You don’t have to cross the channel to find fine wines. Amy travels down to Kent to discover how, even if Brexit is as bad as some people hope, we may not have to entirely give up on our wine habit.
I was lucky enough recently to nab the most excellent task for Foodepedia Ã¢â‚¬â€œ a showcase of the excellent food at Florentine, preceded by a trip to Chapel Down in Kent, a look around the winery and of course a thorough tasting of all that was on offer.
For the uninitiated, Chapel Down is one of the finest purveyors of English wine, hand-harvesting every grape and churning out an average of 6-700,000 bottles per year, which peaked in 2014 with a million bottles.
Our trip fell on the first gloriously sunny day in what felt like months, so it seemed as if the wine gods were with us as we gleefully boarded the train at Charing Cross, and picturesque views across the Kent countryside made it feel all the more so.
On arrival at the beautiful vineyard (vines looking a little sparse in winter, but beautiful all the same!), wine expert Freddie showed us some of the vines, and took us through the Chapel Down year, from pruning and tying down of the canes (January to March) to the shoots bursting out in May, and the flowering of the vines in June.
There’s rapid growth by July, and the grapes start to emerge from the leaves. By August the leaf canopy needs to be trimmed to allow maximum sunlight to hit the grapes so that by September they’re ripe and soft, and the red grapes have coloured.
October sees the harvest, which is done by hand, meaning the grapes can be selected with a lot more precision. A laborious process undoubtedly, but stellar-quality wine at the end with no sub-par fruit.
Chapel Down constantly adapts each vintage to the fruit they can produce, given variables such as the British weather, which throws many challenges at English winemakers, whilst being a key factor in wonderful, pure, fruit driven style that is English Wine.
Different factors in the fruit (sugar, acidity etc) will determine what that fruit is used for, so there is an element of’seeing how it goes’ Ã¢â‚¬â€œ so it’s doubtless a somewhat stressful industry to be in.
We learned that England is becoming well known for its Bacchus wine, a grape that grows well in English conditions, first planted here in the 1970s and producing a wine that is increasingly compared to a crisp Sauvignon Blanc.
Chapel Down make five Bacchus wines including the Orange Bacchus, Bacchus Reserve and Tenterden Estate Bacchus Reserve. I can attest they are well worth trying, with common characteristics of brightness and freshness, not sugary or heavy.
My favourite on the day was the effervescent Kit’s Coty Blanc des Blancs, a lovely sparkling white made using the Traditional Method (the same way as Champagne) Ã¢â‚¬â€œ with the bubbles forming naturally in the bottle, as opposed to in the tank, making for a drier wine. It was delicious, so crisp, and I’ll definitely be keeping an eye open for it when out and about.
The menu is simple and brasserie-esque, and you may have read about their ostrich egg fry-up special, served in a big pan at the table which will feed you and a host of mates. You might be happy to hear you can still get it, you’ll need to order in advance though.
We were treated to platters of beautiful San Daniele and mortadella, a hedonistic selection of cheeses and crispbreads and a piadina with smoked mozzarella and soft aubergine. Tuna carpaccio was delicate and perfect with the crunch of finely sliced radishes and a pop of wasabi mayo.
A salmon main was tender and juicy, served with firm, buttery green beans, and rosemary roast chicken was slow-cooked and a little lemony, my favourite things to put with chicken.
Our dinner was of course accompanied by more of Chapel Down’s finest, and the Kit’s Coty was as good with food as on its own, and worked equally well in the evening, an important thing to test I think.
To be honest I’d be happy to test it again any time, and will also be back to Florentine, a great option for brunch or dinner, and the ideal place to sit and work through the wine list.