A Terrific Visit Close to Home

Stopham Vineyard - this lovely tree graces their label.

Stopham Vineyard – this lovely tree graces their label.

A Terrific Visit

What a day I had last week. In the evening I led a wine tasting of some of the really interesting, surprising and downright fabulous wines that I had discovered on my travels over the last 12 months – or so.

2012 was an incredible year for travel for me and 2013 is looking pretty good too, so I am constantly having wonderful new experiences – sometimes visiting regions or countries that are completely new to me or seeing new producers and winemakers in areas that I have visited in the past.

Such trips push my knowledge and understanding forward and keep my passion for wine – and telling you all about it – alive.

So, it might astonish you to know that my most recent trip was to – Sussex.

One of the wines that I wanted to show was from Stopham Vineyards near Pulborough in West Sussex and as the wine is hard to find in the shops I dropped in to see Simon at the winery. It is a lovely part of the world on a nice day and the sun made the whole trip feel like being somewhere exotic and exciting. And of course I was somewhere exciting.

I have mentioned Stopham Vineyards before when I tasted the 2010 vintage of the Pinot Gris and the Pinot Blanc, but this time I had the 2011 Pinot Gris – I have yet to taste the 2011 Pinot Blanc. If you want to try it, hunt the wine down quickly as it has almost sold out everywhere and there they made nothing at all in 2012, so you will have to cross your fingers and wait for the 2013 – if there is any.

The vineyard sloping down towards the South Downs.

The vineyard sloping down towards the South Downs.

I must say if you are feeling stressed and oppressed it is a good idea to visit an English vineyard. It must be so hard growing grapes in England, even if you have a lovely south facing, sandy and well drained slope as they do at Stopham. Nature does not mean grapes to ripen easily here – it is a matter of coaxing and hoping and lots of hard work in the vineyard and even then you can lose an entire crop. I am pretty sure that I would be under serious medication by now if that had happened to me, but Simon Woodhead – the chief winemaker and viticulturist – is one of the most upbeat jolly people I have ever met. He is also one of the most interesting and dedicated winemakers I have ever had the pleasure to listen to. Despite everything our climate has thrown at him, he told me that there is nothing else he would rather do.

Simon Woodhead - a great winemaker and seemingly happy man.

Simon Woodhead – a great winemaker and seemingly happy man.

Strolling around his vineyard with him was a delight. Seeing it through his eyes was really a wonderful experience. To see where all the hard work goes on and to hear how he does it was a privilege. Because I know that his wines are amongst the very best produced in this country. I haven’t tasted them all so will not put it any higher than that, but I have not tasted a still white wine from England that was better.

Simon in front of one of his large tanks with one of his carbon dioxide sensors that allows him to ferment his delicate white wines at 6-8˚C - he did explain it to me, but I don't seem to have really understood it!

Simon in front of one of his large tanks with one of his carbon dioxide sensors that allows him to ferment his delicate white wines at 6-8˚C – he did explain it to me, but I don’t seem to have really understood it!

I showed the Pinot Gris at Hextable Wine Society that evening and was thrilled that pretty much the whole room agreed with me that this was a terrific wine, delicious, aromatic, dry and a joy to drink:

StrophamPG2011 Stopham Pinot Gris
This is a delicate Pinot Gris, not like Alsace – and not like Pinot Grigio either, there is nothing bland about this. The aromatics are wonderfully fragrant and exotic with a touch of herbs about it too – there is a little Bacchus in this wine as well as Pinot Gris. The palate is light and fresh with a lively acidity that dances across your tongue leaving mandarin and apricot flavours – indeed the whole thing is bursting with flavour – 91/100 points.

I am utterly thrilled by this wine as it shows that we can make wines as good as anyone. What’s more they do not have to be hybrid grapes and we can bring our own unique take to a grape variety that is widely grown elsewhere. Do try and find a bottle if you can, it is well worth the effort.

Another way to try it of course is to have a tour of the vineyard. You will get to meet Simon, listen to how he selected the site, how they planted the vineyard and how they make their wines. He kept some bottles back so that you will be able to try his wines without hunting down a stockist or waiting for the 2013 crop – go on and tell him I sent you.

England’s Green & Pleasant Land

Fingers crossed for a great future for English wine and here’s to some flashes of brilliance on the way…

I love the idea of English wine. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to live in a country that was a serious wine producer, both for quantity and quality. To that end I so wish we had a more generous climate that made winemaking more of a reliable proposition here. As it is, every now and again – usually after a good summer – we get a false dawn for a wine producing future. How many times have the media told us that it will soon be an everyday occurrence to see grapes growing and wine being made in England?

Well, I fear the truth is not as rosy as the press would often have us believe. England is at best a marginal place to grow grapes and in reality worse than that – 50˚ North lies just to the South of the Cornish coast, so nowhere in these islands – except for the Southern point of The Lizard Peninsula – lies in the classic grape growing zone which is between 30˚ and 50˚ North and 30˚ and 50˚ South.

So, as UK grapes are not grown where they ought to be, English producers start with an incredible disadvantage and the problems never really let up. English producers are truly trying to beat nature, which can seem pretty impressive and awe inspiring when all is going well, but it must surely also account for the reason that success is so infrequent.

Like many of you I have tried a handful of really good English wines, but they have failed so far to make real inroads into many people’s wine awareness and rightly or wrongly most of us have the impression that the good wines are the rare exception rather than the norm.

Personally I have a sneaking suspicion that given our unreliable climate for ripening grapes, then the best English wines will often be the ones that balance the potentially rampant acidity somehow, so off-dry styles and sparkling wines may well be what we should focus on? Certainly our most famous wines now seem to be the sparklers and if you have not tried Nyetimber, Ridgeview, Chapel Down or Camel Valley traditional method sparkling wines, then you really should.

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