Rediscovering the vine in Kent – English wine

London is far north, north of Calgary or Quebec City, north of Seattle, north of Bismark, North Dakota. And, being so far north, one might not expect to find viable vineyards within an hour’s drive. But, they are here, and they are producing some interesting English wine.

In search of the vine

Ortega grape vine and a trellis support

Ortega grape vine and a trellis support

Since moving to London from Paris, I’ve felt a sense of loss about my foregone Saturday jaunts down to the Loire River wineries and dairies. And, today, I decided to correct this gap in my current lifestyle. So, off I went to Kent County, which lies south-east of London.

The countryside of Kent is quite lush and the agricultural history is long. The climate is relatively mild and with global warming is expected to heat up, especially in summer (a matter the Kent Council has reported on).

Biddenden Vineyards

A number of wineries have sprung up and among the first was Biddenden Vineyards. Established in 1969, Biddenden has grown to cover 23 acres (9 hectares). Most of the varieties – well adapted to the northern clime – were new to me, including Bacchus, Ortega, Dornfelder, Huxelrebe, Scheurebe and Reichensteiner. Though, there were also some more familiar plantings of Pinot noir, Gewuertztraminer and Gamay to be seen.

Newly leafed out vinesThis far north, the wines are relatively low in alcohol (most were 10% to 12%) and deliver a refreshing taste of fruit.  My favourites included the Gribble Bridge Sparkling White, which has fresh fruit and a bit of complexity, and the Gribble Bridge Dornfelder, which is a light red and well-suited to a summer evening out on a patio. Without oak, the flavour of the grape really seems to come through clearly in the tasting.

The vineyard shop also has a selection of local cheeses, including goat, cow, and sheep. I loaded up on several nice organic cheeses, including a couple that are unpasteurised.

Reconnecting to the vine

Meadow on Gribble Bridge LaneBiddenden has a nice trail through the vineyards and along the Gribble Bridge Lane. Walking along on this mid-spring day, I could feel radiant heat from the sun. The new vine leaves were soaking it in. Birds were singing in the hedgerows and meadows. Wildflowers were blooming along the lane. I could hear a local donkey braying, but no traffic. The lovely, green, rolling Kent countryside extended out as far as I could see. It was glorious. I felt as if I had rediscovered something that I had lost, a connection to the vine.


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Hiking Along The Loire at Muides


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Southbound to the Loire River I awoke to the prospect of a gorgeous day this morning and resolved to get out into nature. It is harvest season and a great time to head off on a day trip to the … Continue reading

Silver Spring, Wine and Peace

A stroll around Silver Spring

In 1984, we moved to Silver Spring, Maryland, settling into an apartment right up against the boundary line with Washington, DC. Recently, I had an occasion to visit again and took the opportunity to set out on a walking tour around our old haunts in the downtown.

Silly springs?

Our home was right around the corner from the site for which the town was named: the Silver Spring. Although the town is often called Silver Springs (and, on rare occasions, even “Silly Springs”), its actual name refers to a singular spring. The spring still exists on the edge of town in a small patch of green called Acorn Park. The poor spring struggles on, forlorn and neglected, producing just a tiny bit of humidity. In the decades since we moved away, developments and paving all around have cut off the replenishment of its aquifer and nowadays the Silver Spring is nearly dry.

The Silver Spring

The Silver Spring

According to the historical marker on the site, the spring was discovered in 1840 by Francis Preston Blair and daughter Elizabeth while touring the woods on horseback. They saw sunlight reflecting on mica sand in what turned out to be the spring and named it accordingly.

Wine and peace?

Silver Spring has been transformed in the years since we lived there. Downtown has been rebuilt with new housing, shops and commercial activity all around. On a recent Sunday part of the downtown was blocked off, vendors were selling food and kids were running around in a fountain that sprays water up from holes in the plaza pavement. Funky music played via a PA system and the atmosphere was festive.

Further on I came to an area where there has been an influx of Ethiopians. Although it is near downtown, parts of it have some resemblance to Addis Ababa with signs in Amharic and passersby conversing fluently in the language. Ethiopian flags, coffee and food are all around. The Addis Ababa Restaurant on Fenton Street has a good reputation. However, on my visit this weekend, I had another destination in mind.

I continued my walking tour of our old neighborhood and, based on a recommendation from local friends, wound up in the Adega Wine Cellar and Cafe. The cafe serves up some interesting sandwiches and I had quite a decent crabcake. As it was a hot and humid day, I parked myself at a table in the air conditioning to sketch and enjoy a glass of Koina Riesling. I received a generous pour and savored the cool, refreshing wine, which had a nice acidity, with a hint of citrus and sweetness on my palate.

The Velvet Devil and a few other selections at the wine shop

The Velvet Devil and a few other selections at the wine shop

While sketching, I was intrigued by the wine selection on the shelves around me, including a bottle labelled The Velvet Devil (which I placed on my agenda to try on a future visit). Although the shop is not particularly large, Adega’s has an interesting range of wines with selections that appear to offer good values from key wine regions around the world.

On a lazy Sunday afternoon, Adega’s turns into a kind of wine bar as folks come in for a glass and conversation. Next to me sat a few young Frenchmen quaffing a bottle of a big red. I enjoyed hearing their banter blend with the Spanish, English and Chinese being spoken by some others around. It seemed that although these folks were quite diverse, they would all agree on at least thing: a cool glass of wine on a hot day was a splendid idea.

Stop Sign - Takoma Park, MD
Stop Sign – Takoma Park, MD

Setting out to continue my walk, I had a feeling that perhaps there was some hope after all for most folks around this world to get along, at least as long as the supply of Koina Riesling and big red wines holds out. As I headed back to my friends’ home in Takoma Park, a stop sign gave me some further advice for helping along the cause of peace: STOP EVIL. Makes sense to me!

 Map of Silver Spring

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Champagne in and around Epernay

A recent weekend found us out on a quest to find the ideal champagne in and around Epernay. Our objective was to find bottles with contents having the right balance of top quality, dryness, affordability and tradition.

Thus, we set out for the town of Epernay, an important hub in the Champagne region located about 2 hours or less from Paris. A small city, it is easy to get around with nice pedestrian zones and an awe-inspiring collection of world-class champagne houses. I find Epernay more manageable than Reims, which is a much larger place with more of an urban feel. Three wineries really stood out to me:

  • Moet et Chandon, founded in 1743, is at the base of the prestigious Avenue de Champagne in Epernay. It still occupies some of the original buildings and is an elegant place with a great tour of the wine cellars. There are roughly 17km (10+ miles) of tunnels carved into the soft limestone rock under the facility, which keeps the wine cool and at a constant temperature year round. Just right for aging! Among other quality wines, Moet et Chandon produces a fine dry (brut) champagne under their “imperial” brand, as well as the famous and very pricey Dom Perignon (from a separate winery).
  • Alfred Gratien is a smaller house, with a long tradition and a third generation wine-maker in place. Gradually upgrading technologically (thanks to foreign investment), this house is still maintaining traditions like oak barrel aging of the wine as part of the vinification process. Their brut classique is a dry champagne, a fine balance of price and quality! I also like their blanc de blancs, which is made only from white grapes (Chardonnay) and has a fresh and fruity nose. Although a small house, they are exporting increasing volumes to the USA.
  • A short drive from Epernay is the Mailly winery, which offers a variety of champagne from top growing areas (grand crus). Their brut reserve is a great value and I would highly recommend it. For a splurge, I was very much intrigued by their Echansons champagne, which has a wonderful nose with almonds, citrus and other fruit, and even a hint of vanilla and bread when first opened. From a weekend in Epernay and Reims, and half a dozen tastings, I found Mailly to be tops for my pallet.

This quest was complemented by some very nice meals along the way. One can eat very well in Champagne! (For a very special occasion, I’d recommend Le Grand Cerf, which is a bit pricey, but of excellent quality!)

And, though there are towns named “Bouzy” and “Dizy”, the Champagne region is not just about drink and food. The countryside is beautiful! There are some great hikes and strolls to be had in and around the vineyards, as well as lots of history from Roman times to the two world wars and beyond. A nice outing, not far away from Epernay, is the historic village of Hautvillers. We stopped there to pay homage in the Abbey church where the original Dom Perignon — a Benedictine monk who developed an improved champagne method — was laid to rest in 1715. (Upon realising his discovery, he is said to have exclaimed, “Come quickly, I am drinking the stars.”, but that is probably apocryphal. )

Whether you have an opportunity to visit or simply a chance to have a glass of champagne, Epernay and its environs have something to offer for you!

Map of Epernay (Problems viewing the map? Then click here)


Alfred Bergere Winery in Epernay