There is nothing lovelier than a perfect late-spring day in England. Yes, we’re a cold, damp little island in the middle of the North Sea, but when the sun shines in May and the air is full of birdsong, you can’t help but feel all’s right with the world. On such a day it’s a privilege to be in West Sussex, that tidy southern county which sits happily on the English Channel, and abruptly rises with the great fertile range of the South Downs hills, a vast National Park which swallows up almost all of the county. West Sussex is also home to some of England’s finest wineries, Ridgeview in the east of the county, Bolney, Nyetimber, Wiston and a dozen others sit on the southern slopes of the Downs on a ridge of pure white chalk, soaking up every available ray of sun while being cooled by the sea breezes that come off the Channel.
It’s a wonderful place to grow grapes for sparkling wine, and it’s attracted some of the world’s best winemakers – people like Cherie Spriggs and Brad Greatrix at Nyetimber, the consultant Dermot Sugrue, or Simon Roberts at Ridgeview. All are crafting sparkling wines that have gained international renown.
The English wine scene is evolving fast, and our wineries are alive to the fact that southern England is a much-visited part of the country (Chichester, West Sussex’s County town, is recognised to be the sunniest town in the UK). So confident are they of their attractions that Ashling Park Estate tells you to ‘think Napa Valley with a little twist of England’.
If you’ve never woken up to a view of vines in summer, the rolling hills of southern England might just be the place to start
It’s not so far-fetched: Ashling Park’s collection of luxury pods (complete with wood-burning stoves, claw-foot baths and deep-pile duvets) look out onto the vineyards and beyond that, a vista of green fields dotted with oak and beech. A pheasant picks its way along the hedgerow and the distant bleating of lambs is the only sound you can hear. Napa with an English twist, indeed.
West Sussex is a couple of hours from London so ideal for a day trip taking in a couple of wineries and a pub lunch. Many now offer accommodation, often of the luxury pod or shepherd’s hut style. If you’ve never woken up to a view of vines in summer, the rolling hills of southern England might just be the place to start…
Wiston is a vast, 2,200ha estate, about half of it woodland and a mere 10 hectares of vines, all planted on pure English chalk. They love their chalk here, the way it imparts a lean minerality to the wines (it’s the same landmass that underpins Champagne, incidentally); their new restaurant is named after it, and whitish boulders as big as footballs adorn every windowsill. Dermot Sugrue consults at Wiston, and also makes his own label in the winery. The wines are intense, lean and mineral with clean, bracing acidity and delicate pear and apple flavours. Don’t miss the Blanc de Blancs, with its crisp, pure Chardonnay fruit. You can’t stay at Wiston but its website lists dozens of places nearby – and you shouldn’t miss the newly-opened Chalk Restaurant, with an emphasis on locally-sourced produce such as South Downs lamb, mackerel and asparagus.
Tours and tastings: From Easter to harvest, from 1.5 to 2.5 hours, £25-£50, wistonestate.com
Ashling Park Estate
Ashling Park compares itself to California’s Napa Valley and – on a fine spring day in bright sunshine – they’re not far off the mark. (We like them so much we featured them in our list of the 50 best wine hotels earlier this year.) As you wake up in your luxury pod under a painted ceiling (each is themed by season), the first thing you see is the vineyard. There’s an Airstream caravan for breakfast, which you can eat outside of, on your own private terrace. Oz Clarke described Ashling as having ‘a tranquillity and a fabulous sense of calm’, and that is the abiding feeling you get as you survey the ancient oaks and the rolling vineyards. But if you want more, there’s masses to do, from tastings and tours to a gin school (the classroom’s equipped with spiffy miniature pot stills for you to make your own distillation), e-bikes (you’re a mile from the coast) and more. Ashling Estate’s wines are made by Dermot Sugrue – there’s a Blanc de Blancs with a lovely fresh, nettle-imbued nose. You won’t find that in California.
Tours and tastings: 10:30am & 2pm, Thursday-Sunday, £20pp, ashlingpark.co.uk
Art Tucker stands among his vines and waves a hand. ‘This was all lettuces,’ he says. He and his father decided wine would be more rewarding and went into business with Ridgeview owner Mike Roberts, one of the godfathers of English wine. Today, Tinwood is planted to Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier and the wines – including a fine toasty Blanc de Blancs, the 2017 vintage recipient of a Gold medal at the IWSC 2022 – are made by Ridgeview’s Simon Roberts. Tinwood has huts on stilts among the trees, with balconies overlooking the vineyards – the vibe is very much ‘rustic luxury’ – and the Tuckers serve an excellent afternoon tea with a tasting of their range. ‘Afternoon tea is one of the finest English traditions,’ the website says, and as we sit on the terrace in the mellow sun, looking out over the vines with a background hubbub of happy groups of visitors, it’s difficult to disagree.
Tours and tastings: 12pm and 3pm, daily, £21pp, tinwoodestate.com