The Pig Hotel at Bridge Place in Canterbury is a sight for sore eyes in the late afternoon sun in October. The period country house stands proudly in the beautifully manicured grounds – not too manicured, mind; there is a working kitchen garden that is tended to daily, the fruits of which are used on the menu from dawn ‘til dusk in dishes, teas and cocktails. The heady herbal aromas of the garden even lend a hand in the treatment huts, helping guests to unwind and find their inner zen.
The Pig collection of boutique house hotels (of which there are now seven, Bridge Place being the latest addition to the litter, until Harlyn Bay arrives in June 2020) offers a new take on luxury, in that it is undoubtedly luxury – for all of its freestanding roll-top baths in the bedrooms and heartsighing styling – but with a conscience and with soul. Their commitment to sustainability not only involves reusing, recycling, composting and employing organic practices, but having their own beehives, curing their own meats and producing 17 tons of their own fruit and vegetables every year, which requires no packaging or travel. And when they do use other suppliers, they are within a 25 mile radius of each Pig.
The 25 mile menu is always something to be celebrated, but at harvest time, it is particularly special – especially when there are wines from an esteemed English wine estate paired with each course. As if by a stroke of luck, Robin and Judy of The Pig discovered the Simpsons Wine Estate just three miles from Bridge Place, fitting perfectly within their local suppliers initiative and also their support for the English wine industry.
Robin has long been a champion of English Sparkling Wine and, as we sip on the 2016 Chalklands Classic Cuvée, whilst nibbling on ‘piggy bits’ in the study pre-dinner, it’s understandable why Robin is so proud to feature Simpsons wines on his list.
Ruth and Charles Simpson have been making wine for the best part of two decades after purchasing Domaine de Sainte Rose in the Languedoc in 2002. It was in Southern France they cut their teeth and learned how to make award-winning wines, and in 2012 they brought their craft back to the UK.
A husband and wife team, the duo are impressive to listen to: they aren’t from a wine background, they didn’t inherit an estate and decide to plant vines on it; they swotted up big time and are so incredibly knowledgeable about every part of their business. When they decided they were going to make wines in England, after much research, they picked the sunny, sheltered slopes of the chalky North Downs in Kent – the warmest and driest part of the UK. The conditions here are ideal for making sparkling wine; the Champagne and Burgundy grapes, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, thrive on these soils in this special micro-climate.
Having cracked the sparkling wine market, Ruth and Charles saw the potential in making still wines at their estate – after all, as much as we all love sparkling, the vast majority of wines that we drink are still. They questioned why English still wines hadn’t really taken off yet (a couple of reasons are that winemakers often make still wines from sparkling wine clones and are gentle-pressing the grapes without de-stemming) and sought to succeed in making high quality still wines at Simpsons, which are now one third of their production.
At supper, we drink the 2018 Derringstone Pinot Meunier with an assortment of first courses: oak smoked salmon; ‘home grown’ cured meats; tomato salad; beetroot with quails egg and watercress and Maldon oysters (which I heartily devour). It is the first still Pinot Meunier to grace the UK and one of Jancis Robinson’s highest scoring English still wines from the September 2019 tasting.
Hand reared slow cooked pork shoulder, chargrilled monkfish tail and roasted cauliflower and pearl barley risotto follow and are paired with the Rabbit Hole Pinot Noir and the 2018 Roman Road Chardonnay. The Pinot Noir is elegant and silky – made from first year fruit from their Railway Hill vineyard, people are recognising its ageing potential and are buying it to bond. The Roman Road Chardonnay has also won fantastic feedback – a taster was convinced it was a Premier Cru Chablis whilst sampling it blind.
Of course, there are downsides to making wine in England – even in the warmest part of the UK. Botrytis is a very real threat and every year it is a battle between pushing for maturity in the grapes by leaving them to hang on the vine and risking mildew and rot. Their location puts them at an advantage, however, as maturity starts in the east and makes its way west, so they are able to pick earlier before the weather turns. There is also another threat, which was somewhat unpredicted – pheasants! As we stand in the vineyard on the morning after our harvest supper, we see hoards of pheasants gathering around the low hanging bunches, vying for their breakfast.
With our wildly varying weather year to year, replication is also a challenge – something they didn’t have to worry about so much in the South of France, where summers are consistently warm and dry. But Ruth and Charles are so involved in every area of the process and on-site analysis is something they do constantly, so I have little doubt that they will always be ahead of any issues that might arise.
Like Robin and Judy at The Pig, Ruth and Charles liked the idea of being a part of something new – a movement in wine that is still finding its feet and carving its own history as we speak. A sense of place and provenance is of utmost importance to Simpsons wines and to every Pig hotel – which is one reason why their partnership is the perfect pairing.