All images by Robin Goldsmith, unless otherwise stated
The beauty of wine is not just in the glass, but also in the land where it's made. While the increasing reputation of English wine continues to generate interest, UK vineyard tourism, spurred on by this phenomenon, is also on the rise. There is growing demand for home-grown produce and, while the sun-kissed beaches and city highlights of Europe and beyond will always remain attractive holiday destinations, Britain's 'staycationers' who are visiting English vineyards in increasing numbers, are doing their bit to boost the national economy, while enjoying the local food and drink options.
One of the most beautiful vineyard settings in the UK has to be Sharpham, on the banks of the River Dart near Totnes in South Devon. For me, no visit to the South-West of England would be complete without a visit to one of my favourite English vineyards (and cheese dairies), winner of many national and international awards. The 10-acre vineyard is located on the Sharpham Trust estate, an area of mixed farmland totalling 500 acres, which dates back 1000 years. The Trust, an educational and conservation charity, is based at Sharpham House, a magnificent Palladian villa from the 1770s, overlooking the estate and the beautiful river Dart from its vantage point at the top of a hill.
The Sharpham vineyard, creamery and dairy farm have been producing wine and unpasteurised cheese for over 30 years and it was my first taste of their Madeleine Angevine, 10 years ago, that really sparked a personal interest in modern English wine. Indeed, the latest 2013 vintage of their light and fruity off-dry 'Dart Valley Reserve', made from Madeleine Angevine, Phoenix and Bacchus, is one of their current award-winners.
The estate makes a wide range of still and sparkling red, white and rosé wines. Their reds are among the best in England and include the iconic 'Beenleigh', made by Sharpham's MD Mark Sharman, from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes grown in polytunnels at a neighbouring vineyard and aged in American oak. The Sharpham Red 2013 (100% Rondo) is a lighter, full-on summer fruit-driven style, which matches extremely well with their cheeses, especially the delicious 'Rustic'. They also produce an award-winning Pinot Noir/Pinot Précoce blend.
Having enjoyed a delicious lunch in the vineyard café, I caught up with Duncan Schwab, head winemaker at the estate and asked him a few questions:-
Robin Goldsmith: What is your view of the English wine renaissance and what do you think the future holds for still and sparkling red, white and rosé?
Duncan Schwab: We owe a lot to the hobbyists who got the ball rolling by established vineyards back in the 70’s and 80’s. More recently the industry has become much more professional and sometimes you feel it is on a runaway train with the amount of new plantings taking place. Most new plantings are concentrating on sparkling wine varieties, but I feel there is still a good market for well-made still wines too. The Industry has been accused of growing too quickly, but the average annual yield is still relatively tiny, compared with vineyards in other parts of the world.
(RG:The 2013 UK harvest figures revealed the highest production on record, with nearly 4.5 million bottles of wine, approximately two thirds of which were sparkling. In contrast, France produced around 6 billion bottles of wine, of which approximately 300 million were Champagne.)
RG: What percentage of your production is currently sparkling wine and how important do you see this over the coming years, given the success of English sparkling wine?
DS: We have upped production of our sparkling wines following our international trophy success at the Bollicini del Mondo competition and the more recent International Wine Challenge and Decanter competitions. We now produce 15% sparkling wines per annum from our production of 100,000 bottles per year.
RG: What grape varieties do you grow at Sharpham and which ones elsewhere? What led you to decide on this particular spread of grape varieties?
DS: At Sharpham we grow Madeleine Angevine, Phoenix, Dornfelder and Pinot Noir Precoce. These varieties have been chosen from trial sites we established 33 years ago and not only do they grow well, but more importantly they make excellent wines. We also harvest Chardonnay, Bacchus and Pinot Noir from another vineyard on the other side of the river, who grow grapes for us.
RG: Where do you sell the majority of your wines and which are your most popular?
DS: We sell 50% to the trade and 50% through our cellar door sales. Our ‘Dart Valley Reserve’ wine is by far the most popular through the trade as it’s a really good easy drinking wine that matches an array of dishes and hits the right price point. We need the trade sales to drive people to our cellar door, where they can experience, taste and purchase some of our more premium wine styles.
RG: Are all your grapes hand-harvested?
DS: Yes we harvest everything by hand and most of the sorting and selecting takes place in the vineyard.
RG: What do you think of wine critics' reactions to the use of non vitis-vinifera grapes such as Rondo?
DS: Non vitis-vinifera grapes make up a very small portion of UK wines and I feel as long as the wine is good and enjoyable to drink, then there can’t be any criticism.
RG: What's the story behind the Beenleigh red?
DS: The Beenleigh Vineyard was established partly as a result of family rivalry and partly from a desire to produce an ‘English Claret’ for the future. In the late 1970’s when the discussions at Sharpham about a vineyard were happening and the site was being prepared, Marian Ash, Maurice and Ruth Ash’s middle daughter, went ahead and planted Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in horticultural tunnels on a sheltered south facing slope on her farm about 3 miles from Sharpham.
Mark Sharman, the founding winemaker at Sharpham, bought the vineyard from his cousin in the late 1980’s and the wine became a cousin to the Sharpham wines. In fact it was the first wine made at Sharpham to start winning trophies, winning Best English Red Wine on three occasions, a habit which now continues across the range of wines.
RG: Which is your most popular visitor trail option and when did you introduce these?
DS: We offer a ‘Vine to Wine’ tour where one of our tour guides takes you on a beautiful walk through the vines and alongside the River Dart, before returning to the winery. A full explanation of the whole process is given in a relaxing but informative manner. We want people to enjoy themselves, whilst at the same time leave with a good knowledge of the English wine industry and hopefully a few bottles to boot!
RG: Have you seen an increase in visitor numbers over the last 5 years and do you think this is directly related to the burgeoning national and international success of English wine?
DS: I have seen the number of visitors increase over the last 5 years exponentially. English wines are punching well above their weight in terms of the publicity and international awards we gain for such a small young industry.
RG: Do you have many overseas visitors and what is their reaction to discovering your wines and your vineyard?
DS: The locals love to show us off to their visiting friends. They arrive with a certain amount of wonder and amusement written on their faces, but it usually only takes a sip for them to express their amazement followed by “this wine is damn good!”
RG: Do you think that wine tourism could be a big growth area in the UK?
DS: We already have a wine trail in Devon, which takes in four vineyards in a 50 mile radius. As the industry grows, I only see the insatiable appetite the public has to learn about a drink that has grown at such a quick rate over the last twenty years. We make a number of different styles of wine at Sharpham. Our visitors can learn and taste a wide range in order to understand the principals behind the winemaking and our philosophy.
RG: Which of your cheeses would you match with which of your wines and has your wine production influenced your cheese production or vice versa?
DS: Although both enterprises stared on the estate in 1981, the cheese quickly became renowned, first in London and then locally. By the time the first wines were produced in commercial quantities in 1987, the cheese had many fans and so the cheese was often used to introduce the wine to customers, but the wines we make are an expression of the best possible style from the grapes we have rather than designed to go specifically with any particular cheese.
The Sharpham Cheese is made from rich full flavoured Jersey cow milk produced here on the farm, but it is really the cheese style that determines the wine choice. The original Sharpham is a brie style, but with more flavour, and pairs well with our Sparkling White wine or with our fruity dry Rosé. Once fully ripe the cheese match is with a fruity wine that is relatively low in tannin and our Pinot Noir fits the bill here perfectly. These matches also work well for the other soft cheeses we make called Elmhirst and Cremet.
For the semi soft cheeses like Sharpham Rustic and Sharpham Savour our Rosé is very good, whilst for the Sharpham Ticklemore Goat cheese the light oak of the Barrel fermented or the Dart Valley Reserve make a pleasing combination.
RG: Finally, how do you feel about working in such a beautiful part of the UK and being at the forefront of the UK wine scene?
DS: I drove down the Sharpham Drive in 1992 and thought ‘this is where I want to work’. The views took your breath away, as Sharpham’s location must surely be in one of the most beautiful parts of the UK. At the time the vineyard was expanding and there were very few other vineyards in the UK. It was a very exciting time and, as a burgeoning young industry, we were in the early stages of learning about which varieties suited our soils, the correct trellising systems, the best root stocks, wine styles and the list goes on. Over the following twenty-two years we have established Sharpham as one of the foremost vineyards in the UK and I count myself very fortunate to have been in the right place at the right time.
Image provided by the winery
Many thanks to Duncan for sharing his insights into one of England's vinous success stories and I look forward to my next visit to this beautiful part of the country and, of course, to this wonderful estate.
This article is also available on The Alcohol Professor website.