From Grape to Grain

Posted: Friday 13th September 2019

Chapel Down’s expansion, from winemaking into brewing and now distillation at Gin Works, is part of a delicious trend, writes Aimee Hartley

Rural England — with her rolling hills, green meadows, fields of corn and apple orchards, to name but a few — have been a celebrated part of the English landscape for as long as history can remember. Vines however, are more of a modern, agricultural reality, and one that a bevy of English producers — from small, innovative winemakers such as Adrian Pike of Westwell and Ben Walgate of Tillingham, to family operations such as Rideview and Trevibban Mill, and more developed brands such as Chapel Down —have been quietly starting a conversation about quality and diversity when in comes to this relatively new, English tipple.

Chapel Down Building, King's Cross, London

Chapel Down, situated on the banks of Regent’s Canal, King’s Cross

But growth and ambition for Chapel Down doesn’t just start and stop with wine. In 2011, they branched into making beer and cider, under the guise of the Curious Brewery, and at the end of 2018, they took on the unusual, circular building that sits on the canal on Goods Way in King’s Cross — a petrol station, restaurant and show home in its previous lives — as the new home of their distillery, Gin Works. Here, locals and visitors a-like can pop in for a refreshing gin and tonic (the house serve arrives icy cold, with Chapel Down bacchus gin, dried grapefruit, juniper berries and rosemary tonic from London Essence), or a glass of their house wine — a white wine made from the bacchus grape, not dissimilar in character and profile to the elderflower-driven sauvignon blanc’s of New Zealand.

Chapel Down, Gin, Vodka, Cocktails, King's Cross, London

Chapel Down Gin & Vodka

Whilst it might seem like an unusual decision for a wine producer to turn their hand to distilling, everything for Chapel Down comes back to the celebration of the humble grape. Their two gins — one made with bacchus, the other pinkish in colour and made with pinot noir — undergo a special process, whereby grape skins are added to the still after the first distillation to give them wine-inspired aromatics. The pinot noir gin is especially delicious, full of bright, red berries and rose petal characteristics, and even their vodka made with chardonnay grapes is, in its purest form, like sipping on a punchier version of a cream soda. All of the grapes used in these spirits come straight from the source too — Chapel Down’s glorious vineyards in Kent.

Chapel Down Drinks, King's Cross, London

Pinot noir gin & blackberry spritz cocktail (front right) 

Defying tradition once more, instead of a master distiller, as tradition might have otherwise had it, it is head winemaker Josh Donaghay – Spire that crafts all three of their spirits. This idea of ‘terroir’ — typically a wine term that defines the vines geological and geographical environment — is something that Chapel Down are keen to translate in their spirits too. Even their lager, part of the Curious Brewer family, is re-fermented with Champagne yeast to give it the toasty-like aromatics of a sparkling wine. These liquid bedfellows seem rather seamlessly to work side by side, in an experimental but harmonious way and with the same philosophy at their heart. Considering the fact that gin production dates back to the 17th century in England — compared to winemaking in England, a relatively new construct at only 30 years old — its refreshing to see how Chapel Down have somewhat flipped the idea of old and new, rather cleverly, on it’s head.

Copper Still, Chapel Down, King's Cross, London

Chapel Down Copper Still

Handily, for those eager to learn more, the new King’s Cross outpost offers a variety of masterclasses to help wine and gin fanatics get to the grape and grain of it. Whilst the spirits tasting (£15) offers a brief introduction to gin, Chapel Down and a taste of all three spirits, the wine tasting (£30) offers drinkers the opportunity to taste and chat through the making of five of their vinous creations, from fizz through to their still wines. For those that want to take it a step further and get into the nitty gritty of making their own gin, the Gin Works Experience (£95 for one person or £175 for two) is the full shebang. This takes place in the small, but perfectly formed room that houses their beautiful copper still, Helga. Guests are given a brief overview of the gin-making process, and a variety of botanicals to experiment with and distill their own gin onsite, to then take home with them for posterity.

Chapel Down, Roast meal, King's Cross

Food pairings at Chapel Down

The kitchen and the bar work closely together to make sure that the food always compliments the drinks offering too — a novel and clever idea, especially considering that historically its tended to work the other way around. A generous splash of Chapel Down’s chardonnay goes into the cockles dish, whilst a little gin goes into their Welsh rarebit, and a generous slug of IPA from their Curious Brewing range is used to make a dreamy batter for their fish and chips. The space— over three, light-filled floors — is beautifully designed too, and was imagined by RIBA award-winning practice, Guy Holloway Architects — who also happened to have designed the Curious Brewery in Ashford, Kent.

Curious Apple, Chapel Down, King's Cross. London

Curious Apple with Rubens by Chapel Down

What is interesting about Chapel Down, as a brand and a destination in both Kent and London, is that they haven’t been afraid to diversify, and are doing so mindfully. An increasing amount of English wineries have also started to branch into making other drinks with a grape-first philosophy — Bolney Estate now make a gin, Foxhole, from the leftover grapes and waste-products of winemaking, whilst Tillingham’s unique Cyder’s are made in old Georgian Qvervi (clay pots) from old, heritage apple varieties.

Chapel Down Building, King's Cross, London

Chapel Down, King’s Cross

These ambidextrous producers are also championing and bolstering English and Welsh wine tourism, which is booming — the UK is now home to over 500 commercial vineyards, and just under 170 working wineries, many of whom are opening their cellar doors to visitors for tours, food and lodging, and adding a much needed experiential angle to wine. King’s Cross not only boasts a cluster of vinous and spirited destinations beyond Chapel Down’s Gin Works, such as The Drop, Spiritland and Vinoteca, but St Pancras is also the gateway to the Kentish wine country. So, what are you waiting for Dorothy? Put on your red wellies and get ready to explore.

This article first appeared in the Autumn 2019 edition of King’s Cross Quarterly magazine. Read more about the people and stories that make King’s Cross, or find out where you can pick up the latest copy of King’s Cross Quarterly below.

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