Wine List Confidential: The PIG – in the South Downs
Douglas Blyde visits the South Downs outpost of The PIG hotel. During his stay, he finds an own-label Pinot Noir that proves how “accessible” English sparkling wines can be, and discovers what might be “the world’s most substantial spittoon”.
“Hotelier Robin Hutson had long dreamed of making his own wine. With the Pig Hotel vineyard, in the South Downs, he finally realised it. Now it flourishes in front of the eighth Pig-in, perhaps the loveliest of them all: a Regency property beautifully curled into the rolling West Sussex countryside,” appraised Tatler.
The vineyard is best glimpsed as the sun rises from bedroom three of the main house, which also contains an avocado-coloured bathtub – though don’t let that put you off. Once grazed by alpacas, the two-acre site features 4,000 vines over 56 rows, led by Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, as well as three hopeful strips of Gamay. During our visit, when local rivers were bursting their banks, the site showed excellent drainage. The fruits of inaugural harvest 2023 were taken to Bee Tree vineyard and winery, 31 miles to the East at Haywards Heath – the new home of Sugrue South Downs – being initially destined for still wines made in 600-litre demi-muids.
Co-founder, Judy Hutson is the mind behind the décor of each PIG. Dim, but not dismal, interiors include first-rate taxidermy birds in the hall, ornate glasses catching the rays in the window of the bar, and floral sofa camouflaged by identically patterned wallpaper in the lounge, while the dining room occupies a conservatory evoking an executive potting shed, replete with fish motif floor tiles, the odd communal table, strawberry plants still bearing fruit in January, an almost risqué oil, as well as a substantial bottle of Fonseca 20 tawny port on the approach. Segments torn from former wine lists act as napkin rings. The soundtrack included “Deep, Deep Feeling” by Paul McCartney, and Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s “The Ballad of Danny Bailey”. Each bedroom, incidentally, includes the latest issue of Noble Rot magazine, bottled martinis, and very good capsule coffee by Origin.
Often showing tender mark-ups to encourage rotation, wines are overseen by group beverage director, and Master of Wine student, Luke Harbor, in the role since December 2023. A Devon local, Harbor initially began his hospitality journey as chef de rang at Combe House hotel, returning to the same property at the start of 2016 when conversion to The PIG – at Combe was complete, as head sommelier. Roles ensued at The PIG – at Bridge Place, then The PIG – in the South Downs.
As at sister five-star property, Lime Wood in the New Forest, the fruits of the collaboration with Tenuta Fertuna in Maremma, replete with edible Italian gardens, is evident in pours by the glass, carafe, and magnum, including the Sangiovese-dominated white, and an inky Super Tuscan.
By the glass, wines range from the red and white from Bal do Madre, Portugal, drawn from a five-litre bag in box “to reduce CO₂” (£8.25 per 175ml) to the small-scale, Slovenian oak matured Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona Brunello di Montalcino 2017 at £29.
By the bottle, the list is arranged with swagger. Devised by Harbor, and head sommelier of this property, Jack Pritchard, wines are classified as “Rockstars” including the rare Giaconda, Estate Vineyard Chardonnay, Beechworth 2015 at £295, while Suertes del Marques’ 2019 Baboso Negro, Los Pasitos, from the Canary Islands (£100) is listed under “Curiosities”. Appraised as “textbook” by Robert Parker Jnr, Maison Guigal’s 2001 La Mouline, Côte-Rôtie is gently marked up at £430 and deemed “Archetypal” on the list.
Mention of course must be made of the strong selection of almost 30 English sparklers including the wines of Dermot Sugrue, in business with Hutson, whose own, red grape-led, gold-embellished cuvée for The PIG has just been rolled out across all properties. Meanwhile, some 16 still options include “Abandoned Pinot Noir”, a 250-bottle collaboration betwixt The PIG and “talented winemaker, Ben Smith” of contract producer, Itasca, intended to breathe back life into a nearly abandoned, secret site in Sussex.
Bottles are housed in multiple wine fridges installed wherever space beside the restaurant allows, as well as within the house’s core, original cellar, which purportedly featured a table tennis table and one wine rack when this was a family home.
Our main criticism of the list lies with its scrappy format, which frustratingly squeezes together multiple treasures in close type over just two cheapening A3 pages when it could easily breathe over at least a dozen. As is, the effect is akin to reading “The Debt to Pleasure” on an Amstrad E-mailer.
Also annoyingly listed on a big, floppy sheet, dishes by long-term head chef, Kamil Oseka, feature ingredients sourced from a 25-mile radius, ideally foregrounding the vegetables and fruit, which even include kiwis in the South Downs, grown within the house’s walled garden. Such albeit well-intentioned ingrediental evangelism did not prove automatically appealing nor particularly easily digestible at two previous PIGs, also visited in winter. However, under the care of sous chef, Craig Lashly who oversaw tonight’s dinner, the food in The PIG – in the South Downs, proved to be the most enjoyable we have experienced within the collection.
But first, a remarkable aperitif at The Well House was led by the Champagne Bollinger gilet sporting Jack Pritchard, a business nanagement, business administration, management and operations graduate currently working towards his WSET Diploma. True to the title of the building, this tasting room contained a working well, descending, we were told, a vertigo-inducing 100 feet, cut through the same chalk present in the vineyard. The world’s most substantial spittoon?
Here, on the instruction of Dermot Sugrue, who was taking a much-earned break in Croatia with his wife, Ana and their five-month-old, Ronan, during our visit, Pritchard performed a tasting of Sugrue’s “The Trouble with Dreams”. The wine is so-called, said Pritchard, because the first harvest, made under the auspices of the monastic order of Catholic priests at Storrington Priory, saw the majority of grapes devoured by birds. “It has been described as tasting like foie gras” wrote Great British Wine’s John Mobbs of the 2014 incarnation, being vinous, saline, with melding oak. Meanwhile, 2015 Cuvée Boz, a Blanc de Blanc dedicated to Sugrue’s late brother, built on fruit from the prized Coldharbour vineyard south of Petworth, was mighty, and despite the absence of oak, Krug-like in its exuberance, being toasty and indefatigable of aftertaste.
Onto dinner, and another Jack, surname, Evans, took care of the pairings. Sussex raised, and like his namesake, also studying towards the WSET Diploma, Evans began with Sugrue’s new The PIG Reserve 2019 from Bew Tree vineyard, led by Pinot Noir. Clearly designed to appeal to a broad clientele, this accessible wine hid the initial Sugrue signature freshness beneath a cushion of red fruits, and was best exhibited in a Gabriel Glas. It ably accompanied “Piggy Bits” of lightly home-smoked trout pâté – the smokery is in the garden – and roasted, sumptuous Delicata squash.
Next, Evans shared Devon Minnow, of which Matthew Jukes wrote “will reconfigure the Bacchus landscape forever”. The lavishly textured, barrel-aged 2020 Bacchus from Castlewood Vineyard is made in “minuscule quantities” by Hutson and his “fishing buddy and restaurateur”, Mark Hix. This accompanied a slim-skinned, curried fishcake of unknown piscine specimens sourced from Brighton market, with pretty preserves, and cauliflower from Chidham farm, Chichester, with caramelised onion, courgette, and sunflower seeds which conveyed engaging texture.
With an enjoyable, charred signature pork collar with, as much as it is possible to do so, lovingly cooked kale, Evans poured Lopez de Heredia Viña Tondonia Rioja Gran Reserva 2001, replete with forest floor notes and oak which dovetailed the dish’s wholegrain mustard sauce. And with day boat caught cod with pearl barley and feisty chorizo salsa, Evans chose the artisan, lees enriched, 2019 Albillo, “Aguila Blanco” from Ribera del Duero producer, Dominio Del Águila (a relative bargain at £29 via Coravin).
Given our party was out of time, in lieu of dessert, Evans dispensed a glass in the bar from the mighty Fonseca while mentioning that, having taken a trip to the venerable house last year, being the only port house with four 100 Point scoring wines, he believes port can play partner throughout a meal, from aperitif to beef, “and not just chocolate.”
Guided by Chairman Hutson, expect two more PIGs to join the litter, being The PIG – on the Farm in a sixteenth-century stone farmhouse in Stratford-Upon-Avon, while The PIG – at Groombridge, which already brings to the group a vineyard characterised by Seyval Blanc sown in 1989, will occupy a moated manor house southwest of Tunbridge Wells featured in the 2005 production of Pride & Prejudice.
Of all our visits to PIG properties, this stay within the rather damp, misty South Downs, where street lamps are officially banned in favour of stargazing, indicated a substantial sea change, whereby wine is becoming emblematic to the foundation, team, and now physicality, of these special hotels.
- On-site vineyard
- Specialist approach to English wines
- Sherries by the half bottle and sweet wines
- Cohesive, loyal team
- Fully functional kitchen garden concealing treatment rooms
Value: 97, Size: 92, Range: 92, Originality: 94, Experience: 94; Total: 93.8
The PIG – in the South Downs- Madehurst, Arundel BN18 0NL; 01243 974500; thepighotel.com