Star Of `The Flying Winemakers'

SILHOUETTED AGAINST a dark background with a wine glass to his nose, Hugh Ryman features in the Oxford Wine Companion as "one of the more celebrated flying winemakers".

Tall, charming, on the face of it the perfect English gentleman, Ryman has always stood out from the crowd of mostly Australians and New Zealanders who descend on Europe's vineyards to make wine at harvest time.

With a nose for sniffing out under-achieving regions and using the technical skills of antipodean winemakers, Ryman has built a worldwide winemaking business based on good value wines tailor-made to supermarkets and off- licences.

I first came across him breezing into Moldova in 1991, where he signed up the Hinesti winery as a partner producing cheap but not particularly cheerful reds and whites for the British market. At that time, he was already starting to make a name for himself with a palatable if unpronounceable pounds 3.49 Hungarian Chardonnay from Gyongyos.

Despite the flying winemaker tag, Ryman is grounded for much of the time. In 1990 he bought land at Cave du Casse, near Carcassonne, in the south of France and turned the shed into a modern winery complete with glistening stainless steel tank farm and new oak barrels.

"The Dump" as it was affectionately known, turns out crisply refreshing Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay as well as an attractive Cabernet Sauvignon. Ryman has made no secret of the fact that, to keep the price down, the Chardonnay was fermented using oak chips, a classic Australian technique frowned upon by the French.

With the 1995 vintage in the Languedoc, Ryman branched out into more adventurous styles, making not only good quality Chardonnay but an attractive Rousssanne and Viegnier and a red made from ancient, local Carignan vines.

He set up projects in Spain, and at Marques at Riscal in Rueda, he used his expertise with Sauvignon Blanc to good effect. "Possibly the best wine I have ever made," he says of the 1995 Jacana Pinotage Reserve produced in South Africa, which won a trophy and gold medal at the 1997 International Wine Challenge.