Food & Drink: Chateau Dorking, M Mitterrand?: English wine is now worthy of being served at a state banquet, says Anthony Rose

FIVE years ago you wouldn't have thanked me for mentioning English wine, let alone recommending it; it was as patchy and unreliable as a typical English summer. But now, though the long-term weather forecast has not changed substantially, the prospects for English wine certainly have.

Last year's harvest - England and Wales produced a record 300,000 cases - makes the United Kingdom a fully paid-up member of the EC bureaucracy: a dubious privilege in view of the red tape such status comes wrapped up in. The worst effect for UK producers is not being able to label their wines as they would wish: English table wine and English quality wine.

The bottom line, of course, is that there is no substitute for quality in the bottle itself. And while the men from the ministry are mulling over the small print, a number of producers seem to be making English wines that genuinely conform to international standards.

The performance of English wines in tastings gives one clue. At the International Wine Challenge, English wines, tasted blind in dry white and medium white categories, performed creditably, garnering an impressive number of silver and bronze medals (gold still eludes them).

Another factor is the increasing confidence shown by unsentimental retail wine buyers. Once overpriced, sporadic events on supermarket shelves, English wines have benefited from economies of scale in the UK's half-dozen bigger vineyards.

Safeway has been highly successful with its policy of stocking 13 English and Welsh wines (between pounds 2.99 and pounds 6.49) in local branches. And with more reliable continuity of supply, Victoria Wine, Sainsbury, Majestic, Asda, Unwins et al are having a stab. The Queen even dared to serve an English wine to Francois Mitterrand at a banquet last year. Chiddingstone Wines made the most of this, its fine, crisp, strawberry-scented 1990 Chiddingstone Pinot from Kent acquitting itself well in exalted company.

This new confidence is reflected in last month's opening to the public of the flint-clad Denbies Estate winery. Channel 4 addicts may have seen the ads, the first for an English wine, portraying Denbies as a vast Napa Valley-style chateau complex set in 250 acres on the North Downs at Dorking, Surrey.

Although the vineyard is equipped for tours, films, lift rides, walks and picnics, Denbies' achievements still smack more of style than substance. Heart of Oak, for instance, a wine matured in barrels made from its own oaks toppled by the 1987 hurricane, is better in principle than execution. And where is the much-vaunted sparkling wine mooted four years ago?

If Denbies is a triumph of style, John Worontschak, a young Australian winemaker, is bringing some substance to English winemaking. An oenology graduate of Australia's Riverina (now Charles Sturt) College, he has worked as a contract winemaker for the likes of Penfolds in Australia, Hugel in Alsace and Tim Marshall in Burgundy.

In 1988, Mr Worontschak contacted Jon Leighton, the owner of Thames Valley Vineyard, and after the vintage that year, became convinced that English wine could be a viable proposition. 'I couldn't imagine why English wine couldn't be good,' he says. 'Every year I have been here has been good. It is too cold for varieties such as riesling, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, but there is enough sunlight for earlier ripening grapes. You simply need to manipulate the conditions to make sure the wines taste good. In Australia, the climate's too hot; in England, it's the other way round.'

Through his contract winemaking firm, Harvest, Mr Worontschak immediately set about repairing some of English winemaking's basic faults. 'People would pick too early, use harvest trailers that munched the stalks, press the grapes too hard and leave the finished wines to oxidise in plastic containers. They didn't monitor the fermentation, added sweetening grape juice concentrate and ended up with liebfraumilch, only half as good at three times the price.'

With Mr Leighton advising on viticulture, Mr Worontschak has introduced a number of new ideas, such as picking as late as possible, gentle crushing, new yeast strains and, of course, the use of oak barrels. No doubt the debate over the place of oak in English wines will continue. The success of Thames Valley Fume, and latterly Wickham's excellent 1992 Special Reserve and Northbrook Springs' 1992 Maiden Vintage, suggests that barrel maturation techniques can add complexity to some blends.

Mr Worontschak emphasises that he is not making English wine to just one recipe. 'I think the answer is in blending varieties such as seyval blanc, bacchus, madeleine angevine and reichensteiner, then giving the finished product a village name, or names such as Regatta or Ascot,' he says. 'I just can't see the world getting that excited about Huxelrebe or Siegerrebe.'

Mr Worontschak's Harvest Wine Group at present comprises 10 English vineyards, with more waiting to join. They also employ a marketing consultant, Maurice Moore, which enables them to offer a portfolio of different wines.

The latest Harvest experiment is to edge English sparkling wine away from the light Germanic style towards a French-style, pinot noir-based fizz. Preliminary tastings suggest that this idea could give the French something more than elderflower champagne to occupy their minds.

Denbies Wine Experience, Dorking, (tour and tasting) pounds 4 for adults, pounds 3 for groups of 20 or more, pounds 2 for children (includes free grape juice); open seven days (0306 876616).

GOOD-VALUE ENGLISH WINES

Three Choirs Seyval Reichensteiner Dry 1990, pounds 4.55, Safeway (local branches, Gloucestershire). Dry, almost chablis-like character. Denbies Wine Estate 1991, pounds 3.99, Sainsbury. Zingy and fruity. Valley Vineyards Dry White 1990 English Table Wine, pounds 2.99, Safeway. Rounded, mature fruitiness. Wickham Medium Dry 1991, pounds 5.05, Safeway (local branches, Hampshire). Well-balanced schonburger/kerner blend with an attractive fruity sweetness. Thames Valley Regatta 1991, pounds 4.95, Safeway (Home Counties); pounds 4.99, Gateway, Asda, Waitrose (local branches, Berkshire), Fullers. Crisply fruity seyval/bacchus/kerner blend. Chanctonbury 1992 Classic, pounds 6.95, from the vineyard (0903 892721). Loire-like sauvignon character.

(Photograph omitted)

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