(Bloomberg) -- In recent UK wine news, Sussex has been grabbing headlines. It was were the big winner at the WineGB Awards on June 24, coming away with 61 medals. The county has also just won its own Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) for wines, a guarantee of quality like the French Appellation d’Origine Controlee (AOC) that confirms the authenticity of bottles from such high-value places as Champagne.
But the UK’s most noteworthy wine region right now, especially when it comes to a food and drink escape, is Kent. (It scored 60 medals at the WineGB Awards.)
For the last 20 years, Kent—the “Garden of England” in the country’s southeast that’s famous for the ancient cathedral city of Canterbury as well as seaside resorts—has been growing its wine business. In 2015, Patrick McGrath, managing director of the UK-based wine company Hatch Mansfield started Domaine Evremond in partnership with Champagne Taittinger, by purchasing a 69-hectare (171-acre) apple farm for £1.5 million ($1.83 million) and planting grapes. It was the first time that a Champagne house bought land in England with the intention of making world-class sparkling wine.
Now, McGrath is betting on the growth of wine tourism, both for his winery and for Kent in general. Early results are promising. Sales of English and Welsh wines leaped from 5.5 million bottles in 2019 to 9.3 million bottles in 2021, and visits to UK vineyards and wineries rose by 57% last year over those in 2020.
Domaine Evremond is one of eight wineries that make up Wine Garden of England, a collaboration aimed at creating a Kent wine trail. The estate’s new, state-of-the-art winery is nearing completion—“we hope it’ll be ready for next year’s harvest,” says McGrath—and will offer vineyard tours and tastings.
Hatch Mansfield chose Kent, says McGrath, “partly because it’s four hours door-to-door from Champagne, but mainly because of the climate and the chalk soils.” The estate is named after a hedonistic 17th century French writer, Charles de Saint-Évremond, who helped to popularize Champagne in Britain and is buried in Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner. The first vintage is already bottled and maturing in the cellars.
Woolton Farm, which also produces craft cider, released its first wine vintages in 2021 to great acclaim. Its pét-nat Chardonnay 2020 won silver at this year’s WineGB awards.
After great wine, great restaurants typically appear, and Kent’s food scene is booming, too. Take the Bridge Arms near Canterbury, where chef Dan Smith and wife Tasha earned a Michelin star earlier this year. It’s the younger sibling of the Fordwich Arms a few miles north, which also boasts a star; the Smiths were named Restaurateurs of the Year in the 2022 National Restaurant Awards. Their wine list includes vintages from Kentish wineries Gusbourne and Simpsons.
At another popular restaurant, Pig at Bridge Place in Canterbury, head sommelier Luke Harbor is an evangelist not just for Kent’s wines but for the new, more open approach of the county’s wineries. “The Champagne model used to be very common—everything behind closed doors—but lots of wineries are now adopting a kind of Napa ‘cellar door’ approach and offering visitors a great experience.” Many wineries offer tours and tastings that can be booked online, and a growing number offer accommodation, too. Confirming the trend, Airbnb recently launched a vineyard category on its UK site.
Below are a few places—big and small, old and new—to sample Kent’s best food and wine.
Where to Eat
The Fordwich Arms Former Clove Club chef Dan Smith and his wife, pastry chef Tash, took over the Fordwich Arms pub five years ago. The place still serves a great pint, but it’s their menu that wins acclaim. Kick off with Maldon oysters with caviar, hollandaise, and local rapeseed oil (£6 each); move on to saddle of blackface lamb with nettles (£35); and finish with Tash’s take on the quintessentially British orange-and-chocolate Jaffa cake. The couple's 2021 acquisition of the Bridge Arms has followed a similar path: a delicious, intelligently compiled menu and another Michelin star.
Angela’s/Dory’sAngela’s is a glorious example of Margate’a renaissance: Fabulously fresh fish is cooked in a tiny but powerful kitchen and served to an appreciative crowd of out-of-towners at swirly patterned, recycled plastic tables. Monkfish and clams for £21 or lobster and garlic butter for £28 pair nicely with one of a handful of Kentish wines; just around the corner, little sister restaurant Dory's offers a seafood bar—cod’s roe deviled eggs, maybe, or raw red mullet with blood orange and chili—and wines to take away.
The SportsmanStephen Harris’s “grotty rundown pub by the sea,” as he once described it, has become a symbol not just of Kent’s booming restaurant scene, but of the revitalization of Britain’s coastline and food. Harris serves exceptional seafood—try the slip sole grilled in seaweed butter, or roast cod with chorizo and black olive—as well as meat, especially the local Monkshill lamb, simply roasted and served with mint sauce. The £70 tasting menu is a terrific bargain.
The Pig at Bridge Place The eastern outpost of Robin and Judy Hutson’s shabby-chic hotel group is three miles south of Canterbury in an imposing red-brick, Queen Anne manor house that once reverberated to the sound of Led Zeppelin partying. These days, a more bucolic vibe prevails: The “25-mile menu” comes from local suppliers and the kitchen’s walled garden. A £28 loin of Dungeness cod is partnered with asparagus and hollandaise, while wood-fired flatbreads are topped with combinations such as house-smoked salmon and fennel. The wine list includes two dozen of Kent’s finest vintages.
The West HouseDrummer-turned-chef Graham Garrett (his cookbook is entitled Sex & Drugs & Sausage Rolls) opened the West House in 2002, now reinvented as a restaurant with four quirky bedrooms upstairs. Garrett’s cooking is assured and harmonious: Raw scallops from Rye Bay with fresh peas, crisp pancetta, and ham broth are on offer, as well as roast loin of Romney Marsh lamb with shepherd’s pie, purple sprouting broccoli, and anchoïade. The English wines on an eclectic list are mostly from just over the border in East Sussex. Set menus are £55 for four courses and £75 for five courses.
Where to Drink
Yotes CourtSusannah Ricci’s restoration of her property near Mereworth, in the west of the county, is finally producing four single-varietal cuvées. All are still wines—Pinot Meunier, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, and Bacchus—and all are named in tribute to Ricci’s other career as a racehorse owner. On The Nod and Loose Rein, for instance, both won silver medals at the 2022 WineGB Awards. Visitors can buy a bottle or two and a charcuterie platter from the Cellar Door shop and settle down at a picnic table on the Paddock Lawn with stunning views over the vineyards. Tours are available.
Chapel Down Chapel Down is England’s biggest wine producer, with more than 950 acres under vine. Located just south of Tenterden, the winery offers a variety of tours; the Deluxe Experience starts at £130 and includes a tutored tasting of the estate’s wines and finishes with a three-course lunch and more wine. Chapel Down’s sparkling cuvées have won a host of awards (including 10 WineGB medals this year), but the still wine—in particular, the almost Burgundian Kit’s Coty Chardonnay—most excites connoisseurs.
Westwell WinesWestwell’s estate lies just beneath the Pilgrims’ Way used for centuries by those traveling to Canterbury. Pelegrim, an old word for pilgrim, is the name of one of Westwell’s excellent classic method sparklers, but there is more to this estate than fizz. It also makes a still white from aromatic Ortega grapes—try it at Angela’s in Margate if a pilgrimage to Westwell is impossible—and experiments exuberantly with all the buzzwords of contemporary winemaking: skin contact, amphorae, pét-nats, wild ferments, and even dessert bottles. Tours and tastings can be booked online, and cheese and charcuterie plates are available.
Terlingham VineyardIn 2011, South Africa natives Graham and Lorna Wilks bought the Terlingham estate just north of Folkestone. Since then, they have farmed the grapes organically and their wines—some fizzy, some still—have received plenty of praise from critics, despite being manufactured in tiny amounts. They also produce an award-winning gin that’s laced with a splash of their Bacchus wine. Tours and tastings are run by the couple’s three daughters; there are three spacious, en-suite bedrooms a short walk away.
Gusbourne EstateGusbourne’s range of sparkling wine has garnered more accolades than those of any other English winery; four basic cuvées and a couple of “late disgorged” versions (à la Dom Pérignon). There are some terrific still wines, too, especially the Guinevere Chardonnay, available in magnum. Tours are well organized. Later, take one of Gusbourne’s hampers up to the picnic area at the top of the Boot Hill vineyard, crack open a bottle of Gusbourne Brut Reserve, and munch on local cheeses, charcuterie, and fruit while gazing over Romney Marsh.
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