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A stay in a working vineyard provides five-star seasonal eating and homestyle comfort
‘Are you sure this is it?’ asks my husband, questioning my navigation skills as usual. ‘Of course it is,’ I reply, not 100% convinced, as we roll into a gravelled car park between industrial-size pallets of wine. We have, it happens, come to the right place. We swiftly find the hotel reception and are ushered into an elegant suite overlooking vines, grazing sheep and woodland. Tillingham is a luxury hotel and working vineyard, so the buzz of winemakers and holidaymakers intermingle to create a sense of relaxed purpose.
Our mini-break opens with a tour from Jake, one of the restaurant managers. Persistent drizzle dissuades us from wandering the vines, so we absorb an introduction to winemaking in one of the cosy private dining rooms instead. Jake then leads our small group round the enormous fermentation tanks of the winery while we sample generous glasses of Tillingham wines.
We start with the limited-edition SC21, which tastes like an elegant fizz that’s had a rambunctious night with some funky cider. It’s a co-ferment of wine grapes and eating apples (hence the cider vibe) indicative of Tillingham’s unconventional approach. Jake explains that English wine culture isn’t as restricted by legislation as most European wine, so they have licence for such vanguard experimentation.
The winemakers here also experiment with ageing wine in Georgian-style qvevri, nestled under an ancient oast house. These enormous terracotta pots are submerged almost entirely underground, and naturally ferment wines to impart aromatic and savoury tones. Later, we took a bracing walk through the damp vineyards to prepare ourselves for the five-course tasting menu we had booked. Coming across swathes of woodland bluebells and gamboling lambs, we felt how connected the whole enterprise is to the agriculture that surrounds it.
Our elegant dinner demonstrated this with seasonal ingredients used in multiple ways. There was the impossibly fresh tomatoes coupled with sun-dried tomatoes and a delicate tomato consommé, a plate of succulent baby leeks crowned with yet more deep-fried leek crisps. Rhubarb granita cleansed our palates after a rich lamb main course before a wobbly slice of custard tart for dessert.
This is true produce-led dining, and gardeners Georgie and Becca share their harvest plans with the chefs each week to inspire the changing tasting menu. Wine flights often feel like the supporting role, but at Tillingham they take the spotlight. The sommelier guides us from Cádiz to Oregon, flying between some of the world’s most interesting natural wine producers.
Thankfully, breakfast was served until a leisurely 10am and friendly bar staff brought filter coffee to our room. There’s no trad fry-up here, instead we created our own continental breakfast from a stylish buffet of sourdough, freshly baked cardamom buns, Tillingham Estate soft-boiled eggs, home-cured meats and local cheeses.
The charming town of Rye is just 10 minutes away, so we browsed antique shops and gift emporiums before returning to Tillingham for a wood-fired pizza lunch. Founder Ben Walgate, who planted the first vines in 2018 before establishing the hotel, built the pizza oven out of Tillingham clay and renovated the Dutch barn during lockdown. Hot water bottles, blankets and a firepit keep the chill off, as chefs turn out wild garlic and nduja pizzas alongside colourful bitter leaf salads. As I tap ‘home’ into the satnav, I momentarily consider capitalising on my poor navigation skills yet again to get permanently lost here: I could get used to this.
Bed and breakfast from £175. Wine tours from £35 per person. No minimum stay at the weekends, but Friday and Saturday stays are available as dinner, bed and breakfast only. Visit tillingham.com