Perfect day – Sharpham Vineyard English wine and cheese
There was a bit of a tussle among English wine producers recently when some of them came up with an official name for English sparkling wine. ‘Britagne’ was suggested to describe methode Champenoise, quality English fizz but it fell a bit flat with some vineyards. You may be quite surprised to hear the words ‘quality’ ‘wine’ and ‘English’ used in the same sentence, but there are around 400 vineyards in England and Wales all keen to show off their viticulture prowess. Grape growing for wine has been around since before the Norman conquest and is recorded in the Domesday Book; Samuel Pepys wrote that he drank some wine from a vineyard in Walthamstow! As the effects of climate change have an increasing impact on traditional vine growing areas like Spain, big producers might start to eye up British ‘terroir’ in the future.
One location I wanted to eye up myself was the Sharpham Estate. Located on a bend of the River Dart in Devon, as we turned off the road from Totnes, meandered through the pretty village of Ashprington and neared the end of the narrow lanes, an absolutely stunning view greeted us.
After being led to a table in the tarpaulin-covered bit of the outside restaurant we browsed the menu, which was short – my favourite kind – with the kitchen using mainly local, organic produce with vegetables from the Sharpham Estate walled garden. KP ordered green pea, mint and Sharpham rustic cheese fritters with herb salad leaves and a tomato, chilli and basil salsa while I chose the homemade pork, pistachio and prune terrine. These were listed as starters but we gambled that they’d make a good light lunch and when they arrived we knew we were right. We tucked in just as the heavens opened, quite dry under our little tent but the lovely view of the river (albeit on the other side of the car park) was a blur. This was a bit disconcerting since I’d signed up for Trek and Taste involving a self-guided tour around the vineyard followed by wine and cheese tasting (there are several tours to choose from).
But this was an English summer and the second the rain stopped I ran to the car, got my wellies and we started out up the lane, clutching the map following the red route (there were also shorter alternatives) . Lines of vines ran down to the river’s edge, providing a warm, sheltered micro-climate perfect for grape-growing. Sharpham House, a neo-Palladian mansion built in the late 1700′s, watches over the 550 acre estate. It was acquired by Maurice and Ruth Ash in 1961 (Ruth, the daughter of Dartington Hall founders) and by the end of the 1970′s they began to plan a future for the estate based on sustainable farming practices and quality food production which included developing the cheese making business and planting vines in 1981.
Cheese is made from Jersey cows on the farm and the wine is made on the estate. From the start they placed the emphasis on producing food that people would like to eat (rather than a focus on what they could grow) which was the reason behind the choice of primarily French grape varieties unlike many other British vineyards which grow German. All was peaceful as we wandered through lines of trees and vines stopping to chat to a lone viticulturalist.
Passing signs with rather poetic names like Madeleine Angevine, we followed the path, over an electric fence (which we later found was there to keep badgers away from the roots of the vines) and along the River Dart an extremely tranquil spot when the commentary from the boat tours have faded into the distance. The beautiful walk took us barely 20 minutes and we were soon forging back across a field in glorious sunshine.
While we waited I peered in the windows of the dairy as you cannot enter for hygiene reasons but there are information signs about each stage in the cheesemaking process. We went to the tasting area and met Steve, an Australian winemaker with a sense of humour who was an enthusiastic guide. He asked our group who was on the gold package (six wines and three cheeses) and who on the Silver (four wines and two cheeses). After my walk I regretted my decision to opt for Silver and asked if I could upgrade which then led to a general wave of all the other Silvers upgrading. So, ready to taste, we kicked off with Steve pouring us a glass of Sharpham Sparkling Pink, which is made by methode traditionnele (the same way Champagne is made) which had a lovely mousse and delicate, strawberry fruit.
Sharpham Estate Selection was dry, crisp and really clean, made from those Madeleine Angevine grapes we’d walked past earlier. There seems to be a trend, certainly among my friends, to drink nothing but Sauvignon Blanc and I’m longing for a change. This would be an excellent replacement for refreshing summer drinking without the astringency (and touch of cat’s wee) you get with some SBs. Sharpham Barrel Fermented had subtle vanilla notes that come from being aged in French oak and was well received by everyone – Steve has his signts on a making a Chablis rival.
Sharpham Rosé had a slight coral tint and its rounded fruitiness made me think how well it would have gone with my terrine. We finished with Sharpham Red followed by Sharpham Pinot Noir, neither of which I expected to like, but I did. The Pinot was not hugely complex but a well-made, easy to drink cool-climate red with lovely cherry and plum flavours and great with the samples of handmade cheese. These were Sharpham Rustic with chives, fresh and crumbly, Sharpham Elmhirst, a firmer, creamier texture with really excellent taste and the original Sharpham, a fabulously creamy, unpasteurised Brie-style, mould-ripened square . I bought a slab of the last one from the shop to take as a gift for friends we were staying with that weekend. I must admit that I ate the better part of this ripe, oozing temptation myself while there.
This was exactly my kind of day out: A walk in beautiful surroundings. A simple lunch menu using fresh, seasonal, local ingredients but interesting enough to show off chef’/manager Rosie Weston’s considerable talents. Great cheese and wine produced by people who are absolutely dedicated to making the best they can. And it stopped raining.
If you want to know more visit:
The Vineyard Cafe – open end April – September, booking recommended (and dependent on weather)
English Wine – the history, background and a listing of all the vineyards
Getting English people to drink English wine in England is a struggle so you may not be surprised that it is not available (to my knowledge) in Dubai. Have you ever tasted wine from the UK and, if so, what did you think of it? Is there any wine from a less traditional part of the world that you’d recommend?