To get himself in shape for the forthcoming Spectator St. George’s Day trip to Chapel Down Winery in Kent, Jonathan Ray spends a weekend in the wine-lands of Sussex and Surrey.
It’s one of life’s greatest pleasures, taking one’s car across the Channel and pootling about Champagne, say, or the Loire Valley or Alsace, Burgundy, Bordeaux or even down to the Rhône. You know the form. You toss a coin to choose the day’s designated driver and then simply lurch from winery to winery, cellar door to cellar door, restaurant to restaurant. In no time at all you’re delightfully squiffy, your shirt buttons are popping and the car boot is full of clanking bottles. Bliss!
But with all this talk of Brexit or no Brexit, when it comes to wine, I vote let’s bleeding well Brexit. We’ve hundreds of vineyards of our own in the UK these days (over 500 in fact), not to mention plenty of fine watering holes and places to stay. And since it takes far less effort to be a wine tourist in Sussex and Surrey than it does in Saumur or Saint-Emilion and is just as much fun (added to which we jolly well ought to support our own winemakers), I say who needs Europe?
I live in Brighton and last weekend – just to prove my point – I took my wife Marina and our two protesting sons (12 and 14) on a wine ‘n’ food weekend. No sniggers please, but we started our gourmet tour in Worthing. We in Brighton are rather snooty about Worthing and it takes a lot to drag us there. But now that I’ve discovered the fabulous Crab Shack, which everyone in Brighton is talking about, I’ve a feeling I’ll be swallowing my pride and heading Worthing-wards a bit more often. It’s a splendid spot, right on the front, and we had a wonderfully fortifying fish and seafood lunch (see fact box below) during which Mrs R had rather more than her fair share of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. She declared it to be top notch and fell fast asleep the minute she got in the car, proving herself to be an utterly hopeless navigator.
Then, after a couple of wrong turns, it was off to Chichester for a quick squint at the John Piper exhibition at the Pallant House Gallery and then south to Sidlesham and the Crab & Lobster on the very edge of Pagham Harbour. We had a two hour leg-stretching walk around the marshes and therefore fully deserved our fine four course dinner, taking full advantage of the C & L’s commendable list of thirty wines by the glass.
We slept like tops in the adjoining Crab Cottage, but woke early to a deafening dawn chorus – not something we townies hear very often. A belt-busting cooked breakfast – everything locally sourced and utterly delicious – and it was off to our first winery of the weekend, Tinwood Estate near Goodwood.
Tinwood sits on the Chichester Plain and, as co-owner/viticulturalist Art Tukker told me, is blessed with probably the greatest number of sunshine days in the UK. Apparently, the Isle of Wight acts as a windbreak and prevailing weather systems are split upon reaching it, so Tinwood and its surrounds are remarkably well protected from the elements. The Champagne-similar soil is also perfect for vines.
Art’s father, who bought the land, used to grow iceberg lettuces here until he got the wine bug and planted grapes in 2007. They now have 75 acres of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier and we had a fascinating tasting of the Tinwood range of sparklers, sitting in the early spring sun on the deck outside the cellar door. It was hard to believe that we were in West Sussex and not in the Côte d’Or.
We bought a few bottles as well as some honey (they have their own beehives) and then headed through rolling green hills and woodland past Petworth House to Lodsworth and a very decent lunch at the Halfway Bridge. We popped into Upperton Vineyard to pick up a few more bottles and then made for Pulborough. Time was short and so we had to decide whether to drop in on Nyetimber (they’re rather snooty, it seems, and don’t like visitors) or Ambriel (where they’re very much the opposite of snooty and love visitors). We plumped for Ambriel and had a quick cuppa with owners Charles and Wendy Outhwaite, bought some of their delectable Ambriel English Reserve – as fine a sparkling demi-sec as I’ve ever had – and headed east along the A272 towards East Grinstead.
We ducked into Bolney Wine Estate just before we joined the M23 and picked up some of their light, fruity and disarmingly drinkable Pinot Noir. Then it was off to Gravetye Manor. Our boys had hitherto been rather bored and grumpy and understandably so, since wine is hardly their thing. But they brightened up at Gravetye, bounced around on their beds in our really rather fancy suite and then dashed off to explore the gardens and wind each other up over a game of croquet.
Mrs R and I, though, made straight for the bar and drank deep of barman Cosmin’s fabled cocktails (the Cosminopolitan (see what he did there?) and the Rhubarbtini being our absolute favourites). Our boys decided to avail themselves of room service and some Michelin-starred sandwiches, largely so that they could spend yet more time on their iPads, whilst their parents tucked into braised pig’s cheek with celeriac and truffle risotto, roast pigeon and char-grilled rump of veal, again taking full advantage of a hearteningly long list of wines by the glass (available in three sizes).
Next morning, we had a quick walk around the famous Gravetye gardens and a lightning trip to neighbouring Kingscote Estate to gawp at its 15th century tithe barn and stock up on some bottles of their Fat Fumé – a deliciously, unmistakably English wine made from lightly-oaked Bacchus.
Then a forty minute drive to Dorking to visit Denbies, the largest vineyard in the UK by far. The estate is currently celebrating its 30th anniversary and there’s no doubt that it’s the leader when it comes to wine tourism. We watched their movie, did their tour, tasted their wines and had a fine Sunday lunch in their Gallery restaurant. The pick of the meal was a baked Alaska (I’ve not had one of those in a while) matched with a glass of Denbies Noble Harvest botrytis dessert wine – lusciously sweet but light and delicate too and only 10%vol. Delicious.
Then home to Brighton via Ridgeview, one of my favourite English sparkling wine producers. Of course, it being Sunday and it being England it was shut. As my wife kept saying, I should have checked.
But… we’d had a hoot of a weekend, eating and drinking just about us much fine food as we possibly could. And in our boot, having visited seven wineries (albeit one closed), we had over a case of world class – and I mean world class – wines: white, pink and sweet sparkling wines; white, pink, red and sweet still wines. Oh, and a jar of honey.
Places to Eat and Drink
The Crab Shack
The Crab Shack opened barely a year ago and finally gives one a reason to visit Worthing. It’s slap bang on the sea front and is an absolute delight. You can sit outside if it’s sunny, or otherwise at wooden tables inside the tiny driftwood-pannelled, shack-like single room. The entire menu changes daily depending on what the morning catch has delivered, but expect to eat homemade crab cakes, crispy squid, cockle popcorn, local lobster, Sussex smokies, butterflied sardines on toast and the finest fish stew I’ve ever had.
The Horse Guards Inn
The Horse Guards Inn in Tillington, a mile or so west of Petworth on the A272, stands opposite the celebrated church of All Hallows with its striking Scots crown tower (as famously painted by Messrs Turner and Constable). The shabby-Boho-chic interior and garden might look like a set for a Laura Ashley advert, but the grub, vino and service are spot-on. Starters such as pigeon, pork and chicken liver terrine and cream of white onion and barley soup are followed by soy and tamarind braised Hampshire water buffalo and Upperton hogget loin. The marvellously quirky wine list includes such favourites of mine as Alois Lageder’s Gewurztraminer from the Alto Adige, Newton Johnson’s ‘Resonance’ Sauvignon/Semillon and Journey’s End ‘Cape Doctor’ Cabernet Sauvignon, both from South Africa, as well as several local wines. There are three en-suite rooms for those who wish to stay.
The Halfway Bridge
Drive a little further west along the A272, just past Upperton Vineyard, and you come across Lodsworth and the Halfway Bridge pub/restaurant. Although a touch more staid than the Horse Guards Inn, the food is very decent indeed and includes gammon hock and chicken terrine; devilled lamb’s kidneys on the pub’s own-baked wholemeal toast; pork cheeks with honey and sage and breast of duck with sweet roasted parsnip. The pub part of the building offers simpler fare, with all ingredients locally sourced. There are over fifty wines on the list with more than twenty available by the glass, and the excellent house fizz is made less than a mile away at Upperton Vineyard. The beers come from the Lodsworth’s very own Langham micro-brewery next door. There are also six en-suite rooms and a suite in the former stableyard.
Places to Stay
The Crab & Lobster
The Crab & Lobster, a 16th century former smugglers’ inn, lies on the edge of Pagham Harbour in the village of Sidlesham. Its situation is idyllic and old black and white photos in the pub (actually more a restaurant with rooms) show that the surroundings have barely changed in well over a century. The marshes of the harbour provide excellent bird-watching and walking while the Crab & Lobster provides excellent food with some pretty spiffing wines to match, with over 30 on offer by the glass (125ml and 175ml) or by the 500ml carafe. Prices range from £17.95 for a bottle of 2013 Pieno Sud Bianco from Sicily to £195 for a magnum of 2007 Ch. Lascombes. Enjoy them alongside gin-cured salmon with gin-infused water melon; homemade pasta and ricotta or breast and confit leg of duck with cassoulet. There are several en-suite rooms, as well as the beautifully redecorated and refurbished self-catering Crab Cottage which adjoins the pub, complete with one twin and one double room, ideal for those visiting Chichester Festival Theatre or Glorious Goodwood.
Gravetye Manor, near East Grinstead, has just won its first Michelin star, hot on the heels of it being named Hotel of the Year at the Catey Awards in 2015 and Countryside Hotel of the Year at the Condé Nast/Johansens Awards in 2014. It’s a very fine spot indeed, tucked away at the end of a mile long drive surrounded by 1000 acres of wooded parkland created by William Robinson in the depths of West Sussex. The manor was first built in 1598 and has been run as a hotel since the 1960s and owned by Jeremy and Elizabeth Hosking since 2010. The gardens are world famous – the walled oval kitchen garden is especially striking – and the food is finally getting the acclaim it deserves. There are 17 wood-panelled bedrooms and suites at Gravetye and several elegant drawing rooms and dining rooms complete with roaring logs fires in winter. In summer, there’s nothing nicer than grabbing a cocktail from their particularly well-stocked bar and heading straight into the garden for a gentle game of croquet or simply for a sit down and a ponder.
South Lodge is a vast, ugly/handsome hotel at Lower Beeding, just four miles from the National Trust gardens of Nymans. With 90 rooms and suites it’s not what you might call boutique but it’s extremely comfortable and it’s impossible not to feel pampered and content in its embrace. There are two restaurants, the 3 AA Rosette Camellia and the Michelin-starred Matt Gillan at the Pass (a sort of chef’s table affair where you see everything cooked in front of you) as well as the excellent Cellar, where a changing selection of 16 wines (out of a possible 300) are available each day by the glass. You can also book private tasting sessions here with head sommelier Dominic Roberts. For those who need to work off an excess of food and wine there is a gym as well as two golf courses at Manning Heath Golf Course, less than five minutes’ drive away.
Wineries to Visit
Tinwood Estate on the Chichester Plain, overlooking Boxgrove Priory, remains under the radar for most of us partly because a large proportion of its fruit goes into the wines of Ridgeview and partly because – thanks to tiny production – it’s extremely hard to track down a stockist. The Goodwood Estate is Tinwood’s biggest customer although its wines can also be found in the finer bars and restaurants in and around Chichester (including the aforementioned Crab & Lobster). The three sparkling wines in Tinwood’s range are absolutely first-rate, really fine, made from the classic Champagne varieties of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. And the vineyard is a wonderful place to visit, completely geared up for tours and tastings. There are also three brand new lodges in which to stay among the vines, with a viewing platform on which to enjoy a chilled glass of fizz as you watch the sun go down.
The wines of Ambriel (the brand name of Redfold Vineyards near Pulborough) are, quite simply, stunning. There are four in the range: the Classic Cuvée, the Blanc de Noirs, the English Rosé and the English Reserve Demi-Sec, a stupendous sweet sparkler, perfect for late spring/early summer evenings in the garden. Only fruit grown on the estate (first planted in 2008) goes into Ambriel’s wines and they make around 60,000 bottles a year. Tastings and tours are by appointment only – not because Charles and Wendy Outhwaite are stand-offish, far from it, you’ll get the warmest of welcomes – but because they and the winemaker might otherwise be busy about the vineyard. You are welcome, though, simply to pitch up and buy some bottles at the cellar door and to enjoy the striking views from the winery across to Chanctonbury Ring and the South Downs.
When you visit Denbies near Dorking, you have to pinch yourself to remember that you’re in Surrey and not in the Napa Valley or Margaret River. The winery-cum-visitor centre is vast, looming proudly over the largest vineyard in the UK, all 265 acres of it, home to 18 different grape varieties. Vines stretch as far as the eye can see. And Denbies has wine tourism down to a fine art. There are seven miles of footpaths through the vines on which to wander or cycle; there are indoor tours, outdoor tours and a cinema in which to watch a half hour film on Denbies and English winemaking. There is a large winery shop, a farm shop, the Surrey Hills Brewery and shop as well as two restaurants: the self-service Conservatory Restaurant in a light and airy atrium on the ground floor and the Gallery Restaurant on the third floor (with wheelchair access via a lift), with 360 degree views of the surrounding vineyards, best enjoyed with a glass of excellent Denbies 2010 Cubitt Reserve fizz. You can also stay in the Denbies Farmhouse Bed & Breakfast.
Other wineries in Sussex well worth visting include:
Kingscote Estate www.kingscoteestate.com
Upperton Vineyards www.uppertonvineyards.co.uk
Bolney Wine Estate www.bolneywineestate.com
Ridgeview Wine Estate www.ridgeview.co.uk
Nyetimber Vineyard www.nyetimber.comSpectator Wine
For more information about a winery near you see: www.englishwineproducers.com