A Weekend at Tillingham Wines
Let me start by admitting that my knowledge of wine is slim, very slim.
I know I like drinking it, and I know (very) loosely what I like best – white, light, fresh; that sort of thing. Terminology such as “mouthfeel”, “taste notes”, “nose” and “stone fruits” has no place in my limited wine vocabulary.
Not exactly the target market for a weekend away at a hip winery then you may think, but actually it was a pretty good time.
I, like a great many others, haven’t been bothered/have been too anxious to travel abroad during the past couple of years or so.
What with the pre-flight tests, the post-flight tests, the potential isolation either end, the risk of not being able to fly home, blah blah… And of course the risk of catching the dreaded virus, it’s taken my time trolling through the Easyjet website for bargains from circa an hour per week to, well, ground zero.
Instead of using this newly regained time for anything more wholesome or useful I have focused instead on searching for UK based trips.
A mate of mine spent a couple of years in New Zealand and often mentioned what a big thing wine tours, vineyard visits and tastings are over there, and how much fun they are.
He doesn’t fit the stereotypical wine buff profile – he’s pretty young, pretty cool and doesn’t have anything even remotely resembling a wine cellar. I’m not even sure he has a wine rack.
A few swift Google searches informed me that in the couple of years since he’s returned, there’s been a big movement towards the natural wines that he became accustomed to, and a few English makers of such stuff who’ve opened their doors to the public.
Possibly the most well known of these is Tillingham, so it seemed as good a place as any to lose my vineyard virginity, and a one-night weekend stay was booked.
We disembarked the train at nearby Rye, an hour and twenty minutes or so from St. Pancras. For those of you that haven’t visited Rye before, it’s a charming place with an ancient castle and a really decent selection of homewares stores, galleries, pubs and restaurants for such a small place.
Well worth giving yourselves some extra time to check it out if you’re following my lead.
Anyway, I digress. From Rye, Tillingham is about four miles or so away, and we saw numerous people arriving there by taxi but we decided to go by foot.
It’s a really nice walk across undulating open countryside, taking in a wood and a large apple orchard and takes an hour and a bit at a leisurely pace.
Upon arriving at the winery, I was surprised how modern and crisp it looked for being in such an un-spoilt, rural location. It looked as if it could’ve been transported from an industrial spot in Hackney Wick and dropped into somewhere far more idyllic and with fresher air.
Two large-ish, modern barn-meets-hanger constructions are positioned around a sociable courtyard with tables to dine and drink and landscaped wildflower borders. The main one is two story and houses the reception, shop, wine store and bar on the ground floor with a stunning patio overlooking the rolling fields of grapes beyond and a chic industrial-style restaurant on the first floor. The smaller unit houses a more relaxed wood fired pizzeria, which also serves their signature wines, beers etc.
Beyond this main area you can see the block of rooms, a selection of bell tents, an ancient barn and grain store and a menagerie of farmyard animals roaming – wooly coated pigs, cows, chickens and sheep. It somehow manages to merge the modern and shiny with the traditional and timeless.
Once we were shown to our room, which felt stylishly understated yet cosy, we did what any sensible people would do in our situation – we headed straight to the bar to sample the fermented grape juice.
After cluelessly picking a couple of mid-range options (delicious) we headed outside to the patio, feeling smug that we had luckily chosen a miraculously sunny and warm Autumn weekend.
We could see a group in the adjoining field in the midst of a wine tasting. It looked less stuffy than I had imagined it would, and I remember thinking that I would book in for one myself if I was visiting again in the future.
We already had a table booked in the main restaurant so in the evening we tottered up the stairs, already a few vino’s down, ready for the set menu.
It was bustling up there, and the aesthetic was really nice – mid century industrial details, a busy semi-open kitchen and even an intimate private dining room.
My main gripe would be that the service up here felt somewhat hectic and a bit disorganised. There seemed to be enough staff about, and we couldn’t doubt their work ethic, but for all their frantic running about there was a touch of the headless chickens about them.
We had four different people serve us food and drinks over the 6 courses, and some of these dishes came thick and fast, whilst others seemed to take a pretty long time to arrive.
The food itself was tasty and fresh, the vegetarian starters in particular were really good. The main (confit duck leg with lentils) was filling and satisfying but didn’t really seem to match the zingy flavours that came before it.
The bill was akin to the stylish environment – more Shoreditch than rural Sussex. Overall, we enjoyed the experience but; maybe unsurprisingly; the wines were the star of the show.
After a good (heavily wine induced) nights sleep, we arose to see pigs roaming outside the windows before stepping back across the courtyard to the restaurant for breakfast. Even without the wine for once it was great.
Natural yogurt and homemade granola, toast and homemade jam, runny boiled eggs, Neal’s Yard Dairy cheese, cured meats and filter coffee. All of it was spot on and with far more relaxed and attentive service than the night before.
Plus, we got to see the beautiful elevated views during daylight hours.
We then packed our bags, put our faithful walking shoes back on and headed back off across the fields to Rye.
Admittedly, it was a slightly slower pace on the way back with a couple of extra bottles of wine worth of weight to carry. It was a really nice short break, and one that is easily done from London in a weekend.
I think this may not be my last winery visit!
TJ – Barber at Ruffians Shoreditch