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Kent's vineyards and where they are for English Wine Week

Have you been drinking more during lockdown? Many of us have and while that's bad news for our waist lines and livers it can only be good for Kent's burgeoning wine industry.

Whether you've nearly bankrupted yourself with boxes of craft ale or picked up a plonk habit sales of booze soared by 67% as households prepared for involuntary lock ins – and the signs are since then we've been increasingly buying local.

Kent has been named the wine garden of England so this news coupled with rumblings that grape lovers were ditching Champagne in favour of English sparkling wine may well provide a glimmer of hope for the county's 50 plus vineyards fighting to keep their fizz as the county's £4 billion tourism industry shut down.

Sales to the hospitality industry have dried up and physical tours have not been possible so this historic industry has had to turn to very modern solutions to keep their businesses bubbling away.

There's no getting around the fact this has been a very tough time for producers from Meopham to Marden, Horsmonden to Hawkinge.

But speaking ahead of English Wine Week, which runs until June 28, Charles Simpson, who alongside wife Ruth runs a successful estate in France as well as Simpsons Wine Estate in Barham, near Canterbury, said online sales had quadrupled during lockdown.

While still not enough to outweigh the complete collapse in hospitality sales his business will be able to "weather the storm" and the industry as a whole was starting to see the "green shoots" of recovery.

Grapes being harvested at the Simpson's Wine Estate at Barham Picture: Charles Simpson
Grapes being harvested at the Simpson's Wine Estate at Barham Picture: Charles Simpson

"Wine is considered an essential product both here and in France so from a business perspective nothing has changed at all," he said.

"In fact, we've been working harder than ever. We have had to fit six months work into two months and have had to work twice as hard just to stand still."

That's because vines have continued to grow and with the very real prospect of imports such as cork and bottles not being available Simpsons had to buy as much stock as possible and spend money it hadn't planned to shell out for several months just to keep up with the crop.

The couple founded a seven-strong group of Kent's major vineyards called The Wine Garden of England to help promote a tourism wine trail of the county so are more than qualified to talk on the issue.

Using Zoom the group have been meeting every fortnight and their sessions have turned into something resembling "group therapy", Mr Simpson explained.

Charles and Ruth Simpson Picture: Charles Simpson
Charles and Ruth Simpson Picture: Charles Simpson

But despite many challenges Mr Simpson thinks the industry will bounce back once hotels, pubs and restaurants begin to reopen, which will hopefully be from July 4.

He added: "Our business in France is very retail-focused so when this happened we were able to pivot the UK business very quickly and set up meetings with the likes of Waitrose and Majestic.

"On top of that I think a lot of people really are doing their best to support their local businesses and buy locally. When supermarkets were overwhelmed independent farm shops in Kent stepped up.

"And at the start of lockdown Google searches for English sparkling wine went through the roof."

Wine club Naked Wines has also just announced, on a giant Zoom call with the Simpsons and 2,000 oenophiles, that its Christmas case will for the first time not include a bottle of Champagne - instead a Barham-produced sparkling wine will take its place.

Kent has been named the wine garden of England. Stock picture
Kent has been named the wine garden of England. Stock picture

Despite his positivity for the industry's future Mr Simpson was concerned about elements of the government's management of lockdown.

A business meeting with producers from France was cancelled last minute because of controversial quarantine rules - President Macron advising all companies not to send staff to England - while he fears the two-metre rule will make it impossible for pubs, who hope for 70% occupancy to make money, to reopen.

"The clock is ticking," he said, "We need to get these businesses open again before the weather turns in Autumn because from then coming back will be even harder."

But when they do reopen he reckons consumers will be chomping at the bit to spend their money and get a bit of variety back in their lives after months stuck at home.

His optimism does not stop at the current crisis, while a frosty start to the year wiped out about 20% of crops the unseasonably warm spring and recent weeks of sun and rain has meant vines have recovered well and while the estate is not on track to beat the bumper last couple of years it certainly won't be disappointed.

And even if social distancing rules are not eased Mr Simpson is pleased to announce from vine to vine is exactly two metres, meaning tours, tasting and come September harvesting are all on the horizon.

If you can't wait until lockdown's over to sample the delights of some of Kent's vineyards we've got you sorted.

For more news on big brands and good places to enjoy a tasty bite, head to our Eat, Drink, Shop section


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