Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Local (wine) heroes

Local, sustainable, low food miles: these are the buzzwords when it comes to what we eat nowadays. If you want to extend the idea of buying local to the wine that you drink, what are your choices?

Right, before you stop reading, please bear with me for a while. English wines are not a joke anymore: every year we seem to produce more and more reliable, palatable wines. English wines are judged, blind, against wines from around the world in competitions like the International Wine Challenge and the Decanter World Wine Awards – and consistently come away with medals and commendations. Our winemakers are learning how to get the best from our soils and climate, which grape varieties to plant and how to make the best wines in our challenging, but warming, climate. Why, even the Queen serves Nyetimber English sparkling wine to visiting foreign dignitaries at Buckingham Palace, so if it’s good enough for Her Majesty…

So, let’s not start out with the thought that English wines are a joke and give them a fair chance to impress us. Here in Surrey there are five vineyards growing grapes to produce wine, including Denbies, the largest single vineyard in the country.

Denbies is a slick, well-oiled wine-making machine with an enviable track record of picking up awards for its wines. As well as making wine, Denbies is a destination in itself. Attractively perched on the North Downs opposite Box Hill and overlooking Dorking, they offer vineyard tours, tastings in their shop as well as being a venue for meetings, conferences and weddings. It’s a bustling and pleasant place to be on a sunny summer’s day. The estate was established in 1986 and, over the years, it is gradually replacing more and more of the strange-sounding Germanic hybrid grapes such as Reichensteiner, with familiar and trusted varieties like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. These last two, along with Pinot Meunier are the three Champagne grapes – and it is in sparkling wines that the best hopes for English wine reside.

Denbies’ Greenfields Cuvée 2003, a sparkling wine made from the trio of Pinots Noir and Meunier plus Chardonnay and using the traditional “Champagne” method, stunned many wine consumers by winning a Gold Medal at the 2007 International Wine Challenge. Alas, the 2003 understandably sold out and the 2004 vintage is the one currently on sale. At £21.99 it’s not cheaper than Champagne, but it does share some of its characters, albeit at the lighter end of the spectrum.

Surrey Gold is Denbies’ biggest seller, an off-dry, still wine made from a blend of Müller Thurgau, Bacchus and Ortega grapes. It makes for pleasant summer drinking with its crisp exotic fruit. You can try the full range of Denbies’ wines in their shop, allowing you to make up your own mind on their quality.

If Denbies is the big fish, then Greyfriars Vineyard is the tadpole of Surrey wines. Just 1 ½ acres of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vines on the south side of the chalky outcrop of the Hog’s Back make up this vineyard, owned and run by Bill Croxson and Philip Underwood since 1989. I admire the far-sightedness – probably mixed with some stubbornness – that led Bill to plant these noble grape varieties, when the fashion at the time was to choose Germanic hybrids. These hybrids were said to match the climate but, unfortunately, have not shown that they can produce really top quality wines and have never been embraced by the consumer. I tried Greyfriar’s Vineyard Chardonnay 2005 (Bill likes his wines to age before he releases them for sale) which is very dry and crisp. It’s an uncompromising style which I admired rather than appreciated and I fear is not likely to win a wide audience. Given the clean, crisp flavours, I hold out greater hope for Bill’s sparkling wines.

If you’d like to try Greyfriars’ wines for yourself, including the sparkling wines of which Bill is rather proud, then pop along to the vineyard on one of their open weekends: 6/7 and 13/14 September.

The prize for Surrey’s most picturesque vineyard must surely go to Painshill Park in Cobham. Within the boundaries of an 18th century landscaped garden, between a Gothic folly and an ornamental lake lies a 2 ½ acre vineyard replanted fifteen years ago with Chardonnay and Seyval Blanc (another hybrid). The vineyard is a recreation of the original, which formed part of the park in the early 1800s. They make a sparkling wine, a white and a rosé which are available to buy in the park’s own shop and tearoom.

Godstone Vineyards is a 6 ½ acre site planted with Seyval Blanc. They have a shop and tearoom where you can try before you buy. The final piece of the Surrey wine puzzle is the intriguingly-named Iron Railway Vineyard in Croydon. This small-holding seems to produce a variety of crops, including grapes for wine – if you ever find some of their wine, please let me know!

Let’s not kid ourselves: English wines are not yet in a position to rival those of the major wine-producing countries at the top level. We can’t produce consumer-friendly wines at the £4 average bottle price that we like to pay, our climate is challenging and restricts the styles of wine that we can produce. But, it is clear that quality is rising and our sparkling wines, in particular, have the potential to really put us on the wine map.

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