Food & Drink: Fruit of the Devon vines

Anthony Rose ON WINE: If you dismiss English wines without a second thought, think again - way out west there's a wine of the year

There were just three barrels of Beenleigh Red sitting in Mark Sharman's office when I arrived at Sharpham Estate in Devon on a cold, wet March morning. "That's the 1998 vintage", he pointed out proudly. We tasted the young wine with its bracingly fresh mulberry fruit and mild astringency. It was like a sharp summer pudding for breakfast in winter. He had every right to be proud; the young red that sent a shiver down my spine later won best English red in the English & Welsh Wine of the Year Awards at the House of Lords.

Unusually for English vineyards, Sharpham produces both white and red wines. Beenleigh Red, at the top of the range, is made from the Bordeaux varieties cabernet sauvignon and merlot. The vines were planted by Marian Ash, daughter of Sharpham's founder Maurice Ash, and are grown in polytunnels, to warm the grapes enough for them to ripen. Why cabernet and merlot? "Probably because she's even madder than me," laughed Ash, who recalled that in one year the cabernet wasn't picked until 27 November.

At the same tasting, Mark Sharman produced a bottle with no vintage on the label or cork; he thought it must be the 1990, his first vintage at Sharpham. It was astonishingly good, like a mature Loire or New Zealand red from a ripe vintage, with a rustic, gamy edge. Based on the success of the red, the vineyard has recently been extended with dornfelder, an earlier-ripening German red variety, which, with pinot noir, makes the Sharpham Red.

Sharpham is set in a natural amphitheatre in 550 acres of rolling Devon farmland, just south of Totnes. From a first-floor window of the Georgian, Palladian-style mansion, Maurice Ash points to the vineyard, a patchwork of vivid green and chocolaty red, which slopes down a horseshoe bend in the river Dart. "It's an attempt to regenerate the historic English estate in a new guise," says the 81-year-old Ash.

He bought the estate in 1961 and, with his wife Ruth, formed the Sharpham Trust in 1984. "It seemed to me that a house like ours had no raison d'etre unless it was serving the surrounding community. As the monasteries were once the focus of rural life in Britain, we wanted it to be a centre of learning and innovation." The Trust leased out a 100-acre biodynamic mixed stock farm. In the main house, Sharpham College, a Buddhist community, takes in a dozen or so students a year. Ash's passion is Sharpham Partnership: the vineyard and winery, and a dairy farm producing Sharpham's four hand- made cheeses.

Until 1988, the wines were made at Three Choirs in Gloucestershire. Ash recalls that, casting around for his own winemaker, "I found someone digging for gold in the Arctic. I thought he was bound to be suitable." When Mark Sharman arrived in 1988, Sharpham was still in its infancy, with less than five acres of vines. After visits to France and Germany with Ash, Sharman was confident enough to begin winemaking.

Today, the estate has 14 acres of vines. The mainstay is an obscure French variety, madeleine angevine. It was planted for its suitability to South Devon's warm summers and red loam soils, on the advice of the late Gillian Pearkes. "She was a renowned viticulturalist, but had no grip on commercial reality," says Ash, sardonically. Of the four grape varieties Pearkes advised planting - pinot noir, reichensteiner, huxelrebe and madeleine angevine, only the last turned out to be wholly suitable. Even so, most of the vines in the first experimental planting died.

Three whites are made from madeleine angevine, all delicate, crisp and dry in the French style preferred by Maurice Ash. Ninety Tesco branches in the South-west sell the Dart Valley Reserve, pounds 6.49, a peachy, refreshingly crisp dry white in which the huxelrebe and reichensteiner contribute a dash of spiciness. The 1996 Sharpham Estate Selection Madeleine Angevine, pounds 8.50, is a dry, tangy, grapefruity white showing some of the tartness of the 1996 vintage. The Australian wine consultant John Worontschak added a third white wine, the 1996 Sharpham Barrel-Fermented Madeleine Angevine, pounds 9.99, a rounder and softer dry white.

Is the enterprise viable? "It would be if we had a decent summer," says Maurice Ash. Mark Sharman is more optimistic, pointing out that Sharpham has a strong following locally, while the image of English wine is steadily improving. At the moment, there are no signs to Sharpham (basically, you get to the little village of Ashprington and turn left). "No coaches, cream teas or bouncy castles," insists Maurice Ash, but plans are afoot to give the public better access to Sharpham's wines without sacrificing the tranquillity of one of England's most picturesque vineyards. There'll be a number of boat trips, for instance, this summer from Dartmouth and Totnes.

Over the fireplace in the dining-room at Sharpham House, a relief shows Apollo and Pan in competition for musical supremacy. Apollo, the winner, has had his block knocked off and rather clumsily restored. A modern sculpture of the pipes of Pan protrudes from the river Dart like dinosaur bones. Maurice Ash smiles. If the house is the focus of the Enlightenment and a celebration of Apollo, the soul of Sharpham is its celebration of dionysian pleasures.

Sharpham Partnership, Totnes, Devon (01803 732203). Vineyard visits by appointment only

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Stinson Hunter and his associates Stubbs and Grime in Channel 4 documentary The Paedophile Hunter

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Burr remains the baker to beat on the Great British Bake Off
tvRichard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Arts and Entertainment
This Banksy mural in Clacton has been removed by the council
art
Arts and Entertainment
Swiss guards stand in the Sistine Chapel, which is to be lit, and protected, by 7,000 LEDs
art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer, Lord Alan Sugar, Karren Brady are returning for The Apprentice series 10

TV
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Angelina Jolie and Winona Ryder star in 'Girl, Interrupted'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Ed Stoppard as Brian Epstein, Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Elliott Cowan as George Martin in 'Cilla'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas Pynchon in 1955, left, and Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix in Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of his novel, Inherent Vice

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Nicole Scherzinger will join the cast of Cats

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Fans were left surprised by the death on Sunday night's season 26 premiere

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lady Mary goes hunting with suitor Lord Gillingham

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

    Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

    A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
    An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

    An app for the amorous

    Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

    Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
    She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

    She's having a laugh

    Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

    Let there be light

    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
    Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

    Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

    Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
    Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

    A look to the future

    It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
    The 10 best bedspreads

    The 10 best bedspreads

    Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
    Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

    Arsenal vs Galatasaray

    Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
    Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?