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Kent's role in the growth of English wines

It was no shock when the annual financial results for winemaker Chapel Down revealed it increased sales by a third to £8.2 million last year.

The Tenterden-based company, which also has vineyards in Blue Bell Hill and the Weald, grew gross profits by 36% to £3 million and upped earnings before interest, taxes and other charges by 6% to £507,000.

“Chapel Down has enjoyed another excellent year of growth,” beamed chief executive Frazer Thompson, whose company also makes beer and cider.

The harvest at Gusbourne Estate
The harvest at Gusbourne Estate

“English wines, which are now being internationally recognised for their consistent excellence, has been the bedrock of our business.

“Demand is continuing to rise and we are developing a very strong brand to ensure we continue to maximise the potential that is being created through the consumer and trade excitement in cool climate wines.”

This kind of good news for Kent winemakers is becoming more and more common, which is helpful as they gather at One Great George Street in London today for the English Wine Producers trade fair.

Last month, Gusbourne Estates in Appledore on Romney Marsh announced it had won three medals at this year’s Sommelier Wine Awards – two gold, one silver.

Gusbourne has bottled more wine following a good harvest last year
Gusbourne has bottled more wine following a good harvest last year

“To win two coveted gold medals at this highly-respected competition is a real achievement and a great endorsement of our wines,” gushed the vineyard’s winemaker Charlie Holland.

“The medals are an acknowledgment of our growing understanding of the character of each individual vineyard parcel; which is itself the result of using only our own estate grown grapes to make our wines.”

The success of winemaking in Kent has attracted big names like Tattinger, the French Champagne family, who bought 170 acres of land in Chilham, near Canterbury, in December to make English sparkling wines with their chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes.

In nearby Barham, husband and wife Charles and Ruth Simpson are preparing to plant their second 30-acres of vines later this month, having planted a 28-acre plot in 2014.

Charles and Ruth Simpson at their vineyard in Barham
Charles and Ruth Simpson at their vineyard in Barham

The pair, who live in Fordwich, have been making their Domaine Sainte Rose in the Languedoc region of southern France since 2002 but bought 90 acres in Kent in 2012.

“We had got to the stage where the business in France was profitable and fully funded, we were in our 40s and wanted another exciting adventure,” said Mr Simpson, whose estate in France produces 400,000 bottles a year, which is supplied to the likes of Waitrose and Majestic Wine.

You want soils with chalk and the holy grail of chalk is the North and South Downs..." - Wine producer Charles Simpson

They will take their first harvest from their Simpsons Wine Estate this year but the amount of grapes could range from five to 30 tonnes, depending on how the planting has gone. That could range from 3,500 to 25,000 bottles.

Despite the huge investment involved and long waiting period before getting any revenues, Mr Simpson said there are a multitude of reasons winemakers are excited about Kent.

“There’s no doubt the UK is on the margins of what’s possible in terms of viticulture,” he said.

“Site selection is the most important thing because if you choose a place which isn’t right, you will be pushing water uphill for the rest of your days.

"There is a misunderstanding about where it is possible to grow grapes in England and make world class wines. You want soils with chalk and the holy grail of chalk is the North and South Downs.

Chapel Down is stocked in Marks & Spencer, Waitrose, Sainsbury, Tesco and Majestic
Chapel Down is stocked in Marks & Spencer, Waitrose, Sainsbury, Tesco and Majestic

“In Kent, you can also wipe out some of the risk of winemaking too. That is where the excitement is. The sunshine hours are good and there is a belief that maturity of crops in this country goes from east to west.

“Kent usually picks its crop a few days or weeks before Sussex. In viticultural terms, it means you are more likely to harvest your grapes before any diseases or rot sets in.

“Also in this part of the world we have the high speed connections from Ashford to Paris and can get to London in 52 minutes. I couldn’t think of a better place to be.”

Another winemaker is Hush Heath Estate, which sits on a 450-acre site in Staplehurst.

Surrounded by woodland, it has 29 acres under vine. A further 10 acres have just been planted, although it will be up to seven years before they produce wine.

Hush Heath's vineyard is near Staplehurst
Hush Heath's vineyard is near Staplehurst

Last year was the biggest yet for the business, with up to 90,000 bottles expected to be produced.

Bosses said this year is looking bigger, thanks to favourable weather.

Winery manager Sarah Easton said: “In a ripe year, when there has been really good weather, the grapes will be much higher in sugar, which produce more complex flavours.”

The estate has a weather station which alerts the team if the temperature around the vines drops below 2C.

Gel candles have to be laid out all along the vineyards so that the grapes don’t get too cold, even at night.

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