A few weeks ago I visited Chapel Down (CD), England’s largest wine producer at their winery in Tenterden. Chapel Down produces 2.2M+ bottle of still (45%) and sparkling (55%) wine as well as a mix of other beverages such including a terrific gin, vodka and a range of beers. An already popular brand at the forefront of England’s developing wine industry, I was excited to explore the vine-to-wine magic enabling Chapel Down’s success.
I arrived to peaceful views of the vines at peak autumn foliage – just breathtaking. A tour of the winery, a lesson in their winemaking and a tasting revealed wines which reflect the terroir of the North Downs and the skills of their winemaker—dry, fruit-forward with superb acidity and freshness, and a clean finish. They craft wines with clean, pure flavours and others which are toasty and creamy.
On the Vine
On over 1M+ vines planted on 1000+ acres, CD grows high-quality champagne varietals: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Bacchus, and Pinot Meunier (Chapel Down, PLC, 2019, page 7). They also grow lesser-known varieties – Albariño, Regent, Reichenstein, Rondo and Siegerrebe – used for blending. The latter grow in Tenterden, enjoying sunny exposure in sandy-loam-over-clay soil which retains water and nutrients while still allowing drainage (Robinson, 2015, page 428).
Champagne varietals thrive on their Aylesford sites, where they grow on south-facing slopes benefiting from North Downs’ microclimate and lime-rich chalk soil (Chapel Down, PLC, 2019, page 7). The high stone and flint content draw heat into the ground giving the vine extra protection against frost (Robinson, 2015, page 154).
Known as the “Goldilocks Zone” this area has ideal exposure and soil, and altitude of 40-75m above sea level, providing warm days and cold nights. The effect is slow, reliable ripening of fruit, with enhanced flavour and aromatic compounds in the skin; the perfect conditions for award-winning sparkling wine and the premium Kit’s Cody.
Care of the fruit extends beyond the soil and vines to harvest, as every grape matters. CD harvests just 2-3 tons of fruit/acre, as compared to the 5-6 tons/acre typically harvested in the Champagne region of France. They hand-harvest to ensure gentle handling and optimal selection, and transport grapes to the winery in small batches to minimise loss of juice.
Still White Wines
After harvest, the fruit is gently pressed in bunches with their stems, minimizing extraction and phenolic compounds—the result: a fresh-tasting juice that’s clear or light in colour. Sulphites are added as the liquid collects in the bottom of the press, preventing oxidation, natural fermentation and killing wild yeast.
Once pumped into stainless steel tanks, cultured yeast is added to the pressed juice and fermentation begins. Fermentation continues for three weeks under controlled, cold temperature to retain the grape’s aromatics, followed by malolactic fermentation.
The clean, fresh appearance, aromas and flavours of the Chapel Down Bacchus 2019 and their Tenterden Estate Bacchus 2018 reflect the aforementioned pressing and fermentation processes. Both are dry, edgy whites that are water-white in appearance with silver tinge.
The aromatic Bacchus 2019 has notes of peach and elderflower; it’s clean on the palate with hints of fresh green apple and a lovely texture. They lovingly refer to Bacchus as “England’s answer to Sauvignon Blanc.” The Tenterden Estate Bacchus 2018 has aromas of elderflower and lime and is zesty and mineral on the palate.
Juxtaposed is the further complexity of flavour found in CDs premium Kit’s Cody Chardonnay 2017. Featuring ripe fruit from the south-facing chalk-soil slopes of the North Downs, this pale-lemon, creamy Chardonnay brings aromas of vanilla and toasted almonds. On the palate, it delivers just-the-right hints of brioche and toasty salted-buttered popcorn with slight minerality on the finish.
To achieve this complexity the cuvée juice first ferments on wild yeast and then rests in contact with the lees in small French oak barrels for nine months where malolactic fermentation occurs. The latter provides creaminess, and the flavour profile of the wine reflects contact with lees, French oak and the quality of the juice.
Like the still whites, the Chapel Down Classic Non-Vintage Brut (on sale right now) and Three Graces 2014 are pale in colour. Both have small, consistent bubbles and aromas of fresh bread, crisp green and cooked apples. Although this fizz is made from red grapes, the pale colour and the excellent acidity reflect whole-bunch pressing and initial fermentation in stainless steel, followed by malolactic fermentation. However, their variation in flavour is due to varying time in contact with the lees.
Although light, fresh and fruity – due in part to the addition of Pinot Blanc (which gives it a floral lift) – the Classic NV Brut is dry and delivers notes of citrus and fresh bread. The latter comes from 15+ months of lees contact, six more than required by UK law.
Three Graces 2014, which is unusual as it spent five years on the lees before being released this year, delivers aromas of berries and baked bread with toasted brioche and tropical fruit on the palate; it’s a creamy, complex sparkling which rivals Champagne. (Did I mention I bought a case?!)
A pink twist, the Chapel Down English Rosé 2019, is also dry and edgy with small bubbles. Made from the same blend as the Classic NV Brut, its rose hue comes from brief maceration on the skins. The addition of Rondo and Regent naturally impart a creamy quality to this sparkling, rendering malolactic fermentation unnecessary. Like its white cousins, this Rosé is fruity and shows evidence of time on lees.
My visit to Chapel Down was a wonderful learning experience and I can’t wait to return! Whilst they may be the largest winery in England, the attention to detail from the vine to the bottle is clearly what brings their well-loved signature style to every sip: dry, fruit-forward still and sparkling white wines with fantastic acidity and a clean finish. Buy their wines. Drink their wines. Tell your friends. Visit their website for direct-to-consumer purchases.
Chapel Down, PLC, 2019. Annual Report 2019. [online] Chapel Down, PLC, pp.4-8. Available at: <https://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/0376/8890/1691/files/Annual_Report_2019.pdf?v=1593727930> [Accessed 21 November 2020].
Robinson, J., 2015. The Oxford Companion To Wine. 4Th Rev. Ed. 4th ed. Corby: Oxford University Press, pp.154, 428.