Château South Downs

A hint of Roman history is nestled in the Surrey Hills

On Drink

This article is taken from the February 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

What have the Romans ever done for us? Apart from the aqueduct and sanitation, canals and navigation, medicine and education, great wines and fermentation, what have the Romans done for us?

This classic rant from Monty Python presages the pub bore by about two millennia. The Romans did a lot, especially on the drinking front. Those long-haul legionaries, packed off by Hadrian to hold the barbarian at bay, didn’t just stuff woollen smalls into their sarcinas to keep out the cold; they carted vines with them to raise along his wall, keep the good times going and remind themselves of home. 

Of course, we don’t know exactly how reminded they were. Neither Brampton nor Bewcastle are Barolo or Brindisi after all, and we may assume that the grapes grown there were not quite of the quality cultivated by the viticulturists of Valdobbiadene. However, as they planted their vines, they also planted a seed; a seed slow to set and even slower to spread but one which now, having lain dormant for more than a millennium, has matured into a domestic industry worthy of a drink.

Britain now boasts a bevy of vineyards, although three quarters of them are clustered around the south east where the climate is most clement and customers most keen on a cuvée. Chief amongst these chi-chi vineyards is Nyetimber Manor, nestling in the Surrey Hills not far from Horsham where chalk and greensand both create the perfect soil for slow-ripened fruit. The manor dates from the Domesday Book though its wine-making history is of rather more recent vintage. 

War-making, not winemaking, was more their line

Founded a little more than thirty years ago and bought by Dutch lawyer-turned-vintner Eric Heerema in 2006, this British bodega is rather good at wine making. Their classic cuvée balances Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier with near perfect poise and is their signature fizz. A woody nuttiness with a tangy touch to the tongue provides full-on flavour before it effervesces down the oesophagus. It is not too sugary and is pleasantly “under-fizzed” unlike some lesser sparkling wines. The 2014 is more than ready to drink — and the manor is a wonderful place to drink it. Set in Surrey’s rolling countryside, the scenery adds to the sparkle. 

Ironically, the Romans never really got to Horsham. In AD 43 (ah, me) they made camp in Chichester under the command of Titus Flavius Vespasianus. He went home soon after, eventually to succeed to the purple as Emperor Vespasian, leaving his levies behind. In AD 410, they followed him, and it was left to Horsa, brother of Hengist, to set up his Saxon shop at Horsham, only to die in the battle of Aylesbury shortly thereafter. 

The Dark Ages dawned. The new invaders brought with them their beer and before long Horsham became the seat of Sussex brewers, notably King & Barnes, fermenters of the famous Broadwood ale. All this potted history is by way of saying that when these blood-thirsty young Britons turned to quench their other thirsts, grain not grape was mashed up in their mazer. War-making, not winemaking, was more their line. It took 900 years for the Renaissance to come, then another 500 before our medieval viticulture had its own Da Vinci moment. Now Roman humanitas has been revived and Nyetimber is a taste of it.

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