There are so many vineyards in the UK that you could drive yourself to drink in Kent alone. Except you won’t be alone. Even during pandemic times, English sparkling wine is increasingly all growed up and popular, despite detractors. Over the summer, a French sommelier asked me, “Where is English Sparkling Wine going to be sold? There’s only a market in the UK.” There’s always room for success and the best English Sparkling is decidedly and deliciously not champagne. Other countries make distinctive sparkling wines too, it’s not just France. All those “champagne substitutes” remind me of Lily Tomlin’s answer to the question, “Will we have sex after death?” “Yes, we will, but we won’t know it.” There are so many delicious sparkling wines that are not champagne but the only problem is that we don’t know them. What use is that? Granted, if you’re at a party, chatting away (it will happen again someday) you won’t notice what’s in your glass unless it’s total plonk. I once threw a loaded flute over my shoulder in disgust because the champagne in it was terrible (I won’t mention the brand but it starts with M). The person I was talking to turned and walked away in horror. He was drinking a cocktail anyway. I mean, really. This was before kindness became a thing.
Exercise note: repeated pouring of magnums is a vastly underrated upper body workout
This is why you and I need to know about Simpsons in Kent. They have a stainless-steel slide. It juts from the wall of their Glass House Tasting Room down to the winery’s immaculate floor. The ‘fruit chute’ is not even for grapes. It’s for fun. This is why their wines are great – they’re confident enough to still have fun with the risky and serious business of wine. Ruth and Charles Simpson (pictured above) started out and continue on their award-winning southern French estate Domaine de Sainte Rose. That experience means they could enter into the gladiatorial English wine market with a smile on their faces at all times – even with frost and having to reposition their Roman Road vineyard just in case some old Romans were buried nearby. It is that very vineyard which will produce the only still English wine priced at £100. Magnums of the Q Class are all you want for Christmas in 2021. Exercise note: repeated pouring of magnums is a vastly underrated upper body workout.
English sparkling, like you and me, is always striving to be a better version of itself. Sure, everybody likes a bargain but to shop local means to understand the costs and risks. TLDR – don’t be that person who thinks nothing of spending £50 on a middling champagne while criticising things you don’t know about. Try a better bottle. Simpsons 2018 Canterbury Rose (£35), is a luminous, succulent, fruity sparkling with a rich yet refreshing flavour that was so stunning that mid-tasting I actually stopped talking. Like the beautiful cousin whom you secretly hate, everyone will be enraptured with this bottle and ignore you. If that’s too ego-risky, go for Simpsons Chalklands Classic Cuvée 2017 (£28) a blend of chardonnay and pinot noir which, I’ll steal from Sarah Abbott MW, has a “crunchy bright red apple fruit quality”. This is a party in your mouth. Elegant, sophisticated, fresh and sleek, it’s a testament to Simpsons’ impeccable instincts. It also just took gold – in magnum format – at the Champagne and Sparkling Wine World Championships. The Simpsons say this is the best vineyard terroir in the world. In the 1950s Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger’s father twinned Canterbury with Reims when he was mayor of Reims. So, let’s not fight. Kent and Reims can get along. They have the same DNA.
While planning your adoration of the fruit chute at Simpsons, book a room The Pig at Bridge Place. It’s one of those places at which, if someone really loved you, you’d want a weekend as a gift. I walked some of its ten acres of park and water meadows in my Le Chameaux but, craving to be inside near the fire, I strode back sharpish to the main house, a beckoning red brick Grade II listed deity – considered the best in the area – built in 1638 by a friend of Samuel Pepys. Like most old things, it’s had many careers after almost being lost. Restored in the 1960s as a rock ‘n’ roll venue, it was famous enough for Zeppelin and their ilk. Proof is in the posters for rock gods in the downstairs loo.
Robin and Judy Hutson have created a whole string of Pigs all with a local ethos: If The Pig can’t grow what it needs, it’ll source from a 25 mile radius. Judy recently won the Pineapple Award for her design of the latest Pig in Devon and her interiors across the now six venues – seven with an upcoming South Downs entry – are as locally distinctive as the well-priced English sparkling served. Part of the Wine Garden of England which highlights the world-class wine made by seven nearby pioneering vineyards, here you can taste locally made Hush Heath, Gusbourne, Chapel Down and, of course, Simpsons (with a single Special Cuvée Bolly). The Pig style is detailed in an alluring cook- and design book ‘The Pig: Tales and Recipes from the Kitchen Garden and Beyond’, which lays out food, drinks and decor secrets, including their famous tobacco onions. Judy makes intimate hotels which feel large and cosy. Think boutique style with seven rooms in the main building and handful of others in a converted stable out back with old fashioned baths and wood-burning stoves. The Pig at Bridge Place has the vibe of my dearly beloved and endangered Deetjens in Big Sur (sans the spicy guest diaries). The privacy and silence meant even a crying baby didn’t keep us awake. Standing in the sitting room, holding a glass poured from a Simpson magnum, I felt as if I were swanning around in a welcome space, where I could emerge from a shadow to speak but also slip back into it if I’d said something stupid. Now, how did I know that? C