For Christmas Caroline bought me a ‘Deluxe Gift Experience’ at Chapel Down, the UK’s leading winery. I say ‘me’, but it was actually a present for her too since it was a ‘couples’ package. For £490 we got a private tour of the vineyard, a wine--tasting session, dinner for two in the Chapel Down restaurant, an overnight stay at the Sissinghurst Castle B&B and free tickets to visit Sissinghurst gardens the following morning.
We left it a little late to book and the only slot they had available was last weekend, presumably because it clashed with the 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 were busy organising street parties and village fêtes.
The ‘experience’ began with our arrival at the B&B, where we were immediately offered tea and cake by the owner, a former professional chef. The cake looked very tempting indeed – swirls of chocolate icing covered in raspberries – but I was anxious not to incur any additional expense, so declined. In fact, as Caroline later explained, it was all part of the package, at which point I was furious. I would have eaten the whole bloody thing if I’d known.
She had wisely booked a taxi to take us to Chapel Down, because we were both expecting to be three sheets to the wind by the 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 never looked more fecund.
When we arrived in the gift shop the man at the 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, imagining the restaurant would be quite smart, and it was gratifying to have this effort acknowledged. Or perhaps he was just referring to my usual air of entitlement and it wasn’t a compliment at all. Anyway, he turned out to be Ben Woodburn, a 24-year-old American who would be our tour guide.
Chapel Down is impressive. At 700 acres, it’s the largest winery in the UK and in 2018 it produced more wine than any other British producer – about 2.2 million bottles out of a British total of 15.5 million. That may sound like a lot, but Italy, the world’s largest wine producer, pumps out an average of 7.2 billion bottles a year. However, thanks to climate change, it’s a growing industry. According to Ben, the average annual temperature in Kent is exactly what it was in the Champagne region 50 years ago. And sparkling white wine, made using the same method as the posh French 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 was particularly proud of the Bacchus still range, made from a grape that originated 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 tropical fruits and that familiar grassy smell. I preferred the chardonnay, although it wasn’t as buttery as I would have liked. In general, the sparkling wines were better and my advice to anyone unfamiliar with Chapel Down is to stick with the Brut NV.
The tasting concluded with Caroline being encouraged 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, but in fact it’s virtually idiot-proof. All you do is scrape the blade up the bottle along the seam and don’t stop when you come to the lip – the top of the neck 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 scale fell from her eye.
The restaurant was excellent, much better than I was expecting, and we had no complaints about the B&B. After a top notch full English we popped over to Sissinghurst and toured the gardens, in which virtually everything was in full bloom. My only complaint was that the various display boards explaining who Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson were contained several spelling mistakes and syntactical errors – a bit rum considering they were both writers.
No matter, we had a good time and if you’re not busy being a pillar of the local community, I’d recommend this minibreak.