Kent wine tour: Top wineries to visit

Simpsons' Wine Estate
Simpsons’ Wine Estate.

There’s a good reason why Kent is described as the Garden of England. With much of it edged by the sea, stretching from the Thames Estuary all the way round to the English Channel, you’ll find a verdant landscape of rolling hills, blossom-filled orchards, white-cowled oast houses (hop kilns), and timbered villages with tile-hung cottages. Thanks to its eastern location, Kent gets more sunshine and higher temperatures than much of the UK, which explains why it’s famous for its fruit.

These days, of course, there’s another crop grabbing the headlines – grapes. Make way for the Wine Garden of England.

In fact, this is the very name chosen by a ‘friendly collective’ of Kent winemakers who have got together to tell the world about this fast-changing corner of southeastern England – namely GusbourneChapel Down, Simpsons’ Wine EstateDomaine Evremond, Biddenden, Squerryes, Balfour and Westwell.

Drive down the M20 today and you would be forgiven for thinking you were in the Champagne region, with row upon row of vines shimmering in the breeze on south-facing chalky slopes.

Last year (2023) provided a bumper crop in a near-perfect year, which should help producers keep up with demand. Restaurants from Manhattan to Tokyo are eager to list English wines and those closer to home continue to fight over allocations – which can be a problem for the wine tourist, as we found out – with limited supplies on Kent restaurant wine lists.

The output of the UK wine industry might still be small fry compared with other wine-producing counties, but it has come a long way fast since its first commercial vineyard –  Hambledon – was planted in Hampshire in 1952, winning high-profile awards and trophies mainly for its sparkling wines, fuelling some serious investment in land.

Add to that the continuing interest from Champagne brands, including Taittinger, who established Domaine Evremond near Faversham in Kent with UK partner Hatch Mansfield. The state-of-the-art visitor centre is now well underway and the release of the first vintage is expected later in 2024.

Getting around the Wine Garden of England

It makes sense to start your tour of Kent wineries at Squerryes near Westerham, just a 10-minute drive from the outer reaches of Greater London, and within rumbling distance of the M25.

With its winery, craft brewery, notable restaurant, Garden Café, newly expanded deli and farm shop as well as Saturday market, it’s beginning to look a lot like California. The 300-year-old estate is run by eighth-generation family member Henry Warde, who tells how a prestigious Champagne house came calling back in 2004 talking of perfect conditions and partnerships, and how in the end they decided to do it themselves. ‘Their confidence gave us the confidence,’ he shrugs, pouring tasting samples of his sparkling wine, a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier made from the estate’s own grapes.

Jump back on the A21 and push on deeper into Kent, making time if you can for a stop at the historic spa town of Royal Tunbridge Wells, with its collonaded Pantiles, before continuing to Staplehurst, where you’ll find Balfour Winery.

Owner Richard Balfour-Lynn has pumped enough cash into the winery to more than triple capacity and has recently expanded its visitor centre with two new tasting rooms. Add to that a busy restaurant, numerous events on offer, plus a vast wooden deck that shouts summer weddings.

It’s surrounded by more than 50ha of vineyards, ringed by ancient woodlands, which you can wander through aided by a free map before grabbing a table and tasting through the range of wines, including a delicious biscuity, leesy 2018 Blanc de Blancs, now available in magnum.

Next stop, Chapel Down: one of the UK’s largest wine producers, which now owns, leases and sources from more than 400ha, of which 300ha are fully productive. Take in the ranks of gleaming tanks and presses and peruse the winery…

Source : https://www.decanter.com/wine-travel/kent-wine-tour-top-wineries-to-visit-412661/