Bubbles in the “Garden of England”
Chapel Down Vineyard entrance & shop
For a few decades now Kent in southeast England has been making a name for itself in the wine world and in particular the sparkling wine one.
Even French Champagne houses are starting to show an interest in this little corner of England that is gradually experiencing ‘plus de soleil’.
Chapel Down vineyard is deep in the heart of the Kent countryside and located just outside Tenterden in the hamlet of Small Hythe. Is this important I hear you ask, well actually it is, as this was one of the reasons that this location was chosen.
Waaay back, prior to the “South of England Flood” in 1287, Small Hythe was a harbour and Tenterden was a Cinque Port, (now the sea is 11 miles away).
Countryside in Small Hythe, Kent
Standing at the top of the vineyards, a breeze blows up across the Kent countryside from where the harbour was once located, sending the vines all aflutter. All the while, the outstretched talons underground weave their way deep through the chalky soil, another essential element that vines thrive upon.
Bacchus vineyard in Chapel Down
The Vineyard Tour
I’ve digressed a bit, now back to the Chapel Down tour.
Prompt and ready to impart his extensive viticulture knowledge to us all, is our cheery tour guide, Tony.
Tony gives us a brief run-down of the do’s and don’ts of a working vineyard, then kindly handouts out our haute couture orange gilets.
Perfect location for strolling
Janis in her Chapel Down gilet
Off we go to our first field of vines, passing by the fragrant herb garden which also doubles as a tranquil wedding location.
Herb garden and wedding venue
As I see the sweeping Bacchus vineyards flowing down the hill, I’m immediately transported back to the rolling patchwork quilt vineyards in France.
It’s such a lovely sight.
Champagne, here we come
If you’re also considering heading to France, take a peek at our Champagne road trip posts, to find out where we visited.
Chapel Down vineyard map
It’s all in the detail
Tony starts with explaining about the history of Chapel Down vineyards, how the venture all started, why Tenterden was chosen as the initial location. Its development since the 1970s and where the business is today.
Tony then guides us around part of the lush Bacchus vines which were planted in 1987.
Explaining in more detail the process of planting and maintaining the vineyard.
Several of the vines are now knocking on to 30 to 40 years old, and like me are maturing pleasantly with age.
Tony our Chapel Down tour guide.
1987 Bacchus vines in Chapel Down
Kentish through and through
As the delightful English wines of Chapel Down have become more and more sought after, further locations around the southeast were scouted, for the ideal growing conditions. One of which was Eccles/Bluebell Hill in Kent and these are the vineyards which we are very familiar with. As they are literally down the end of our lane.
Kits Coty vineyard from the air
So, to show our love and support to the local venture, we decided to have a vested interest and purchased a few of their shares. One of the perks is that you get discounted wines, but, additionally, two of you also get to go on a Chapel Down wine tasting tour. And this is why we are here today.
Looking along the vines at Kits Coty
Ripe for harvesting
Chapel Down vineyards grow various grape varieties to allow them to produce different styles of wine. Our next stop was to one of their Chardonnay vineyards, which was planted out in 2004.
Grapes capturing the full sun
Bacchus vines nearly ready for harvesting
The vines at Chapel Down are planted from north to south, to allow maximum sunshine to the grapes and vines as the sun passes over east to west.
We visited towards the end of August, so the grapes were in abundance and very near their ripening peak. The harvest for 2019 is due to be gathered during the first two weeks of September.
Behind the scenes
Continuing on with our ‘behind the scenes’ tour, Tony then leads us into the pressing room. Gone are the days when you squelched the grapes through your toes, the stainless-steel grape press machines were huge and held thousands of tons.
A grape press ready for the big day
Once pressed for their juices, the grapes aren’t discarded, they are then distilled and used to produce Chapel Down’s spirits. They are Chapel Down Bacchus Gin, Pinot Noir Gin and Chapel Down Chardonnay Vodka. I think I may have to sample the gins as well soon; it would be rude, not too.
Tony explaining the winemaking processes
Wine vats in Chapel Down
Art of Riddling
Tony then guides us into a converted barn and explains to us the art of ‘riddling’ or if you’re French ‘remuage’. This is a process of slowly rotating a filled sparkling wine bottle, which is placed at an angle. The sediment gradually releases into the neck of the bottle. The bottle is then cooled to a temperature where the residue freezes, and then cleverly removed from the bottle and resealed, et voila.
Manually riddling sparkling wine
French oak barrels for Kits Coty Coeur de Cuvée
Chapel Down’s Kits Coty Coeur de Cuvée is the only one of their wines which is partially fermented in French oak barrels. This gives the wine a delicate toasting flavour from the seven months spent in the traditionally made oak barrels.
To the sanctuary
Now that we have all been educated in the art of wine growing and production, it was time to head to the ‘Wine Sanctuary’ and enjoy a few samples.
The Wine Sanctuary is an old converted farm building, which now houses a bar, communal and separate tasting tables. All of which have a glorious view over the vineyards and the Kent countryside beyond.
The Chapel Down bar in the Wine Sanctuary
Chapel Down mainly specialises in producing white wines, sparkling and non-sparkling. Though their delicate range of rosé wines are wonderful.
They no longer produce red wines as the soil and climate in the UK, is better for lighter reds and apparently, market forces tended to desire full-bodied reds. I must admit I do enjoy a light red, particularly when it is slightly chilled. But, hey ho, what do I know?
View from the Wine Sanctuary
It’s time for a taster
Now for the tasting, our first wine was the still Bacchus.
Tony then proceeded to give us a masterclass in the art of smelling and tasting a glass of wine.
It’s incredible when you sample the wine intending to pick up the notes and flavours, you really get so much more from a glass of wine.
It also gives you an understanding of how your palate works by picking up different tones to the wine.
Tasting the Bacchus 2018
Get me, who do I think I sound like, I’ll be giving Oz Clarke a run for his money soon.
Seven wines to sample
Tony then talked us through tasting a further six wines, we had a mixture of white and rosé, sparkling and non-sparkling. All of which was interesting and delightful to taste, but of course, depending on what you were pairing them with, you would need to be more precise in your choice.
The notes and tones of each wine
We were given a leaflet on all the wines we tasted and others available, educating us a little further on the flavours involved.
I must say that this tour was extremely informative and easy going. Gary and I have enjoyed a few wine tours over the last two or three years and found this to be the best in terms of knowledge and variety of tastings.
Tasting the English Rose - rosé wine
Tasting in progress
I know we had this tour as part of a shareholder’s benefit; however, at £20pp for the tour, I think it was excellent value. The length of the visit was meant to be for 1 hour 45 minutes, though ours lasted 2 hours. The other point I will make is that there was no pressure whatsoever to buy any wines. It was your choice if you wandered back through the shop.
Did someone say gin?
Chapel Down have also branched out into brewing their own beers and ciders at the Curious Brewery in Ashford. You can book yourself onto a tour and tasting there too.
The Curious Brew chiller
As mentioned, a little earlier Chapel Down additionally produce spirits; currently, they have two gins, a vodka and a Lamberhurst Brandy.
If you head to the Chapel Down Gin Works & Restaurant, just by the Regent’s Canal in Kings Cross, London you’ll be able to sample the gin and vodka on the Spirits Tasting tour.
Useful things to know
- There is a sizeable onsite carpark, which is free of charge
- You’ll need to choose a designated driver.
- Ideally wear comfy shoes, the walking segment isn’t too long; however, the ground is uneven in places.
- It’s advisable to book your tour in advance
Picnic area in Chapel Down
Inspired to visit Chapel Down Winery?
Why not stay at the quaint English town of Tenterden, which is only two miles up the road.
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