Kent County, commonly known as the “Garden of England”, is just an hour and a half drive from London. This beautiful rural corridor has been famous for a long time for its fruit-growing gardens, its hop yards and the production of cider and beer. But for the past few years, another industry - sparkling wine production - has risen and rapidly grown. If vine cultivation has always existed in England and dates back to the Roman Empire occupation, the renaissance of the English vineyard and the development of an English wine industry is quite recent. With its charming countryside and many historical and cultural attractions, Kent has a lot to offer to tourists. If you plan to discover this emerging wine region, here are some insights to make the most of your wine trip in Kent.
GEOGRAPHY, SOIL AND CLIMATE
The Kent County is located in Southeastern England between the Thames Estuary and the English Channel. Chalk hills of the North Downs cross Kent from West to East until reaching the sea with the impressive White Cliffs of Dover. Kent soils share the same geological identity as the soils of Champagne in France with a strong concentration of chalk, limestone and loam.
Many scientific studies demonstrate that due to climate change impact, Kent climate appears to be similar to the one in Champagne 20 years ago. Kent is one of the sunniest and driest regions in the UK, making it an ideal environment to grow grapes. Nonetheless, this environment is not that easy as the climate conditions can also be very challenging. Despite difficult conditions during key development phases of the vine growth, the Kent wine growers are adapting and improving each year to enhance their terroir.
The proximity of the sea and the maritime influence are other climatic factors that give its singularity to the wines of Kent. This specific climate produces grapes with naturally high levels of acidity, which is ideal for the production of fresh and vibrant sparkling wines.
THE POTENTIAL TO PRODUCE AMAZING SPARKLING WINES
For many reasons, grape growing and winemaking are high-cost industries in the UK. Therefore, domestic sparkling wines tend to be quite expensive and struggle to compete against cheaper alternatives such as prosecco or cava. That being said, the best sparkling wines produced in Kent have no reason to envy the more prestigious cuvées in Champagne and have won several awards in international blind tastings. With such an enormous potential, Champagne wineries like Pommery or Taittinger recently decided to invest and purchase land in Kent in order to plant Chardonnay, Pinot noir and Pinot meunier grapes.
WHICH WINERIES TO VISIT?
You’ll find around 50 wineries in Kent. I personally visited three of them, which I strongly recommend, as they produce outstanding sparkling wines.
Gusbourne Estate winery has been awarded the title of English Wine Producer of the Year by the International Wine and Spirit Competition (IWSC) in 2015. Gusbourne produces four exceptional sparkling wines (and two still wines): Brut Reserve, Blanc de Blanc (100% Chardonnay), Blanc de Noir (100% Pinot noir) and a Rosé. Gusbourne is not open to the public yet, but their visitor center is expected to open by March 2017. gusbourne.com
Hush Heath Estate rosé, Balfour, was served at official events during the Olympic Games in London. It is now listed on British Airways first class and Orient Express train wine’s lists! Hush Heath not only produces sparkling and still wines, but also excellent ciders from its orchard. Visits on request only. hushheath.com
Chapel Down is the main sparkling wine producer in Kent. Their sparkling wines are of great quality, but they also produce many other alcoholic beverages like still wines, beer, cider and brandy. Their boutique/tasting room is open 7 days a week from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. chapeldown.com
WHAT TO DO IN KENT?
Tourists looking for a countryside getaway will love Kent. The county is blessed with two Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the North Downs Hills and The Weald. From Farnham to Canterbury and Dover with its famous White Cliffs, the North Downs Hills offer 153 miles of trails through beautiful landscapes rich in heritage. The Weald is a great destination to hike or bike and visit the pretty historic gardens and its romantic castles and mansions. Kent counts no fewer than 26 castles!
Cities like Canterbury and Tunbridge Wells are worth a visit, but if you look for winery tours, you should concentrate on the Ashford and Tenterden area. The little town of Tenterden is considered the Jewel in the Weald. Its charming main street boasts many gift, book, clothing and antique stores. Don’t miss the beautiful Smallhythe place, an early 16th-century house and cottage gardens. In Ashford, you should also see Godinton House, one of Kent’s finest historic estates. And not far from the beautiful village of Biddenden is Sissinghurst Castle and its romantic garden.
For general tourist information, please consult the following links:
In order to plan winery tours, I encourage you to have a look to the hyperlinks below:
When to visit?
You can visit Kent any season. Of course, if your main interest is touring wineries, late Spring and Summer are the best times (note that early spring can be quite muddy). Of course, you should avoid harvest time, as it is the busiest period of the year (September-October).
How to get there?
Kent County is about an hour and a half drive from London. If you arrive by plane, Heathrow, Gatwick and City Airports are convenient. Avoid Stanstead and Luton airports as they are located North of London. For a quicker journey, you can travel by train. From St Pancras International station in London, you can reach Ashford in less than 40 minutes! Once you’re there, you’ll need to rent a car to tour the wineries and see the major attractions.
Where to stay?
Ashford is the main town close to the most interesting wineries. You’ll find plenty of accommodation options in Ashford. The two charming little towns of Biddenden and Tenterden are also good starting points to enjoy wine tourism in Kent.
Here are a few accommodation recommendations:
- Eastwell Manor, a luxury hotel in Ashford offering deluxe manor rooms and cottages. Beautiful English garden and spa facilities
- Pluckley Elvey Farm, a charming family-run hotel in Ashford, nestled in 75 glorious acres of idyllic Kent countryside
- Little Silver Country Hotel, a small hotel located in Tenterden with 16 furnished ensuite bedrooms, a comfortable lounge, and a nice terrace
- The Goudhurst Inn, a pub and restaurant in Cranbrook offering locally sourced food and drinks, with four boutique hotel rooms
- Tenterden Little Dane Court, a B&B sitting in the center of Tenterden, close to the many antique and clothing shops, traditional pubs and tea rooms
Where to eat?
As the “Garden of England” and a major agricultural area, Kent offers many opportunities to enjoy plenty of local products in the welcoming pubs and restaurants of the county. The following are recommendations of good restaurants where you can enjoy the traditional cuisine of Kent:
- The Gallivant, a local restaurant and hotel in Rye, close to the beach. 95% of their fresh ingredients are sourced within a 10-mile radius from the restaurant
- The George Grill in Rye, which offers wood-charcoal grilled meat and fresh-cooked seafood just caught from Rye Bay
- The West House, holding a Michelin Star since 2003, this small family-run restaurant is located in a 16th-century cottage on Biddenden High Street.
- The Swan, a restaurant situated within Chapel Down Winery in Tenterden, with a charming rooftop terrace with views over the vines. Of course, it features the full selection of wines from the winery
- The Three Chimneys, a traditional Kentish pub in Biddenden with a cuisine focused on local products
- The Milk House, a pub within a 16th-century hall house with a Tudor fireplace in Sissinghurst. They serve an extensive selection of local beers, cask ales as well as several wines by the glass from the area’s renowned vineyards
Kent also hosts a lot of foodie festivals. One not to be missed is the Oyster Festival which takes place every Summer in Whitstable, a seaside town on the north coast of Kent, close to Canterbury. Believe me, eating freshly harvested oysters with a glass of Kent sparling wine is a tremendous culinary experience!