Rows of vines melt away under blue skies. At the summit sits a black clapper-boarded barn, its rickety stairs leading up to an olive tree-lined terrace. Climb the steps and there are panoramic views over manicured green lawns and herb garden, a patchwork quilt of fields stretching beyond.
So far, so Mediterranean. Yet the long-established Chapel Down vineyard and winery is only about an hour’s drive from London, in the rolling hills of the Kentish Weald. As it’s early April, the vines are bare, but that aside, it really could be Tuscany. And it’s here that the award-winning wine (and this is serious plonk all the way) is made, not only from grapes grown onsite, but in Aylesford and all across the South-East.
It soon clouds over and – with the wine tastings all booked up – we leave the terrace to eat at the adjoining Swan restaurant, housed in the barn. One of a small chain (there’s another at the Globe theatre on the South Bank), it’s an attractive, airy space which fuses rustic with industrial: candles flicker in daylight, huge vases of flowers perch on wooden tables, an open kitchen is glimpsed behind velvet drapes.
The food is mostly good. We enjoy a starter of rare beef – a little fridge-cold, to be honest – before a crispy-skinned cod with kale and cauliflower. A buttery soft whole plaice is flanked with purple-sprouting broccoli and capers. But best of all? Tender scallops winningly paired with a crispy chicken wing and celeriac. A grapefruit pannacotta with chocolate “soil” is intriguing, too.
In the spirit of the place, we knock back several of their wines, guided by the sommelier’s careful advice. Ten years ago I took a guided tour round the winery and the enthusiastic host explained that they were about to start planting Pinot Noir grapes, so it’s exciting finally to taste the wine: light and versatile, it matches both meat and scallops. Even better is a creamily dry sparkling rosé, also made with the grape. Definitely our top tip.