For Christmas Caroline bought me a ‘Deluxe GiftExperience’ at Chapel Down, the UK’s leading winery. I say ‘me’, but it wasactually a present for her too since it was a ‘couples’ package. For £490 wegot a private tour of the vineyard, a wine–tasting session, dinner for two inthe Chapel Down restaurant, an overnight stay at the Sissinghurst CastleB&B and free tickets to visit Sissinghurst gardens the following morning.
We left it a little late to book and the onlyslot they had available was last weekend, presumably because it clashed withthe Jubilee bank holiday. I imagine the sort of people this package appeals to– middle-class oenophiles with an interest in gardening – are the type who werebusy organising street parties and village fêtes.
The ‘experience’ began with our arrival at theB&B, where we were immediately offered tea and cake by the owner, a formerprofessional chef. The cake looked very tempting indeed – swirls of chocolateicing covered in raspberries – but I was anxious not to incur any additionalexpense, so declined. In fact, as Caroline later explained, it was all part ofthe package, at which point I was furious. I would have eaten the whole bloodything if I’d known.
She had wisely booked a taxi to take us toChapel Down, because we were both expecting to be three sheets to the wind bythe time we’d finished our dinner and the winery was a 25–minute drive away.That meant a pleasant journey through the Kent countryside, which had neverlooked more fecund.
When we arrived in the gift shop the man atthe checkout immediately impressed me by saying: ‘Judging from the look of you,you’re here for the private tour.’ I had put on a shirt and jacket, imaginingthe restaurant would be quite smart, and it was gratifying to have this effortacknowledged. Or perhaps he was just referring to my usual air of entitlementand it wasn’t a compliment at all. Anyway, he turned out to be Ben Woodburn, a24-year-old American who would be our tour guide.
Chapel Down is impressive. At 700 acres, it’sthe largest winery in the UK and in 2018 it produced more wine than any otherBritish producer – about 2.2 million bottles out of a British total of 15.5million. That may sound like a lot, but Italy, the world’s largest wineproducer, pumps out an average of 7.2 billion bottles a year. However, thanksto climate change, it’s a growing industry. According to Ben, the averageannual temperature in Kent is exactly what it was in the Champagne region 50years ago. And sparkling white wine, made using the same method as the poshFrench stuff, is Chapel Down’s flagship product. A half-case of Brut NV is£150, and very nice it is too. I prefer it to most champagnes.
After the tour came the tasting. Ben wasparticularly proud of the Bacchus still range, made from a grape thatoriginated in Germany in 1933, but I didn’t love it. He described it as a‘superior’ sauvignon blanc, but it was too similar, with notes of tropicalfruits and that familiar grassy smell. I preferred the chardonnay, although itwasn’t as buttery as I would have liked. In general, the sparkling wines werebetter and my advice to anyone unfamiliar with Chapel Down is to stick with theBrut NV.
The tasting concluded with Caroline beingencouraged to open a bottle of fizz with a sword, a technique known as sabrage.She had seen me do it once before at a restaurant and was dead impressed, butin fact it’s virtually idiot-proof. All you do is scrape the blade up thebottle along the seam and don’t stop when you come to the lip – the top of theneck flies off, leaving a clean break. ‘That was easy,’ she said afterwards,and I realised it had been a mistake to urge her to have a go. Another scalefell from her eye.
The restaurant was excellent, much better thanI was expecting, and we had no complaints about the B&B. After a top notchfull English we popped over to Sissinghurst and toured the gardens, in whichvirtually everything was in full bloom. My only complaint was that the variousdisplay boards explaining who Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson werecontained several spelling mistakes and syntactical errors – a bit rumconsidering they were both writers.
No matter, we had a good time and if you’renot busy being a pillar of the local community, I’d recommend this minibreak.
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