It’s become a source of pride for The Wine Wandeerers to say we live in England’s wine country, now that our beautiful floral whites are being taken seriously and our bubbly winning international blind tasting awards against the grandes marques of Champagne. So we were quick to accept an invitation to visit Chapel Down, now the country’s biggest wine producer and, given its stash of medals, many would say the best.
Chapel Down sits just outside the lovely mediaeval village of Tenterden, but we preceded our visit with a night across the Sussex border at the seaside. Here, The Gallivant Hotel at Camber Snds fields a restaurant serving the kind of simple but inventive food which showcases good wine better than any tasting cellar, and we tasted a few bottles of Chapel Down which really came into their own with chef Ben Fisher’s culinary inspirations.
Our sommelier chose Kit’s Cody 2011, a 100 per cent chardonnay to accompany Ben’s pigeon breast and confit leg with cauliflower couscous. That’s significant in itself, as it’s only in the past few years that climate change has made production of English chardonnay, which requires a longer growing season than other grapes grown here, even possible.
The chardonnay was very good, but it was the Bacchus Reserve 2012 which followed it which produced the first gasps of surprised appreciation. The intense floral notes and absolute delicacy are what make still English whites so special, and this was a gorgeous bottle, which did not overwhelm Ben’s crab ravioli, flavoured with enough tarragon and fennel to stand up to the wine.
What really knocked our socks off, though, was the Pinot Noir 2011 which came with a sublime dish of Romney Marsh lamb, the local meat which really deserves a PDO of its own. Making reds in a country with a limited amount of sunshine is always going to be a challenge, and the hard to make pinot noir is the greatest challenge of all. This one had the fabulous, seductive nose and crystal-clear clarity you expect from a good pinot noir, and followed through absolutely on flavour. We found out later at the vineyard that there are only a few bottles left, and the 2012 is not of the same ilk, so this is a bottle to bag quickly, in person at the vineyard or online.
Apparently reds are not what people go to Chapel Down for – they come for the famous award-winning bubbly, and often leave with a bottle of Nectar, the limited quantity dessert wine. The 2013 will not be released for more than a year now, but we had a preview with Ben’s utterly sensational chocolate and peanut butter slice. This time the wine took a back seat, not surprisingly given the robust flavours of the dessert.
Next morning we diverted to Winchelsea, another great little town the other side of Rye with a great deli-cafe, Winchelsea Farm Foods, which showcases fine local produce including the organic meat of Elm’s Farm. We picked up great lamb, beef and pork before stopping at the vineyard for lunch at the elegant Swan Bistro, which serves what might be the best home-made white bread in Britain, and a taste of some vintages we hadn’t yet sampled. The Flint Dry white which was a good partner to ham hock terrine and picallili was a revelation- 60 per cent chardonnay blended with three other grapes – pinot blanc plus the unpronounceable Huxelrebe and Reichensteiner, it packed more of a punch than the 11.5% ABV suggests. The Union Red was not so impressive – it’s worth forking out the extra few quid for the sensational pinot noir to see what Chapel Down can do with a red.
The bubblies are always going to be the stars of the show at Chapel Down, and we feel the pinks are still the best. Decanter agreed, awarding the Rose Brut NV a Gold last year, and it also bagged a bronze in the International Wine and Spirit Competition. Strawberry notes are its most famous characteristic, and interestingly actual strawberry juice features in a much less well-known Chapel Down product, their curiously-named Curious Apple No. 1 cider. The Wine Wanderer who is a cider connoisseur actually felt he preferred it to any of the bubblies we tasted this year!