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 drying kilns), and timbered villages with tile-hung cottages. And thanks to its eastern location, it gets more sunshine and higher temperatures than most 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 seven Kent winemakers who have got together to tell the world about this fast-changing corner of southeastern England – namely Biddenden, Chapel Down, Domaine Evremond, Gusbourne, Hush Heath, Simpsons and Squerryes.
Drive down the M20 today and you would be forgiven for thinking you were in France’s Champagne region in certain places, as the countryside undulates away into the distance – and you don’t have to divert too far off the main routes to find patches where row upon row of vines shimmer in the breeze on south-facing chalky slopes.
Last year (2018) was a bumper crop thanks to the long, hot summer, which should help producers to keep up with demand, as restaurants from Manhattan to Tokyo are eager to list English sparkling wines, while those closest to home continue to fight over allocations – which can be a problem for the wine tourist, as we found out, with selections in short supply on wine lists even in Kent.
The output of the UK wine industry might still be small fry compared with other wine-producing counties (think Oregon, USA, for a comparative size), but the nation has come a long way fast since its first commercial vineyard was planted in Hampshire in 1952. Many high-profile awards and trophy wins have followed, mainly for sparkling wines, fuelling some serious investment in land.
UK wine producing regions (2017) South East 75% (1,922.6ha) South West 11% (290.8ha) East Anglia 5% (130.5ha) Wales 2% (42.3ha) Other 7% (166.5ha)
Area under vine 2,554ha (up 15% since 2015)
UK top varieties planted (2017) Pinot Noir 31.5% Chardonnay 30.2% Pinot Meunier 9.5% Bacchus 5.6%
Wine styles (bottles produced) Sparkling 68% (4m) Still 32% (1.9m)
Source: Wine GB, Wine Intelligence, Food Standards Agency
Add to that the continuing interest from Champagne brands – Vranken-Pommery launched its debut release last year in partnership with Hampshire’s Hattingley Valley, and Taittinger is busy establishing its vineyard in east Kent near Faversham, with UK partners Hatch Mansfield, called Domaine Evremond – and the future is bright, particularly so in Kent.
It makes sense to start your tour of Kent wineries in the west of the county 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, deli and farm shop, 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 wines, blended from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier and made from their 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 colonnaded Pantiles shopping and dining parade, before continuing on down the A21 and cross-country (GPS is a must for negotiating Kent’s ancient network of winding country lanes) towards Staplehurst, where you’ll find Hush Heath.
Owner Richard Balfour-Lynn has pumped enough cash into the winery to virtually triple capacity and has recently opened a smart new visitor centre offering tutored tastings, and a vast wooden deck that shouts summer weddings. It’s surrounded by 54ha of vineyards, which are ringed by ancient woodlands that you can wander through aided by a free map, before grabbing a table and tasting through the range of Hush Heath wines, including the deliciously biscuity, leesy Balfour Blanc de Blancs 2014.
Next, head down the A229 and via the pretty Kentish villages of Benenden and Rolvenden to arrive at Chapel Down near Tenterden, one of the UK’s largest wine producers. Walk past gleaming new tanks and presses, and Chapel Down’s expansion programme is clearly evident. Add to that a swanky new deli bursting with local produce, a new tasting room called The Wine Sanctuary, and its smart on-site restaurant, The Swan, and you could almost be in Napa
Not so at nearby Biddenden Vineyards, this year celebrating its 50th 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 glass of surprisingly good dry Ortega, and Gribble Bridge fizz made mostly with Reichensteiner
And then, bam, we’re back in California again with Gusbourne Estate’s sleek new visitor centre, The Nest. You can actually smell the sea in Gusbourne’s vineyards, located on a hill at Appledore, just 15 miles from the must-visit medieval coastal town of Rye just over the border in East Sussex.
Conservative party tycoon Lord Ashcroft has injected millions as a majority shareholder since 2013, which has expanded the business substantially. Gusbourne’s vintage fizz – an impressively creamy, lemony, brisk Blanc de Blancs 2013 – is a standout, and can be sampled in a tutored tasting if booked ahead.
Back on the other side of the county, the winery at Simpsons is so new that the sign hadn’t been erected, in the picturesque village of Barham, off the A2 just outside Canterbury with its spellbinding cathedral and city centre. Charles and Ruth Simpson already own Domaine Sainte Rose in Languedoc, but they are new to the English wine scene. Yet with the fizz still to launch, Simpsons has already made a name for itself with its Roman Road Chardonnay – rich and creamy with full-on flavours of melon, apple and honeysuckle, made from the estate’s own grapes grown on sheltered chalky slopes and fermented in stainless steel tanks before ageing for three months in French oak.
To complete the visit, there’s a ride on Simpsons’ Fruit Chute, described as the world’s first winery helter-skelter, which delivers you from tasting room to winery in a matter of a few thrilling seconds. It’s a brave new, New World in Kent.
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 travel by car is easiest. The nearest airport is London Gatwick, served by many different airlines. For more information go to www.visitkent.co.uk and www.winegardenofengland.co.uk
Fiona Sims is a widely published freelance food, drink and travel writer. This first featured as part of a travel guide in Decanter June 2019 issue.