more English wine -Chapel Down visit and lunch
Driving along the road we passed an old WW II airfield complete with light aircraft swooping by overhead. “You know when you watch those old WW II movies with stock shots of an English field and airbase with the subtitle, ‘Somewhere in England?’ Well, this is where they got that footage, ” said Frazer Thompson, my rather informative and charming host from Chapel Down Winery. We were on our way to the vineyard just outside the town of Headcorn in deepest Kent when we passed the airfield.
It’s always nice to get out of the city and appreciate nature in all it’s beauty and I couldn’t have picked a better place to spend an early summers day then the “garden of England” as Kent is so often referred to. And rightly so, the land is perfectly suited to grow everything from apples to strawberries and Kent is the centrepoint of hop production for real English ale. I’d read stories of East Enders descending on Kent in the summer to pick the hops (amongst other things – *wink*) during the first half of the 20th century but only had a hazy idea of where that was in relation to London. And now, here I was, smack dab in the middle of all those lovely hops, I swear I could smell them in the air.
But I wasn’t there for ale, I was there for the wines of Chapel Down. Their Tenterden vineyard is sitting on some great wine producing land. The soils of the area are clay with sandy bottom layers which provide excellent drainage as well as the even better chalky limestone soils. Those two soil types make for excellent grapegrowing potential and Chapel Down amongst others is taking full advantage of nature’s gifts. Kent is located along the famed Kimmeridgian ridge which is a shallow sea that has now been lifted above sea level and provides the limestone soils that Champagne is famous for, which allow it to produce it’s distinctive sparkling wines as well as being responsible for the white cliffs of Dover. The thinking goes, if the soil is similar and the climate is similar, wouldn’t the wines be of similar quality? I’ve had English sparkling wines previously and I have to say that many, especially ones produced in Kent, do not disappoint and some have even bested the French (although they are loathe to admit it) in international competitions.
I had been invited to lunch and a tour of the winery along with Christopher Parker and his lovely wife, Janina, of New Horizon Wines, importers of Virginia wines to the UK. Chapel Down is working on promoting the cross cultural ties that Kent has with the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, in particular the original Jamestown settlers who came from Kent and settled Viginia back in the 1600’s. Chapel Down are considering adding the wines of Virginia to their wine list. Judging on what I sampled at the London International Wine Fair I think that is an excellent idea.
We lunched at Chapel Down’s restaurant, Richard Phillips at Chapel Down. The menu was a modern British and each course was paired with a wine recommendation. What was refreshing was that not all the wines recommended were Chapel Down wines. They had a diverse selection of wines, Dinastia Vivanco, Friendly Gruner Veltliner and even Cloudy Bay’s Te Koko, how did they know I love all those wines? It was like my personal wine list, the Winesleuth’s gotta love it!
We let Frazer chose the wines and he went with a tasting of the Chapel Down wines to go with our lunch. I had diver scallops with a pea and mint risotto to start and pan fried sea trout as a main. The Bacchus ’08 was first up, fresh gingery nose, powerful notes of early summer grass, elderflower and gooseberry zooming up my nostrils. More juicy gooseberries on the palate, if you want to know what gooseberry tastes like, this is it, pure and clean, lively but lush.
I was really enjoying it until we got to the Bacchus Reserve ’07, even better! This one was made from a single vineyard, the Lamberhurst estate, and had been picked 10 days later then the rest of the crop. Full bodied with a bit of residual sugar but excellently balanced with just enough acidity to keep it from turning into a flabby gus. An excellent foil for the scallops, the fruitiness of the wine standing out against the silky, plump perfectly seared scallops.
Since it’s summer, we had to try the Chapel Down Rosé with our meal. Their rosé is made from free run pinot noir juice. But not just pinot noir, there’s also schönberger, rondo, regent, huxelrebbe and bacchus in there. They don’t mix the wine, just the juice and let it all ferment together to produce their strawberry coloured wine. I’d taken it to the EWBC last year where it got very good reviews and this year’s vintage was even better. A nose of very ripe strawberries with a streak of herby minerality running through it, fresh and juicy, redcurrant, red fruit profile, very drinkable!
Dessert wine was the best, a late harvest wine, the Chapel Down Nectar ’07. A delicate wine with a lifty floral nose, elderflower garden in the glass. It was sweet and light, I wouldn’t call it a stickie more like a light and lovely libation. Easily could have had it as an aperitif at only 8.5 percent alcohol but still showing 53 g/ltr sugar. It wasn’t terribly complex but had bosch pear and elderflower flavours and a nice long finish. It really began to sing when the chocolate fondant was served up. It may seem like everyone has got chocolate fondant on the menu but this one was exceptional, the intense dark chocolate flavours not hidden behind too much sugar, a fabulous balancing act of a dessert and the Nectar was exceptional, working in harmony with the chocolate, a taste explosion, soooo good, cleansing my palate and getting me ready for another mouthful. Yummy stuff!
Afterwards we had a stroll around the vineyard and had a look at the triage (the dose of base wine, sugar and yeast that starts the second fermentation) that was going on that day as well as bottles being riddled and a wander amongst the vines. All in all, a great way to spend the day. I’m looking forward to visiting again and sampling the Virginia wines that will hopefully be on the menu soon.