Time to celebrate Kent wine

At the end of this month, the first Wine Garden of England festival takes place.

Here, its brand manager and organizer, Jo Smith, tells James Viner all about this exciting event which will bring together a number of local wineries to toast their success…

You are the Wine Garden of England brand ambassador. How did you get involved in promoting local vineyards?

I had worked in the wine industry in the 90s at the London Wine Trade Fair and after a few decades working various other jobs I returned in 2018. At that point I realized how no English, and especially Kent wine, had come. I went through extensive reviews and started organizing events for Kent winemakers to meet their local customers. All was well until Covid put a stop to it so I started interviewing our local wine producers and talking about Kent wine on BBC Radio Kent. I started to be known as a ‘helpful person’ amongst Kent wine growers, so when the job at Wine Garden of England (WGE) came up I was approached to apply.

Wine Garden of England is made up of eight different wineries – what do you love most about working with them?

My favorite thing about this job is bringing this diverse group of passionate winemakers together to create a cohesive team working towards various goals. It’s great to see everyone’s generosity in sharing ideas, time and support.

Why is it such an exciting time for English wine right now?

England is widely recognized by the trade as the most interesting up-and-coming wine region in the world, and Kent is at the forefront, due to favorable growing conditions. We are hotter and drier than anywhere else, and our soil is either exactly the same as Champagne or a mix of green sand from Tunbridge Wells. Both are fantastic for growing grapes. Our wines typically have a racy acidity that makes your mouth water, pairs perfectly with food, and tastes super fresh. The long ripening season means there are layers of complex flavors that you don’t always see in warmer climates.

So what prompted the Wine Garden of England collective to organize the Summer Festival on May 29 at the iconic Squerryes Court?

The WGE Summer Festival is our opportunity to show off! Seven of our eight producers will be there to offer you numerous tastings of their sparkling and still wines, accompanied by a selection of Kentish cheeses and charcuterie. One of our producers is not ready to show his wine because he only planted in 2017, and it takes years to bring a sparkling wine to market. We are all delighted to be welcomed by the Warde family to their ancestral home, Squerryes Court.

Why did you choose to host the first Wine Garden of England in this particular location?

Squerryes is one of the wine producers among our members, so it makes sense that our first event is actually taking place ‘at home’. Squerryes Court (right) was once open to the public but is now just a family home. The gates are rarely open now and the gardens are beautiful. It’s the perfect place to enjoy award-winning Kent wine, local cuisine, live music and great company.

“England is widely recognized by trade as the most exciting up-and-coming wine region in the world, and Kent is at the forefront of it”

Can you tell us about the running order of the day?

The Festival will take place at Squerryes Court in Westerham from 11.30am on Sunday 29th May. Each guest will receive a free glass to take home, and during the event they can use it to taste lots of wine! Seven of Kent’s finest wine producers will give guests a taste of their award-winning sparkling and still wines and answer questions about their estates. There is a bar serving wines, but also cider and soft drinks. Our Kent food producers include Cheesemakers of Canterbury, North Charcuterie, Simply Ice Cream and Goupie Chocolate. We also have Corban coffee. There’s live jazz all afternoon and we have wine writer and TV presenter Aleesha Hansel meeting all the producers and filming exciting wine pairings. There is a workshop for those who want to learn more about the Anglo-French alliance with Champagne Taittinger.

How important is tourism to the Kent wine trade?

English wine producers need visitors. If you visit a vineyard, you learn what goes into the production of the wine, who is behind it, and how it tastes and why. It’s such a wonderful experience, and people become lifelong ambassadors for these producers. It is considered a very important element in the growth of our industry.

Tunbridge Wells has a thriving hotel scene. Do you have partners who champion WGE member beverages?

Geography Wine Bar in the High Street works closely with us. Fleur and Aubrey have always been keen to discover their local vineyards and their wine list reflects their research. They always have a featured WGE resident wine, and if possible they also host an event with the winemaker. Macknade on the first floor of Hoopers offers an extensive selection of Kent wines. All WGE wines are featured on their shelves, and they often hold tastings to introduce the wines to customers.

English wines are generally more expensive than their European counterparts. Do you think this is justified?

Prices generally reflect quality and rarity. Due to our marginal climate, wine production here is still tiny compared to Europe as our yield is as low as one bottle per vine. In the south of France, it is four times more. With low production comes manual harvesting and complex, high-quality fruit. To me the price is entirely justified but I understand that without the experience of tasting the wine and knowing the vineyard that produced it, a £5 bottle of Prosecco might seem like a better deal. Fortunately, the trend to drink less and focus on quality is enticing consumers to try the wines produced on their doorstep.

What’s your best drink to drink this summer?

Rosé is so popular in warm weather and many people love the Provencal style. But let me encourage you to try a Kentish still Rosé – you will be seduced by its aromas of ripe strawberries and its lively acidity which gives it a tantalizing freshness that I cannot find in French rosés. Try Simpsons Railway Hill Rosé, Discovery Series Rosé from Chapel Down or Nanette’s Rosé from Balfour.

What’s next for the Wine Garden of England program?

We are not going to rest after the Festival! There’s English Wine Week from June 18-26, so don’t miss the many events organized by all our Kent wineries during this week, including the Canterbury Wine Festival on June 25. We will be at Wine Weekend in Maidstone on July 16th, Broadstairs Food and Drink Festival at the end of September and Rochester Festival at the end of October. Follow us on Instagram or subscribe to our email updates to keep up with us.

The Wine Garden of England is a collection of Kent wineries that welcome visitors. It is made up of the following cellars:

Balfour Vineyard at Hush Heath Estate

Staplehurst, TN12 0HT

The rural masterpiece: Stroll through pristine vineyards, delve into the Balfour art collection and relax in the restaurant with stunning views. Guided tours range from a few hours to full days of food and drink.

Biddenden Vineyards

Biddenden, TN27 8DF

The Family Vineyard: Take a self-guided tour of Kent’s oldest vineyard, choose a wine flight from an extensive range of white, red, rose and sparkling wines, and experience the bustle of a working vineyard.

chapel down

Smallhythe, Tenterden, TN30 7NG

The British icon: England’s largest wine producer offers a stunning range of award-winning wines to try, plus a fascinating wine tour through its vineyards and cellar. You can also eat at the famous Swan Restaurant.

Gusbourne

Appledore, TN26 2BE

The Luxury Escape: Take a buggy ride through the slopes that give you stunning sea views on a clear day. You can have a delicious picnic and a bottle of vintage sparkling wine among the vines. A real treat.

Simpsons Wine Estate

Barham, CT4 6PB

The Contemporary Boutique: Take a sunset tour around the beautiful vineyards, then return to the ultra-cool tasting room overlooking the winery to sample award-winning still and sparkling wines.

Squerries

Westerham, TN16 1QP

The ancestral domain: Learn about the history of the estate and the motto “It is permitted to be merry…” You will certainly feel the joy sipping their Blanc de Blancs on the Terrace while enjoying perfectly paired seafood.

Westwell Wine Estate

Ashford, TN27 0BW

The independent label: An exciting, experimental and down-to-earth winery run by veterans of the creative music industry. Tour the vineyards, taste the wine from the vat, and marvel at the artistry that weaves through everything they do.

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