When a local Provence wine tasting club asked Jamie Ivey to introduce them to English wine, little did they realise what was at stake.
The phrases ‘hospital pass’ and ‘poisoned chalice’ came immediately to mind when my neighbours invited me to their wine club. They know I’m a wine enthusiast so the invitation was a kind gesture. The only problem was the caveat, ‘it would be great if you could bring along three or four different types of English wine and present them to the group.’
Years ago I did a blind tasting of English rosé vs French rosé in the weekly village market. Everybody enjoyed themselves and nearly half of the tasters preferred the English wine to the French. But that was rosé, a wine the French struggle to take seriously, and the tasters were amateurs doing their weekly shopping in the market. I was to present English white and red wine to a group of aficionados.
In other words I was buggered.
For those not in the know, the revival of wine growing in England is relatively recent. After centuries of neglect the first commercial vineyard opened again shortly after the Second World War, but only in the last decade has wine growing in England taken-off. Enthusiasts talk of global warming turning Surrey and Sussex into the new Bordeaux and Burgundy, but the reality is a cool climate dictates an emphasis on German grape varietals, many of them hybrid.
The noble French grapes which are responsible for the great wines of the world are mostly absent from the UK. Sparkling wine, is England’s greatest success story, but the wine club’s last meeting had concentrated on method champenoise from around the world. So I was to present white and red wine made from hybrid grapes, in a cool climate, by relatively inexperienced wine makers, to a table of experts whose viticultural family trees stretched back generations.
At least the food was going to be good. The club always convened at La Petite Maison, and was seated around the chef’s table so that Michelin starred Eric Sapet could come out and taste whatever was on offer.
So there I was last Wednesday, English wine on ice, ready to give the spiel about the Romans bringing viticulture to England, and Pepys mentioning a decent Surrey red in his diary, when the last member of the group came through the door, chiller box in hand.
‘Shall we start with a little something French,’ she said, producing a wine from a vineyard in nearby La Tour D’Aigue. Nobody disagreed and we chatted convivially about the ongoing olive oil harvest and the number of bottles per kilo given out by the respective mills. I realised that the members of the club were nervous. The French bottle was a way of calming them, before they plunged into the unknown and potentially palate challenging world of English wine.
Eventually the moment came. I introduced a Reichensteiner white wine, from West Fisher vineyard, in Biggin Hill Kent. I’d purchased not for taste, but because the vineyard neighbours my parents’ house.
‘It’s not like wine at all’ was the first non-too-encouraging comment from a sommelier sat at the opposite end of the table.
‘I once had some apple wine’ she went on ‘I think this taste most like that.’
‘For me it’s like flat champagne’ said another taster.
And so it went on, non-too encouraging comment after comment.
We moved on to the next wine, a white, from Denbies vineyard in Surrey.
‘What’s the grape variety?’ asked the sommelier?
‘Bacchus’ I replied
‘Isn’t he a Roman God?’ someone piped up, and everyone laughed.
‘It’s a hybrid’ I stumbled.
And then the most remarkable thing happened. The group stop talking and joking, instead they sniffed and swirled, and tasted. Nose were planted into wine glasses, notebooks retrieved from bags, and a studious air descended on the table.
‘C’est un peu comme un Loire Sauvignon.’
Noses were removed from glasses as those around the table concurred. There was a general sense of relief that there would be something decent to drink with the smoked Scottish salmon and horseradish salad prepared by Eric. The meal which had been hovering on the point of disaster with the first wine, suddenly stood a chance.
Next up though was an English red wine from the Bolney estate in Sussex made from a blend of Rondo and Dornfeller grapes which weighed in at only 10% alcohol. The wine club was salivating at the thought of Eric’s delicious Roast Pintarde but the nerves were creeping in again. Another wine like the first, and the wine club might start losing its members.
The red was poured.
‘I can’t quite place the smell and the taste,’ said one member.
‘Nor I,’ another.
‘I have it,’ said the sommelier, ‘leather’
‘Like a stables,’ said another.
‘There are lots of horses in England’ concurred the gentleman to my right.
Everyone laughed. And then they ate and tasted some more. Judging from the clean plates and glasses, the wine was adequate for its purposes. No-one though wanted to risk another English wine with the cheese, and so a South African Chenin Blanc was produced from under the table.
It had obviously been chilled in case of emergency.