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Newly planted vines at Mannings Heath on Wine Cellar Door

England’s first wine & golf estate at Mannings Heath

There’s been quite a bit of talk about Mannings Heath, a golf club near Horsham recently purchased by the owners of South African wine estate Benguela Cove, who have planted vines here.

I’d been very busy working and had neglected a friend’s birthday, so when we finally both had a free day, it was decided that lunch at Manning Heath’s very well-reviewed Benguela Brasserie and a reconnoitre of the vineyard would be a good plan.

Arriving at 1pm on a Saturday we were surprised to find the restaurant completely empty. It was quite a formal setting, although with contemporary art on the walls and we weren’t quite sure what to expect. A young waiter settled us at a nice table near the window and radiated enthusiasm. The menu, although perhaps more like a dinner menu than a luncheon menu, was crammed with local produce and I would happily have eaten pretty much anything on it. The wine list included a selection of imported wines, together with fizz from Nyetimber and Chapel Down, plus a whole section on Benguela Cove’s own South African wines. Debating which wines to pick,we were offered a mini-tasting – Susan ended up with the 2015 Pinot Noir to go with her steak and I very much enjoyed the Chardonnay with my salmon. Both main courses were superb.

We asked if it would be possible to see the vineyard and it worked out that Phil, the F&B Manager could take us between our main course and dessert, which suited us perfectly. We zoomed off on a golf buggy over the road to the Kingfisher course, which now just has 9 holes, while the Waterfall course, overlooked by the Brasserie and a large terrace still has 18. We saw the future winery and tasting room – with typically 3 years before a commercial crop from new vines, there’s no hurry to get this built, although South African winemaker Johann Fourie,who will be looking after this side of things at Mannings Heath as well, has been keeping a close eye on proceedings. Passing down the side of the first hole with entertaining stories along the way, Phil’s passion was evident. I asked if people, like us, often came because they were interested in hearing more about the vineyard. He said it was rare for people to arrive interested, but they never left without being enthused and we quite believed him.

Coming round to the vineyard, rows of laser guided plantings include young Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier vines. With wines from their own vineyards in South Africa, there isn’t a pressing need to produce a still wine to get their name out and generate some cashflow sooner as many English vineyards do, although with Bacchus gaining such wide acclaim these days, I’d be surprised if it isn’t considered among the extensive future plantings. The ground slopes nicely, although with my recent Principles of Vinegrowing course in mind, the trees seemed quite close to the bottom of one slope – I hope it’s not prone to frost.

After killing the grass, other crops had been grown to prepare the soil (beetroot, I think) and there is now a nice healthy looking (to my amateur eyes!) carpet of wild flowers between the vines.

Such a relatively small area of the available land has been planted to date and with the further acquisition of nearby Leonardslee Gardens (due to open February 2018) offering additional land, together with more accommodation opportunities, it is clear that there’s lots of interest still to come.

We talked about how the reduction of one course to 9 holes, together with an unstuffy attitude seems to be increasing rather than decreasing golfing membership and when I asked what the greenkeepers thought about the changes, Phil assured us that ongoing therapy is helping them come around to the idea!

Back past the bluebell woods and round to the main building again, we popped our heads into the downstairs Spike Bar where the “wine & cheese” and “wine & chocolate” tasting events take place before heading back up to the Brasserie where we enjoyed delicious desserts with a small glass of late harvest. We ended up chatting with a small group who had arrived at a neighbouring table who had come because of a South African connection and ended up doing the tour and tasting as well.

The brasserie was smaller than the pictures on their website had led us to believe (I counted 26 seats) and any intiial thoughts of stuffiness were completely overcome by the staff – all professional, yet extremely enthusiastic and humorous, something that must be part of the organisational culture.

For a relatively young establishment that’s still evolving, it’s definitely one to watch; we had a thoroughly good time. Being open 365 days a year, there are plenty of opportunities to visit; the next big development on the wine front is the launch of the first sparkling wine from South Africa and we’ll definitely be keen to go back to try that, if not before.