For the last week of August I flitted around Europe. I had a friend’s wedding outside of Geneva in Switzerland, my little nephew’s birthday in Bath and then I decided to do a spa break in Kent for the remainder of the week.
Why Kent? Well, English wine of course! This stuff is seriously good, so we purposely booked in Tenterden Kent, the home of Chapel Down.
English wine in Kent
The main aim of visiting Chapel Down was to try the award winning English wine. However the key point about actually going to their vineyard in Tenterden in Kent was to tour the vineyard and learn some more:
We only booked on the tour for Friday afternoon 2 days prior. They get very quickly booked up for all weekend tours and they only just squeezed us in for 1pm on Friday. The tour costs £10 each and includes a tutored tasting of their wines at the end (the best bit!). You can also do a self guided tour and then try before you buy at the shop if you can’t get booked on the guided tour.
We started out walking among the oldest vines in the vineyard and learnt some more about the background of Chapel Down winery. They make 1m bottles of wine a year, the UK total is 5m, so Chapel Down is pretty big, but nothing when you compare to Champagne, they make 500m bottles a year! So we are no where near the French in terms of volumes yet.. However when it comes to quality, this is where English wine excels. With the same chalk rock under the soil as the Champagne region, Kent has the perfect terroir (or land) for making white and sparkling wine. Now the French Champagne houses are investing in vineyards in Kent. For example Tattinger are planting.. their wine won’t be ready for at least 10 years though!
History of Chapel Down
The vines we started in were the original ones planted in 1982, using Bacchus grapes. These are a German variety and are a good choice due to the similarity between the UK and German climates. Now that the UK is hotter (and I’m writing this in the hottest September since the 1970’s!), it can support newer varieties like Chardonnay. The original vines will be gradually replaced/replanted as the yield of old vines becomes lower after a certain age (c.50 years).
A note on terminology: English wine is made from grapes grown in England, British wine is just made in Britain, the grapes can be sourced from anywhere in the world… so go English to support local! Of all the English wine made, 95% stays in the UK and of the remaining 5%, 95% of that goes to Japan.
They estimate that one bottle of wine = one vine with 16 bunches of grapes. The vines are self pollinating and need 100 days of growth (so that weather really is key!). Harvest time is usually October, with grapes destined for dessert wine harvested later to maximise the sugar content.
Making the wine:
When the grapes are picked they run 2 pressings to get the juice out. The first is called curvee in France, or the free run over here. This is used for the single variety and sparkling wine. The second pressing gets all the remaining juices out and is used in the blended wine.
Red wine is treated slightly differently – the stems are taken out and the grapes lightly crushed, they go into a tray and are pumped into a huge metal vat with the skins. It’s the skin that provides the colour, as the flesh of ‘red’ grapes can be white. The leftover skins from the white wine, called the ‘must’ are used for compost. Other regions do different things with them, e.g. they make grappa in Italy!
The first thing that is added to the wine is sulphites. This is to kill off the natural yeast, allowing Chapel Down to add their own and control the flavour. The white wine has 3 weeks of fermentation in temperature controlled vats. The reds get 1 week of fermentation at 30 degrees and is pumped through the vat to stop a cap of skins forming on top. They also use animal gelatin to bind with the skins when they need to take the wine out of the vat. So wine isn’t suitable for vegetarians 🙁
To oak wine you can either put it in oak barrels, or use a oak ‘teabag’ and soak it in the wine! Obviously the premium option is barrels… Chapel Down use French oak, American oak is too strong a flavour. They also use pre-used barrels and sell them on after 3/4 years. They use a medium toasting on the barrels (more toasting the stronger the flavour). New barrels like the one above are used for Chardonnay which is blended into the sparkling wine:
To make the sparkling wine Chapel Down use the traditional method employed in Champagne, they just can’t call it Champagne! The sparkles come from a second fermentation done in the bottle (Cava and Prosecco do this differently). They add yeast and sugar to the bottle. For a non vintage wine it has minimum of 18 months in the bottle, Vintage will have a minimum of 4 years.
As the yeast does its thing and eats the sugar it dies off and creates ‘lees’ at the bottom of the bottle. The flavour and bubbles are kept in the bottle using a beer cap at this point. The traditional way to get rid of the lees was to store the bottles at an angle neck down and turn every day, gradually getting straighter until the lees are down in the top of the neck:
How ever these days its all automated and they use these huge contraptions, which do the same thing in 4 days:
To get rid of the lees they freeze just the neck of the bottle and the ice cap comes out when the bottles are uncapped. They are then corked using the traditional corks after being ‘dosed’ with grape concentrate containing natural sugars, which finalises how sweet or dry the wine is. As corks are 30 mm wide and the bottle neck only 18mm they steam the Portugese cork before forcing into the bottle. The bottles are then capped with the traditional wire cage and the ribbon, sticker and label added on top.
We finally made it back to the shop for the highlight of the tour – the tasting!
There are 4 steps to wine tasting:
- Check the colour – hold at a 45 degree angle against a white background. White wine gets darker with age and red wine looses colour as it ages.
2. Aroma – swirl the wine around the glass to release the aromas and sniff!
3. Taste – tingling in the cheeks indicates tartness, sweetness is felt on the front of the tongue and alcohol as warmth in the throat
4. Finish – i.e. what lingers in your mouth after swallowing.
We started with the blended Flint Dry and my notes went something like:
- Light in colour
- Aroma of green apples and peaches
- Tastes nice!
- Dryish finish, some sharpness and fruity
In short – I liked it!
We then tried the Tenterden Bacchus Reserve 2014 and I wasn’t as impressed by the Bacchus as much as I have been by others before (perhaps my palate has changed?). This is made from the oldest vines in the vineyard.
Kit’s Coty Estate Chardonnay 2013 was up next. The grapes for this are grown up near Maidstone. As it was aged in French oak for 9 months it had a yellower colour and was smooth, creamy and would go well with food.
We then worked our way through the sparkling wines, starting with the Vintage Reserve Brut. This was dry and appley, an easy drinking wine with a light fizz. As a blend of grapes it represents the vineyard.
The Rose Brut (Brut means the driest sparkling wine) was described as Strawberries and Cream. I say its a breakfast wine! It would go great with eggs and smoked salmon 🙂
We finished up the sparkling wine with the Three Graces 2010. This won a gold award and fully deserved it! I love the depth and complexity of the flavour and the fineness of the fizz was so delicate. I bought a bottle of this to enjoy at home….
From the reds we tasted the Union Red 2014 – which I found very easy to drink. This is a blend of grapes to give colour and depth of flavour. This is the heaviest of the English reds, as we don’t currently get enough heat and light for robust flavours to develop in the grapes.
We tried the Pinot Noir 2013 also and as you can see above it’s really thin. Pale in colour and very light in flavour. Perfect maybe chilled in summer, but not your traditional red.
The Swan restaurant
We soaked up some of the wine with bar snacks at The Swan restaurant.
And obviously I checked out their spirit selection… and found a great range of gin 🙂
Chapel Down don’t just stock their own products, they use the shop as a showcase for other local products. Amongst the cheese, crackers and jams I found the gins!
My friend and I walked out with 6 bottles of Chapel Down wine between us – some of the Flint Dry and some bubbles too 🙂