Published: 06:00, 14 October 2020
| Updated: 09:28, 14 October 2020
Plans have been put forward to transform a vineyard into a million-pound tourist attraction with a visitor centre to host wine-tasting tours.
Meopham Valley Vineyard is looking to grow production and footfall at its 25-acre base on the North Downs.
A planning application has been lodged with Gravesham council for the "erection of a winery and visitor centre set into the hillside, with associated landscaping, access track to existing vehicular entrance on Whitehill Road and on-site parking".
The award-winning family company dates back nearly 30 years but was taken over by Ben and Surjit Bassi in 2014, who worked for previous owner David Grey.
They handle the planting and harvest of nine different grape varieties while son and director Surinder manages the day-to-day management of the business alongside his full-time banking and investment job.
The 37-year-old said: "It has been a busy five years. Before he [the previous owner] sold it he wanted to sell it to someone who would continue that legacy."
But while the views from the vineyard are "absolutely beautiful", he added, their lack of facilities places them at a disadvantage compared to the booming wine trade in the eastern parts of the county.
"We know the soil is perfect. Chalk is perfect for cultivating grapes," he said. "But the problem is we don't have any facilities there. We don't have a winery, we don't have a storage facility, so we are at a massive disadvantage.
"All our wines are being stored 30 miles away in Canterbury – the cost is very expensive."
Proposals for the expansion, which Surinder says is likely to cost around £1.2million, include a store facility, an office, laboratory, staff room, kitchen and outdoor seating.
Its owners are also looking to tap into the sizeable tourist trade with a visitor centre for wine tasting and tours, as well as a shop.
They are proposing to put on free buses to help transport people from Gravesend, Medway and areas inside the M25, which Surinder says is not currently served by a project like this, adding it would help galvanise the local economy's bar, restaurant and hotel trades.
It would be complemented by a "lease-a-vine scheme" to allow wine lovers to become a vine owner, visit and monitor their progress, as well as pick grapes for their own bottled wine during the harvest.
But the expansion would not just benefit the vineyard, added Surinder, who hopes to also champion other businesses in Kent.
He said: "The beautiful thing about Kent is there are so many fantastic quality products: cheese, ham, chutney, sauces.
"Our ethos is to support local businesses. We will be making and selling hampers to support other local businesses."
Kent grape growers have seen huge demand for their tipples over recent years, bagging a host of top awards.
Among those highly-regarded wine producers across the county are Chapel Down in Tenterden, Hush Heath in Staplehurst and the relatively newer Chartham Vineyard, near Canterbury.
The region’s wine industry accounts for more than 70% of the wine produced in the country and counts Japan as a major international client.
Last year, three million vines were planted with the amount of land "under vine" has risen by 79% to 3,500 hectares over the past five years.
Planning managers for the Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty unit, which advises on applications affecting the Green Belt land, has considered the winery proposals which it deems to be appropriate but advised against any use for "recreational night-time activity".
However, it also addressed potential problems with the road infrastructure and said it was essential to ensure any increased activity did not lead to "significant additional traffic on Whitehill Road that could lead to damage".
The Meopham and Districts Footpath Group also responded to say this was a "key issue", and that while it supported the wine growing aims of the project, it felt the application needed revising to recognise the "already dangerous junction" at the George Inn pub.
Full plans for the Meopham Valley Vineyard are available to view at Gravesham council's planning portal by searching application number 20200898. The deadline for submitting responses is Friday.