This month we were tasked with coming up with a special day for a group of property developers. The brief was that this was to be a half day activity which served as a celebration for all of their hard work over the past 12 months, as well as having a little team building and fun competitive edge to it.
We got the sense that this was a group of people who by the nature of their work did a bit of travelling, and had a sense of style about them. nnoodl specialises in events in and around London, and we were advised that this activity could take place within a two hour travelling radius of the capital. As with all of our events, we asked every individual to fill out one of our 'About You' short questionnaires so that we were aware of any real likes or dislikes, along with any special dietary requirements. This activity was going to be particularly food and drink focussed so this was an important factor!
As the group were coming from London, we met at Victoria for a train journey of just over an hour into the heart of Kent. The inevitable guesses were happening on the train of where they might be going and what they might be doing, but this journey soon turned into an 'I spy' game where people pointed out towns they knew, or properties they had worked on. It was a fascinating insight for me into how the team work with their clients to produce the full interior package and work on some really interesting properties.
We disembarked at the small station of Headcorn where a few people carriers awaited to whisk us 20 minutes away to......Chapel Down!
This is an award-winning vineyard that produces a world-class range of sparkling and still wines, along with a range of Curious beers and cider. Their sparkling wines are produced using the intricate Traditional Method, the same method as Champagne, where the bubbles occur naturally within the bottle. Interestingly only two of the group of 14 had heard of this little gem of a place, and neither of them had actually been there.
Our first part of the day was for lunch at the onsite restaurant. The Swan has been awarded two AA Rosettes and a Michelin Bib Gourmand, and has such a lovely, welcoming feel to it. We were ushered into a lovely lounge area where we sat on quirky little cork stools as we sipped our glasses of Kit's Coty Blanc de Blancs. It's true what they say about this being exactly like Champagne in everything but name (more on that later...) I was particularly drawn to this venue for it's lovely decor - the outside of this building totally belies what is within and I could see the design conscious group also appreciated it.
We were then seated for lunch which was a three course set menu, and we were in for a treat! The starter was beetroot bavarois, smoked & pickled, hazelnut and mint, served with homemade bread made with their very own Curious IPA. I went for the Union Red Chapel Down wine to accompany my lunch which is a blend of Rondo, Pinot Noir, Regent and Early Pinot Noir. Food and drink both delicious!
Next up was some slow cooked lamb served with seasonal vegetables, which was a sheer delight, the meat really falling apart. Dessert was a poached pear served with cardamon ice cream and a ginger biscuit.
The group were feeling well and truly relaxed by this point, as we were then introduced to our tour guide for the afternoon.
Hazel led us down to the main reception area where we had to don a rather fetching high-vis waistcoat. Apparently this is to ensure that the groups are easily seen by farm vehicles which are usually on the go on this working vineyard. Hazel started by showing us some of the oldest vines in the vineyard and talked us through the background of Chapel Down winery. They make around 1million bottles of wine a year, and are the largest vineyard in England. With the same chalk rock under the soil as the Champagne region, Kent has the perfect conditions for making white and sparkling wine, which is leading French Champagne houses to invest in vineyards in this area.
Apparently it takes about 16 bunches of grapes to make one bottle of wine, and each vine needs about 100 days of growth. Harvest happens around October, and one of our group asked how many people are recruited to pick the grapes. Imagining the answer to be about 100 we were gobsmacked to learn that it is a small, skilled team of only about 8 people!
We then made our way to see where the next stage of the process happens. Once the grapes are picked they go through two pressings to extract the juice. The first press or 'free run' is used for the single variety and sparkling wine. The second pressing gets all the remaining juices out and is used in the blended wine.
Red wine is treated slightly differently – the stems are taken out and the grapes lightly crushed, they go into a tray and are pumped into a huge metal vat with the skins. These skins provide the colour for red wine, not the actual flesh of the grape.
Sulphites are then added to the wine, which kills off the natural yeast and allows the winemakers to add their own, and so control the flavour. White wine has three weeks of fermentation in temperature controlled vats, and the red wine has one week.
As the yeast works it's magic and eats the sugar, it dies off and creates ‘lees’ at the bottom of the bottle. The flavour and bubbles are kept in the bottle using a cap at this point. The traditional way to get rid of the lees was to store the bottles at an angle neck down and turn every day, gradually getting straighter until the lees are down in the top of the neck. Hazel showed us the racks which were used to do this, and then indicated the huge automated cages which are programmed to gradually turn and do this process for them. To get rid of the lees, they freeze just the neck of the bottle and the ice cap comes out when the bottles are uncapped. They are then corked using the traditional corks after being ‘dosed’ with grape concentrate containing natural sugars, which finalises how sweet or dry the wine is. The bottles are then corked and capped with the traditional wire cage and the ribbon, sticker and label added on top.
We then made it back to the centre for our wine tasting, the highly anticipated element of the day!
Grouped around tables, Hazel pointed out the wine tasting chart and talked us through the four stages of tasting. Firstly, check the colour by holding the glass at a 45 degree angle against a white background. White wine gets darker with age, whilst red wine loses it’s colour as it ages. Next to check is the aroma –swirl the wine around the glass and get your nose in for a big sniff. Then it was time for a taste –Hazel highlighted the various areas in your mouth and how they detected different elements to the taste, from the tingling in your cheeks indicating tartness, the front or your tongue for sweetness and the warm feeling in your throat being the alcohol. It is then important to see what lingers in your mouth after swallowing the wine (or spitting it out, which funnily enough no-one seemed to be doing!). This is called the finish.
The first wine we tried was a white Lamberhurst Bacchus from 2017. This was very pale in colour, confirming it's age. It was highly aromatic, crisp and dry with flavours of gooseberry, pineapple and guava, with a hint of elderflower. I quite like a white wine, but tend to usually veer towards a fuller bodied one. The next one we tried was Kit's Coty Bacchus from 2016. Apparently this was a very warm, sunny and dry season and so the fruit produced was a very high quality. Hazel explained that the Bacchus grapes were whole-bunch pressed before wild fermentation in 3rd and 4th fill barrels where the wine stayed for 9 months. This wine had an even more intense flavour of tropical fruits, with an oaky background. The third white was a Chardonnay from 2014, and here we could really start to see the depth of colour reflecting it's age. This was a classic style of unoaked Chardonnay, grown on chalk of the North Kent Downs, with aromas of apple, white peach and kiwi fruit. This was much more my style of white wine!
Next we were onto some sparkling wine and the group were definitely in celebratory mode. They had been testing each other to see if they could guess the wines from the list in front of us and spirits were high. This one was slightly easier to guess as it was a sparkling rose, only one of two which Chapel Down produce. We were treated to the Rose Brut Pinot Noir, a lovely crisp and fresh wine with aromas of strawberries and redcurrants with background notes of toasty shortbread. It is particularly special as it was poured at William and Kate's wedding in 2011 and was also the first English wine to be served at Ascot Racecourse. There was time for one more white sparkling wine, the Kit's Coty Blanc de Blancs 2014, a lovely sparkling chardonnay, before we moved onto the red wines.
By this point the chatter and laughter was lifting by the minute and poor Hazel was having to project her voice big time to be heard. It was great to see everyone having such a great time though!
I was particularly keen to hear more about their red wines, as the climate in the UK doesn't typically lend itself to producing this style. The first we tried was a 2015 Pinot Noir, which had the typical aromas of blackberry and plum and a hint of leather. It was a very smooth, easy to drink wine. We then finished off with the red which I had tasted over lunch, the Union Red from 2017. Again the summer of 2016 had contributed to perfect conditions to produce high quality fruit. This wine was a blend of Rondo, Pinot Noir and early Pinot Noir with aromas of cherries, blackcurrants and black pepper. This was definitely the wine for me!
As we left Chapel Down the group were delighted to be given a goody bag containing a bottle of classic non vintage brut sparkling wine and a box of sparkling wine truffles. I won't say how many didn't make it to the end of the train journey home...
There was wonderful feedback all round from this little celebratory adventure which I was delighted to organise for such a lovely group of people.
So remember, if you are looking for a group activity with a difference and would like someone else to take the organising on board, do get in touch and we would be delighted to have a chat with you to come up with something suitably surprising and special! Just drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org