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

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