Sussex woos American tourists with stunning food and sparkling wine

The scene could not have been more quintessentially English.

Ockenden Manor
Ockenden Manor

An historic dining room, paneled in oak, with sweeping views from the mullioned windows across the lawns to the herbaceous borders beyond.

As one gastronomic course followed another, each accompanied by a sensational sparkling wine designed to enhance its partnered plate, the conversation of the 20 or so guests turned inevitably to what made this Sussex occasion so special.

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I say inevitably because this was a gathering of largely American journalists who had come on a fact-finding mission to learn why tourists from their motherland should make Sussex their destination.

Fine dining at Ockenden Manor

The truth is, Sussex has not been a number one choice in the past.

It lies awkwardly outside the strategic corridor from Heathrow Airport to Manchester and has not only been largely ignored but worse, forgotten.

But the county’s rapidly emerging reputation for the best vineyards producing exceptional sparkling wine is changing perceptions - and fast.

This latest event was hosted by Historic Sussex Hotels at their showcase Ockenden Manor Hotel and Spa at Cuckfield and quite apart from the exquisite menu of home smoked mackerel, hand dived scallop, Trenchmore Farm beef, organic cheese, citrus fruits, and chocolate, the Wiston estate was pairing its finest wines.

Fine dining at Ockenden Manor

Sussex’s passion for the very best local produce and fizz is putting it on the international map.

And not before time.

The announcement of a new Duke and Duchess of Sussex has given the initiative a Royal seal of approval.

The journalists who sat with us were completely new to the county - but gave the impression of already being smitten.

Fine dining at Ockenden Manor

There are clearly many myths to dispel.

An out-dated notion States-side that England is all fish and chips with virtually nothing outside London - except possibly Stratford Upon Avon and Shakespeare - is a cliche, no matter how good the fish and chips!

It’s not just that Sussex has great wine and food, nor that is boasts wonderful hotels, historic towns and villages, cosmopolitan Brighton, the natural magic that is the South Downs, and a shoreline to match the best of them.

It’s clear that where we live is a gem.

Recently, West Sussex County Council launched its Box of Delights to focus on the many and varied reasons to visit Sussex.

The hope is, that growing interest generated by visits like the one to Ockenden Manor will truly transform the tourist economy and start to make sense of the national park designation.

The evening was led by Dermot Sugrue, who has been chief winemaker at Wiston ever since the vineyards were planted in 2006 – situated on the chalk slopes of the South Downs and the vision of the Goring family who own the land. Since then, Wiston wines have made various distinguished lists, its 2013 Cuvée Brut last year topping the Decanter World Wine Awards for Best UK Sparkling Wine, and the International Wine & Spirit Competition’s English Sparkling Wine category.