Photo: Owner Christen Monge (left) and wine maker Owen Elias
SET in a beautiful valley between the River Medway and the puffing splendour of the Bluebell Railway, a visit to the 160 acre Kingscote Vineyards is like taking a step back in time.
The site, which was once part of the Gravetye estate, is overlooked by Mill Place Farm, a converted 14 century stone master’s house which is now home to owners Christen and Alison Monge and their four children.
Completing the impossibly picturesque scene – which includes two lily-covered fishing lakes and what surely must be a wooden Hobbit house by the jetty – is a 700-year-old oak-beamed barn which will soon be home to the vineyard’s new Aga-sponsored cookery school.
Opening on to a stone terrace overlooking a newly-built oak bridge crying out for a game of Pooh Sticks, the barn has space for up to a 100 guests for wine tastings, food demonstrations and exhibitions. And Christen is working on plans for a pop-up Sunday lunch restaurant where guest celebrity chefs – including Master Chef winner Peter Bayliss – can show off their unique talents.
Hidden half a mile down a quiet track from Vowells Lane, between East Grinstead and Turners Hill, Kingscote is also a world away from Christen’s former job as a London high-flyer in communications and branding for companies like Unilever and Coca Cola.
He bought the valley 15 years ago with no very fixed idea in mind, except that the land would have to pay its way and support his growing family.
He considered – and rejected – the idea of growing lavender and developed the fishing lakes and other outdoor activities including hawking, fly-fishing and clay pigeon shooting.
But seven years ago Christen was approached by a neighbour who asked if he could buy some of his land to grow the ‘classic triumvirate’ of grapes that go into making Champagne.
He didn’t want to sell – but he was intrigued by the idea of establishing a vineyard.
“The land in the Kingscote valley is exactly the same as it is in the Champagne region – it just dives under the Channel and comes up again here,” said Christen.
With England’s summers now a crucial two degrees warmer than they were, the growing conditions at Kingscote are also perfect for the production of fine wine – while French growers are starting to struggle with a climate which is now two degrees too hot.
“Wine making is all about the tortured grape,” he laughed. “It is the struggle to grow which gives grapes their depth and flavour – but in France they are just struggling.”
So the idea – and eventually the vines – were planted, and after two years research and planning Christen began the five year haul from vine to wine.
“I think it appealed to me because producing wine is a complete project from growing and making it, to branding it and bringing it to market.”
If he didn’t know much about the first two, Christen certainly knew all about the second.
And other growers across the south of England were generous with their help and advice – including the multi-award-winning wine-maker Owen Elias.
Formerly of Chapel Down in Kent – and in Christen’s words, ‘the man who has put English wine where it is today’ – Owen is now Kingscote’s executive wine-maker.
For the past two years, while their own vines have been establishing themselves, Kingscote has been buying-in its grapes from other local growers and turning them into wine in pressure-controlled stainless steel vats like giant washing machines.
But this October they will harvest the first-ever commercial crop of their own grapes and turn them into an estimated 12,000 bottles of fine sparkling wine.
Christen also produces an award-winning double-fermented sparkling apple cider from the 20 varieties of apples he grows on his two acres of orchards.
By next April his vineyard will be firmly on the tourist trail offering visitors wine-tastings, cookery lessons with Jethro Carr of the Kitchen Academy, a shop and visitors centre, plus a host of outdoor country pursuits.
But right now, as the hawks circle lazily overhead, and the grapes are fattening in the summer sun, Christen is looking forward to October and Kingcote’s first home-grown harvest.
Anyone for Pooh sticks?
Christen Monge who established the estate
The 13th century stone masters house
The Hobbit house by the lake
Photos: Barney Durrant