Grapevine: Kathryn McWhirter on English wines

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THERE was a time when I didn't take English wines seriously. The odd bottle would be let out of our cellar as a conversation piece when the au pair's parents came to stay. But acidic, Liebfraumilch-style wines at twice the price didn't make my shopping list. Recently, however, winemaking here has improved immensely, often thanks to consultants from the more established winemaking world.

Many of my favourite English wines come from Pilton Manor Vineyard, near Shepton Mallet in Somerset. Especially good are ***1991 Pilton Manor Bacchus ( pounds 5.99 Chard Fine Wines), crisp, fruity and reminiscent of lychees, apples and gooseberries; and ***1991 Pilton Manor Oaked Dry Reserve ( pounds 5.70 Wine Society), soft and creamy with a hint of oak. **1991 Pilton Manor Dry Reserve ( pounds 5.29 Safeway, pounds 5.75 Wine Rack, Bottoms Up and selected Thresher) is leaner, grassier, but also ripe and apricotty. ****1992 Pilton Manor Westholme ( pounds 7.45 per half, Corn Road Vintners of Rothbury, Morpeth) has rich, prune and sweet-apricot flavour, overlaid with the pungency of noble rot. Pilton's dry, sparkling **Pilton Manor Brut ( pounds 9.40 County Stores of Taunton) is crisp, dryly honeyed and toasty.

The House of Commons house wine is ***1992 Wickham Fume, Hampshire ( pounds 5.95 Corn Road Vintners of Rothbury, Morpeth, pounds 6.95 Wine Rack, Bottoms Up and selected Thresher) - crisp, gooseberryish but rich, and slightly oaky. Also crisp and gently oaky, ***1991 Valley Vineyards Fume, Twyford, Berkshire ( pounds 7.95 Savacentre, pounds 7.99 Wine Rack, Bottoms Up and selected Thresher), with its buttery, gooseberry and tropical-fruit flavours, won this year's 'English Wine of the Year' trophy from the English Vineyards Association; **1991 Valley Vineyards Regatta ( pounds 4.62 Asda Lower Earley (Reading) branch, pounds 4.99 Fullers, Safeway, local Waitrose, Berkshire branches of Gateway and Somerfield, pounds 5.79 Wine Rack, Bottoms Up and selected Thresher) is like a lightweight New Zealand

Sauvignon. **1991 Wickham Vintage Selection Dry, Hampshire ( pounds 4.99 Savacentre, pounds 6.25 Pont de la Tour of London SE1) is very easy-drinking, lemony and appley; **1991 Boze Down Dry, Whitchurch-on-Thames, Oxfordshire ( pounds 5.49 Savacentre, pounds 5.99 Asda Lower Earley (Reading) branch) is ripe, exotic and crisp. All the above are also available direct from Harvest Wine Group, Clocktower Mews, Stanlake Park, Twyford, Reading RG10 0BN, (0734 344290).

STAR RATING: ****complex and exciting;

***excellent; **very good; *good.