The Buyer
The rebirth of Dermot Sugrue – Britain’s finest winemaker

The rebirth of Dermot Sugrue – Britain’s finest winemaker

With the purchase of Bee Tree Vineyard in East Sussex, new financial backers and a whole range of new projects afoot, 2024 will be the year that Sugrue South Downs will finally and indelibly be put on the map. Run and co-owned by Ana and Dermot Sugrue – the most famous and finest winemaker in the history of English winemaking – the team are turning their backs on contract winemaking and concentrating on their own portfolio which will include Dermot’s first still wine, a Pinot Noir from Essex fruit, a first Blancs de Noirs, a gin and a perpetual reserve with an undisclosed gameplan called Bonkers. But first, there’s the no-small matter of expanding a very muddy building site into a fully-functioning winery.

Peter Dean
19th January 2024by Peter Dean
posted in People: Producer,

“Ana is diligent and brings order while I embrace chaos,” says Dermot Sugrue, co-owner and winemaker at Sugrue South Downs.

Open for business: Dermot and Ana at Sugrue South Downs’ new winery Bee Tree Vineyard, November 2023

“I’ve made shoes for everyone, even you…” Dermot Sugrue winks, quoting Bob Dylan, “…while I still go barefoot.”

This 49 year-old Irish winemaker, who is unequivocally Britain’s finest, is talking of his time as a contract winemaker for the past 20 years, a time (now ended) during which he has helped make three million bottles across 300 individual cuvées for almost everyone you can possibly name in English wine. Having also put Nyetimber and Wiston on the map, of course.

But, for the first time in his winemaking career, Dermot has ditched the day job and his clients and is focussed solely and squarely on Sugrue South Downs, his personal business-cum-side-project, that he had been running alongside his full-time position at Wiston Estate.

“There’s no contract winemaking here, that’s over, I’m free range again,” he beams, siphoning a barrel sample of a wine project he calls BONKERS Zombie Robot Alien Monsters From the Future Ate My Brain (sur lie) which is a sort-of ‘perpetual reserve’ as imagined by… Syd Barrett.

Sugrue is solo, people, and he seems to be loving every minute of it – like a teen with sweaty hands on the steering wheel of their first car, energised by the roads ahead.

Just in case you bought I was making that bit up

A change is as good as a rest

Since leaving Wiston Estate, for whom he was employed from 2006 until 2022, life has been ‘all change’ for Dermot. In fact it’s hard to think of any aspect of it that hasn’t changed.

For the first time he and wife/business partner Ana (an experienced winemaker in her own right having worked at Austria’s Schloss Gobelburg and Umathum), have bought a vineyard and are expanding the winery on site – Bee Tree Vineyard, a few miles up the road from Plumpton College where the two of them have both either studied or taught Oenology. The Sugrues have just fixed a long-term rental of a “killer all-chalk site” which ups the vineyard acreage of Sugrue South Downs from 3 to 11 hectares. As an integral part of this expansion is a change in ownership – the business now has three new investors including Robin Hutson, the man who co-set up Hotel du Vin, Soho House and The Pig hotel chain, and actor Hugh Bonneville, who has already lent his endorsement in promoting the wines.

Sugue South Downs has also flipped distribution from Hallgarten to Indigo and the portfolio has been expanded – new cuvées which are in barrel include a still Pinot Noir made from Essex fruit and Dermot’s first ever Blanc de Noirs made from an exceptional 2023 harvest on the South Downs. There’s gin too made from Pinot Meunier grapes, called Precognition, and distilled at Silent Pool Distillers in Surrey.

As if that wasn’t enough change in his life, Dermot has become a father for the first time, his i-Phone already rammed with pictures of smiling 3-month-old Ronan, a boy named after Dermot’s father, who once told him, after yet another successful wine awards night, “Remember son tomorrow morning you will have to be shovelling shit again.”

Tasting the outstanding 2023 wines – Dermot has never lost his passion that started with making wines as a young boy in Ireland


It’s hard to think of a winemaker that has won more awards in the UK than Sugrue, but he appears modest about his achievements and swears to not having a trophy cabinet at home. Instead, he’s keen to divulge what critics have said about his wines, almost as if he’s surprised that they’re as magnificent as we all know they are; Hugh Johnson OBE has apparently named the zero dosage cuvée ZODO as one of his ten desert island wines; Neal Martin is equally struck by the wine while Cuvée Dr Brendan O’Regan, which is Sugrue’s top cuvée, was served at a recent celebratory dinner to mark the purchase of a share of a well known football club, instead of the more ‘obvious choice’ Champagne.

“It was down to the somms,” he says, rather than admit that Brendan O’Regan could knock many a Grand Marques Champagne into a cocked hat.

Aside from his undeniable work ethic and passion, Sugrue credits Ana for his transition from being a hired gun to an entrepreneur – turning his personal winemaking projects, that started with the planting of the Trouble with Dreams vineyard in Storrington in 2006 into a fully-fledged, self-owned business.

“Ana has turned it into a proper business and has driven the commercialising of the business. She is diligent and brings order while I embrace chaos,” he laughs. Surrounded by chaos.

Organised it may well be but – to the first-time visitor – it’s clear there are a lot of moving parts at Bee Tree Vineyard that haven’t quite found their natural resting place yet. To the untrained eye the exterior, with an underground spring that visibly bubbles under layer upon layer of mud, could be the set of an All Quiet on the Western Front remake rather than the home of Britain’s greatest winemaker.

I really did regret cycling there rather than take the motor.

Build it and they will come: Sugrue South Downs’ winery being built in front of the 1.55 ha Bee Tree Vineyard

The Pig connection

A key factor in understanding why 2024 will be the year for Sugrue South Downs is the outside investment.

Robin Hutson chairman of The Pig chain of restaurant hotels, Peter Chittick and actor Hugh Bonneville, have bought into the business which has facilitated the acquisition of Bee Tree Vineyard and its transition into a winery that will handle 60-70,000 bottles a year, possibly 100,000. All of these bottles will be Sugrue South Downs with no more contract work, excepting two small scale own brand cuvées for The Pig chain that he calls ‘collaborations’, given their financial ties.

This relationship, which now sees Hutson sitting as chairman of Sugrue South Downs, started when, of the 12 wines on the sparkling wine list of the Pig Hotels, Hutson spotted that 10 had been made by Dermot, even though they were all from 12 different English wine estates.

“He sort of saw a theme developing,” Sugrue smiles, “but here is a man who has always been totally supportive of English wine, suppressing sales of Champagne in his own restaurants in order to favour English sparkling wine in The Pig. He has been a phenomenal asset to us, as a cash injection but fully committed in terms of mentorship and his passion for wine, he has a real desire to support me and Ana… perhaps he sees something of himself in me.”

What Ana and Dermot have bought at Bee Tree Vineyard is 1.55 hectares of vineyard on clay over greensand – the top layer much deeper than on the Downs – which was planted in 2015 with 7,100 vines comprising 72% Pinot Noir 15% Pinot Meunier and 9% Chardonnay, the rest made up of Pee Wees – experimental varieties which the students at Plumpton College are working with.

With Bee Tree placed firmly on the Sussex wine trail and just “15 minutes by tractor” from their ‘Grand Cru’ site Mount Harry, Sugrue says that “it would have been insane not to have bought this, just insane.”

The third vineyard that the Sugrues farm is Coldharbour Vineyard, just South of Petworth, which means that combined there is a range of fruit to play with and cuvées can be dictated by the quality of the individual harvests rather than be marketing-led. Sugrues’ first ever Blanc de Noirs being a case in point, which came about because the Pinot Noir was so exceptional in Mount Harry last summer.

The winery slowly takes shape

Boutique size

There are plans for a cellar door experience at Bee Tree, but all fairly tactile and low key – “When people come and taste they will get Ana and me,” – and the sights are squarely set on keeping the winery a boutique size, which is what Sugrue South Downs has always been lauded for in the first place, even when it didn’t have a permanent home.

There are currently five employees in the company and Dermot has no plans to expand beyond that. Interestingly, it was the sudden, vast replanting and expansion at Nyetimber when he was the head winemaker there which told him it was time to move on and it’s clear that he and Ana want to keep the operation grounded, manageable and true to their ethics.

“When I studied environmental science at the University of East Anglia I remember reading one chap who questioned our obsession with growth, it was the first time I heard about ‘sustainable development’ but that’s another story.”

The first priority, then, is to finish kitting out the winery, letting Ana bring more order to the chaos and to concentrate on the Sugrues reaping what they sow – commercialising their clear brilliance at making world class sparkling wine, rather than the profits going elsewhere.

“You know I realised the other day,” Dermot says holding up a black plastic picking basket, “that I made more money out of selling these, which I used to buy cheap from the Dutch bulb industry and sell over here to new wineries, than I ever did as a contract winemaker.”

No more cobblers’ shoes analogy going forward hopefully.

The wines themselves

Above and beyond all the other factors that point to the success of the Sugrues’ new venture are the wines themselves, the UK’s finest sparkling wines and such a magnificent portfolio of world class wines, with each cuvée distinct and well thought through…it is hard to believe that these have been made and developed while Dermot had a day job elsewhere.

From five-week-old barrel samples we taste to aged magnums, the Sugrue wines are quite brilliant at every stage of development . These wines are bright, vibrant, fresh and at the cutting edge of winemaking, forget which country you’re in. They sit like the eye of the storm at the centre of the building site’s ‘organised chaos’, each wine telling an important, personal story, with a winning sense of whimsy.

The Trouble With Dreams is a blend that was originally made as a wine for the monastic order of Catholic priests at Storrington Priory and was named after the inaugural vintage was wiped out by birds, dashing Dermot’s hopes. “That’s the trouble with dreams,” was the quip from Prior Fr Paul McMahon. Rosé Ex Machina, (50/30/20% Pinot Noir/ Chardonnay/ Pinot Meunier) had a serendipitous conception and is named after the God-like granting of perfect fruit from an estate, that had previously been unable to find any, Cuvée Dr Brendan O’Reagan MV (60%/40% Chardonnay/Pinot Noir) is named after Dermot’s great uncle who set up a school for hoteliers in Ireland and opened the world’s first Duty Free shop at Shannon Airport and Cuvée Boz Blanc de Blancs is named in tribute to an older brother, Barry Ben Sugrue “who decided not to come out for the second half.” (Having also lost a brother in this way, Dermot and I chink a glass of Cuvée Boz out of respect to our two bros), ZODO, meanwhile is a zero dosage wine that is only made in the very best vintages with 2500 bottles produced last time around – bottles are very hard to come by presumably because Hugh Johnson and Neal Martin have snaffled the lot!

Tasting these wines is to experience the benchmark for fine English wine, and the many changes of 2023 augur well for the future plans of Ana and Dermot.

In conclusion… Dermot may have been a big fish in a small barrel for many years but as the barrel has got bigger so it is clear he has managed to keep pace with that growth but not at the expense of what has made him a great winemaker in the first place – an impeccable knowledge and eye for detail, experience learned through experimentation, and a winning personality that fosters relationships from people who will always want to offer help, and a sense of humanity and good humour that keeps the whole damn show on the road and in perspective. Sláinte!

Next step still wine – tasting an extraordinary barrel sample of Pinot Noir

The wines of Sugrue South Downs are available for the trade through Indigo Wine and direct from the estate.