English wines enjoy a taste of success: Vineyards in the Home Counties are beginning to establish reputations for excellence, with a little help from Down Under. Steve Boggan and Rhys Williams report

'THE PROBLEM with English winegrowers was that they wouldn't take advice from anyone,' Jon Leighton, an English winegrower with a heavy Australian accent, said.

'And in this game, if you won't take advice, trying to make good wine is like pushing shit uphill.'

If you like your winespeak fey and pretentious, then perhaps Jon Leighton is not your man.

If, however, you want to know why English wines are beginning to win medals at international competitions, why supermarket chains are buying in (limited) bulk, and why, quite simply, they are worth drinking as an addition to the growing New World selection, then perhaps he is.

Mr Leighton, 59, and the wines from his Thames Valley Vineyard near Twyford, Berkshire, have earned the admiration of his peers and a string of awards in international and domestic competition.

Since 1989, grape production from his 25 acres of vines has increased from 25 tonnes to 250 tonnes, resulting in 'own label' deals with Tesco and Sainsbury's. Sales of his Fume, Sweet Lee, Ascot, Botrytis and Regatta labels have also been boosted through Asda, Gateway, Thresher and Waitrose, and Stanlake dry white, also from Twyford, has been selling in increasing quantities at Safeway stores.

The secret of Thames Valley's success - a secret now shared with nine other English vineyards - is a 31- year-old Australian winemaker called John Worontschak, who met Jon Leighton in Australia while Mr Leighton was on a course in viticulture.

'I had been studying geology when a friend told me you could get a degree in winemaking,' Mr Worontschak said. 'Think about it. You have a rock in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other. You look at them for a minute and then you throw the rock away.'

He linked up with Mr Leighton again in England in 1988 and was invited to be his winemaker. The no- nonsense partnership flourished and success followed. Repeated winners of the English Wine of the Year title, the pair have also won silver and bronze medals at international level.

Now, Mr Worontschak's Harvest Wine Consultancy makes and markets wine for nine other vineyards and the collective opinion within the industry is that the Australian influence has raised the standard of English wines across the board.

'The English are so snobby about their own wines,' Mr Leighton said. 'We want people to see them as New World wines and to try them with an open mind.'

Modern English wine-growing began in 1967 when the English Vineyard Association, the industry's regulatory body, was formed. Today there are about 260 commercial vineyards out of 450 in England and Wales. Production has jumped from 99,880 litres a year in 1979 to 1.5 million in 1991, with a high of 2.6 million last year.

As the world's northern-most wine producers, British growers must battle against a cool climate and uncertain seasons that result in low alcohol, high acidity wines.

Early ripening and a resistance to rot rule out several of the grapes used on the Continent. Many English vineyards are forced to plant hardy and quick ripening hybrid varieties, such as Seyval Blanc, which accounts for between 25 and 30 per cent of output. EC regulations dictate that now UK production of table wine has reached 2.5 million litres, growers may only plant new vines for the production of 'quality wine', an EC term which has little to do with quality but which allows no hybrids. Confrontation with the EC seems inevitable, but in the meantime there is much optimism in the industry as a result of growing success at international competition. This year, the Breaky Bottom 1990 Seyval Blanc from Lewes, East Sussex, and the Throwley 1991 Ortega from Faversham, Kent, won gold medals in the Wine magazine international challenge. Judges chose the wines in blind tastings from among 6,000 entrants.

It was a small start from a country whose wine production is insignificant in global terms, but it silenced those who never expected to see fine wines emerge from England.

Elizabeth Oldham, wine spokeswoman for Safeway, which stocks the widest variety of English wines, said: 'Over the past five years the quality of English wines has improved to a massive extent. We still regard them as a niche market, but one that is rapidly growing. We are selling as many English wines as New Zealand wines and the numbers are increasing all the time.'

But David Carr Taylor, owner of Carr Taylor Vineyards in Sussex, which has also won gold in international competition, believes a huge hurdle must still be crossed if the British are to provide a market for English wines. 'If people taste one bad French wine, they'll try another. If they taste a bad English one, they'll give up.'

And that is the root of the marketing problem facing the English. Simon Loftus, the wine writer and managing director of Adnams Wine Merchant, believes people's view of English wines will not be easy to change. The challenge is to make people like him take them seriously.

'Producing wine in England is like trying to walk to the moon with clogs on,' he said. 'It is fighting against every climatic condition. You could only have confidence in English wine growing if you thought global warming was here to stay.'

(Photograph omitted)