Kent: a very English vintage
The beach huts of Herne Bay are a unique draw for this charming town in north-east Kent.
"Kent is closer than you think to Champagne region", the waiter told me with a smile in a London restaurant a few years ago while serving me a glass of Chapel Down. One thing quickly became clear: the sparkling wine of this British estate compared very favourably with certain sparkling white wines produced on the other side of the Channel. What was then an exception has become a real trend: driven by the desire to “consume local”, English wines are now popular across the UK, and feature prominently on the menus of many bars and restaurants. It is one of the sometimes hidden secrets of southern England. Already renowned for its seaside resorts, cliffs and postcard-like countryside, the region also now has a thriving viticulture sector. With a view that would have seemed surreal just a few decades ago, across the soft green landscapes of Surrey, Kent and Sussex, the undulations of the English countryside now welcome row upon row of grape vines. The number of hectares planted with vines has more than doubled over the last decade, and the region now lives a good part of the year in tune with the rhythms of the harvest and the bottling of red, white and above all sparkling wine.
Wine from the Garden of England
It is in the extreme south-east of the country, in the county of Kent, that a large part of the production is concentrated. Renowned for its castles and gardens, this rural area, between the Channel and the Thames, is nicknamed “The Garden of England”.
On landscapes that have long been renowned for orchards and hops, viticulture has now established itself with the benefit of an unprecedented ally: climate change. “The south of England is experiencing warmer summers, milder winters and more hours of sunshine than in the past,” says Jo Smith, a local wine tourism specialist. This change has now made it possible to cultivate the grape varieties more generally found on the continent to make sparkling wines, which fi nd favourable conditions in Kent.
The Stour crosses Canterbury as several canals which are an integral part of the city’s history.
The Biddenden vineyard is located in the heart of Kent. It has been owned by the Barnes family since 1969.
The magnificent stained glass windows of Canterbury Cathedral date from the 12th and 13th centuries.
Reds, rosés, whites, sparkling wines... The Kent vineyards offer a wide variety of wines that are highly appreciated across Europe.
Little bubbles of success
Whether we call them effervescent or sparkling wines - the most commonly used name - “sparkling whites” have found their place alongside Italian Proseccos and French champagnes in wine dealers far and wide. Such is the success of English wine, even the big houses in Reims are becoming increasingly interested. After Vranken-Pommery, which planted its first vines in Hampshire, Taittinger joined forces with a British wine importer to create the Evremond estate in Kent. The first bubbles produced by this Franco-British collaboration are expected soon...
An hour by train from London, the county of Kent offers an amazing variety of experiences.
Cliffs can be useful
Local viticulture also owes its success to another unexpected ally: the White Cliffs of Dover. A regional landmark, they are the most visible aspect of a chalky soil that is geologically very close to that of Champagne, and favourable to the development of certain varieties of grapes. In Dover, they rise to heights of over 110 metres, facing their counterparts in the distance over at Cap Blanc-Nez, on the French side of the Channel. Seen from the sea, they follow the line of the horizon in a smooth and rugged bar. Around Folkestone, the cliffs welcome passengers arriving from deep below the Channel Tunnel. At their feet stretch long sandy beaches leading to seaside resorts where Londoners come at the weekends to tread the boardwalks, enjoy the sea air and sample servings of local fish and chips. Some places cultivate their slightly old-fashioned charm. Others have undergone somewhat of a revival, such as Margate, on the Thames side of the county, which today appeals to young city dwellers and houses the Turner Contemporary Modern Art museum, named after the painter William Turner, who spent part of his childhood here. Not far away, Whitstable, renowned for its oysters and nicknamed “the Pearl of Kent”, also attracts a connoisseur crowd.
No less than twelve grape varieties are grown in the Biddenden vineyard, which extends over more than nine hectares.
Rising 110 metres above the English Channel, the White Cliffs of Dover are one of Great Britain’s most celebrated landmarks.
And culture lovers need not feel left out. Together with the castles of Dover, Leeds and Rochester, Kent has no shortage of buildings whose stones tell the tale of the country’s history since the Norman Conquest. And of course not forgetting Deal Castle, facing the sea in the far east of the county, an astonishing defensive building more than 300 metres across.
Above all, the region keeps Canterbury close to its heart. This key tourist resort is famous for its unique, world-famous UNESCO World Heritage List cathedral, as remarkable for the intricate stonework of its towers as for a history that is inseparable from that of the country. The lively university city is crossed by the Stour River that lends itself to discovery by punting in flat-bottomed boats. Sliding silently along through the water, by medieval buildings, you feel far from the vineyards, the cliffs of Dover, London (although just one hour away by train) and the Continent. This unique county of southern England certainly offers an astonishing diversity of experiences. All good reasons to raise a glass of bubbly in a toast to the beauty of Kent!
A journalist and freelance photographer specialising in tourism and travel,
Olivier Cirendini both reports for the press and writes in many travel guides.
While wondering about this most particular of activities, tourism...
1 - Discover the vineyards at harvest time
In Kent, the harvest usually takes place between the last week of September-a little earlier if the summer has been scorching!-and the first two weeks of October. Be aware, however, that the staff at the estates are very busy then, and therefore less available.
2 - Open to novelty
Young British winemakers are open to many new and innovative trends. An open mind is essential. Bringing together eight estates in Kent, including some of the most renowned, Wine Garden of England organises discovery tours, with tastings and meetings with winegrowers.
3 - Revise a little history of the country
Castles, Anglican religious history, relations with France and the continent... The south of England has been at the forefront of many historic events, and brings visitors an opportunity to learn more about the country’s history.
4 - Adapt to all experiences
A day to taste some bubbly in the vineyard (dress code: casual chic), another on the cliffs taking in the sea air (hat, boots and warm clothes), a cultural outing, a boat trip, a walk on the beach or even a swim in the English Channel or the North Sea, make sure you take the right outfit for the right occasion.
5 - Investigate all travel options
Kent extends from Dover to London and can be reached by boat, high-speed train, ferry and Eurostar, depending on where you’re coming from. Study the map carefully!