismatic chef-owner Stephen Harris.

The West House Restaurant with Rooms

Located behind the 16th-century weaver’s cottage with its Michelin-starred cooking in sleepy Biddenden, it offers four stylish bedrooms each with a different theme. ‘Scandi’ is a favourite, though there’s fun to be had in the ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll’.

Shops

Corkk Wines

In the centre of historic Canterbury, you’ll find a wine shop owned and run by Jonathan Piggins and Clive Barlow MW. They have an extensive selection of Kent wines and regularly run tasting events and courses to educate and entertain their guests. This is the perfect place to taste several different wines in one visit.

Macknade Food Hall

Two minutes drive from the M2, on the outskirts of medieval Faversham, this is a food hall to beat them all with a family history that dates back over 170 years, celebrating the best of Kent produce and beyond.


Getting there

Kent is closely linked to London – from 15-30 minutes away – by some of the country’s fastest transport links, including Southeastern’s high-speed rail network, though by car is the easiest. The nearest airport is London Gatwick, served by many different airlines.


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