Trail of the unexpected: The Kent wine route

English Wine Week starts today, so to get a taste for it Sally Hawkins takes a vintage break in Kent

"English wine," emphasised Nigel, my guide at Biddenden Vineyards, correcting my mistake. "British" wine, he was keen to point out, can be made using grapes flown in from anywhere in the world. As we wound our way through Biddenden's vineyard, I began to understand his eagerness to clarify my misapprehension.

While the Romans had vineyards spread widely across Kent by AD250, they left no legacy of wine-making. So when the Barnes family planted their first acre of vines in 1969 they were true pioneers, going about it through a process of trial and error. The biggest question hanging over them was whether it was really possible to grow vines in the English climate: a late or early frost can ruin a crop.

Four decades on, and Biddenden is now the oldest commercial vineyard in the county, with 22 acres of vines. Kent now has more than 350 acres of vineyards, and English wines are raking in international awards (including two gold, 14 silver and 20 bronze medals at the 2011 International Wine Challenge, the Oscars of the wine world). To celebrate all this vinery, English Wine Week starts today.

It's all very exciting for oenophiles. As Julian Barnes, second-generation wine-maker at Biddenden, explained: "While the varieties of grapes are German [such as ortega and dornfelder] or French [such as pinot noir] they are grown in England – and the local conditions and soil influence the flavours of the wine."

In Biddenden's farm shop, shelves heave with local produce including the farm's own wines and ciders (all free to taste). "What produce is Kent famous for?" asked Nigel. "The same nutrients they take from the soil are going into the grapes that make the wine." With one slurp of the Gribble Bridge Ortega 2009, I understand: apples, pears, elderflower. The 2007 Pink Sparkling has hints of strawberry. You can't get more English than that.

Shopping bags clanking, my designated driver and I left Biddenden, and zigzagged (soberly) through the Kentish countryside passing oast houses rising from golden fields of oilseed rape.

Just past Tenterden on the B2082, a blink-and-you'll-miss-it sign advertises Harbourne Vineyard. As we pulled into the drive, wine-maker Laurence Williams emerged from the tiny shop built on to his family home. He pointed to a spot on the hillside where Henry VIII's boatyard once stood, explaining that his 1.2-acre vineyard – five miles from the coast – is growing on what would have been the seabed.

In the shop I tasted the Harbourne Old Vines Rosé – 25-year-old vines producing a complex dry taste with plum flavours – and a citrusy Seyval Blanc Dry 2005. Laurence's wines are made using traditional methods with minimal intervention and, he says, "The grapes are crushed gently so there's no risk of getting off-flavours from crushed pips or stalks."

Next we turned west towards Tunbridge Wells, to Sandhurst Vineyards, which is set in a patchwork landscape of raspberry canes, cherry orchards and hop fields. Anne Nicholas, the owner, led me to a homely bar and let me sample Sandhurst's wines and ales. She tempted me with a summery bacchus and a spicy pinot noir; I left with a bottle of each.

Further west we were directed to Lamberhurst Vineyards. A restaurant, shop and spa are due to open there in June; instead we followed a signposted walk through the peaceful vineyards with views across the Teise Valley.

That night, Tunbridge Wells provided further immersion in my theme. The Hotel du Vin & Bistro has its own tiny vineyard. At dinner the sommelier, Victor, revealed that he was planning to make the hotel's own sweet wine with next year's harvest.

The next morning we made for Chapel Down, which has established itself as a world-class winery (winning one of those gold medals at this year's International Wine Challenge for its Rosé Brut, reportedly served at the royal wedding last month).

It's possible to spend a day here exploring the vineyards, picnicking on local delicacies bought from the shop or lunching at Richard Phillips' restaurant, where the Michelin-starred chef serves modern takes on English classics, such as braised Kentish lamb shoulder or whole native lobster. My guide, Jo, lead me through vines and warehouses – and Chapel Down's enormous success quickly became clear: 120 acres of vines across Kent and Sussex; crates of the stuff marked for Waitrose and Marks & Spencer; shiny new machinery everywhere. And then there's the wine itself: a fragrant sparkling Pinot Reserve 2004 with hints of strawberry and baked apple was my favourite.

The wine route through the Garden of England is an intoxicating mix of technology (Chapel Down's science lab and thrumming machinery), home-spun charm (Biddenden's family enterprise) and the great outdoors (Harbourne's focus on natural methods). One thing the wine-makers all share is a passion, not just for wine but for English wine. I'll drink to that.

Travel essentials: The Kent wine route

Getting there

* The A21 connects the M25 with this part of Kent.

* Southeastern runs direct train services from central London to Tunbridge Wells or Staplehurst.

Staying & sampling there

* Biddenden Vineyards, Gribble Bridge Lane, TN27 8DF (01580 291726; biddendenvineyards.com). Free tours and tasting every second Saturday from 10am. Shop open daily. The self-catering Vineyard Loft can also be rented from £140 for two nights.

* Hotel du Vin, Tunbridge Wells, Crescent Road, TN1 2LY (01892 526455; hotelduvin.com). Doubles from £110, including breakfast.

* Sandhurst Vineyard, Hoads Farm, TN18 5PA (01580 850296; sandhurstvineyards.co.uk). Guided tours from £3, including wine tasting, by prior arrangement.

* Chapel Down, Tenterden Vineyard, TN30 7NG (01580 766111; englishwinesgroup.com). Hour-long tours from £9, daily. Open 10am to 5pm. Accommodation at nearby

* Sissinghurst Castle Farmhouse, TN17 2AB (01580 720992; sissinghurstcastlefarmhouse.com). Doubles start at £125, including breakfast.

* Harbourne Vineyard, Tenterden, TN30 7NP (01797 270420; harbournevineyard.co.uk). Free daily wine tasting at the shop.

More information

* English Wine Week runs until 5 June. For details, see englishwineweek.co.uk.

* Kent Tourism: visitkent.co.uk.

* Download a free map of the Kent wine route at producedinkent.co.uk.

Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Car Sales Executive - OTE £36,000

    £12500 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This established Knaresborough ...

    Beverley James: Accounts Payable

    £23,000: Beverley James: Do you have a background in hospitality and are you l...

    Recruitment Genius: Cleaning Manager - York and Bradford

    £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The post holder is a key member of the V...

    Recruitment Genius: Vehicle Breakdown Recovery Drivers

    £18000 - £28800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Vehicle Breakdown Recovery Driv...

    Day In a Page

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor