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Fine-wine production in the Home Counties? In the latest Mercedes-Benz-sponsored wine tour, Nick Tarayan jumps into a new generation C 180 Kompressor Estate to find out more
There's been much media excitement recently about the growing stature of English wine: our wines are being served in Paris bistros; France's Union of Champagne Producers has confessed to the emergent force of English sparkling wines; 2003 was a stunning vintage... And with almost 400 commercial vineyards now established in England and Wales - some as far north as Lancashire and Yorkshire - it seemed about time to check out the domestic wine scene.
Two winemakers - Tenterden Vineyards in Kent and Nyetimber in West Sussex - have attracted particular attention. So, to see what all the fuss was about, I decided to embark on a triangular journey - travelling south-east from London into Kent, then into West Sussex before coming back through Surrey.
For the journey, I had the new version of what might best be described as Mercedes' baby sports tourer, the new generation C 180 Kompressor Estate. The word 'sports' befits this neat little estate car, which is agile enough to skip through the London traffic and responsive enough to handle the winding lanes of Kent and Sussex.
One forgets how beautiful the countryside is once you have left the monotony of the M25. Oast houses dot the landscape and the undulating hills and meadows give way to perfectly formed fields of vines - which produce ever more healthy harvests of grapes each year.
Most vineyard owners have less than five acres of vines under cultivation, but there is a growing number with more than 50 acres. My first stop was Tenterden Vineyards - one of a handful of vineyards owned by the English Wines Group, which also owns Lamberhurst Vineyards, Chapel Down and England's most recognised brand, Curious Grape.
The vineyards are located in Kent, close to the Sussex border, from where they can wave cheerily at the Eurostar trains as they head in the direction of the world's most formidable wine producers.
But the rail link is not the only connection between England and France. Many subsoils present in southern England, notably the chalk of the Downs, can also be found in the lands of Champagne and Chablis. These are soils that have created at least two of the most famous and universally recognised wines on earth.
I met up with winemaker Owen Elias, who has spent more than 12 years learning how to make English wine, establishing him as the UK Vineyards Association's Winemaker of the Year for the past two years. He is quietly confident both about his winemaking and of England's rising profile among wine lovers.
His greatest success has been to launch the Curious Grape range. The name refers to the reliance of England's still-wine producers on grapes that have been planted to take advantage of our soils and climatic conditions - grapes such as Bacchus, Auxerrois, Seyval Blanc and Müller-Thurgau. These curious grapes may not ring bells in the same way as Chardonnay or Sauvignon but they can be blended to create wines that have fascinating and unique qualities.
The Curious Grape range includes blends with such names as Aromatic and Empire Zest, which reflect their styles - much more meaningful than using the name of a village or area. There is also a range of single varietal wines made from the best grapes in any one batch.
A tasting of Bacchus Reserve confirmed Elias's ability to produce distinctive wines. The 2002 vintage is still youthful with some of the herbaceous, gooseberry characteristics redolent of a light Sauvignon - the perfect summer tipple. And an intense aftertaste of blackcurrant (yes, blackcurrant) confirms that this wine has the ability to show complexity in the layering of its flavours. Huxel from the same vintage, made with the Huxelrebe grape from Germany, also shows great aromatic tendencies, finished off with a touch of smoke.
Red varieties fare less favourably. Pinot Noir, while being true to type, seems to suffer from an inability to ripen. As in Champagne, it is more suited to the production of sparkling wines, some of which easily rival the quality of their French cousins. The Chapel Down Pinot Reserve, with its faintly pink hue, was a generous, mouthfilling glass with good mousse and a yeasty, varietal character.
However, the best in sparkling-wine production was still to come. West Sussex beckoned and a cross-country jaunt was just what the Mercedes really wanted. This is the countryside that Kenneth More covered in the 1950s classic Genevieve. So, with the film's composer, Larry Adler, playing harmonica on the car stereo, we sped through leafy lanes and villages bedecked with red geraniums. Country pubs and village greens flashed past as we headed to Nyetimber's vineyards at West Chiltington.
Nyetimber focuses solely on sparkling wines. Some 35 acres are planted to the same grapes used in Champagne - Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. The property, which boasts the house that Henry VIII gave to Anne of Cleaves, was planted out in 1986 by Stuart and Sandy Moss, a couple from Chicago who had searched high and low for somewhere to live out their dream of making wine to rival the best in Champagne.
After an auspicious start that included providing wine for the Queen's Golden Jubilee in 2002, the property was sold to songwriter Andy Ross who was looking for a home in south-east England where he wouldn't be distracted by the noise of cars or planes. Little did he know that he was on the verge of becoming one of the UK's foremost vineyard owners - as a tasting of the 1995 Blanc de Blancs was to prove.
Ross once wrote songs and produced records for the likes of Bucks Fizz, Celine Dion, Ronan Keating and Diana Ross, but that has now been superseded by his passion for wine production. He has taken on full responsibility for the estate and is continuing to build on the quality and character of this vineyard.
The vineyard lies in a gorgeous valley, and, as we admired its beauty, we enjoyed the 1995 Blanc de Blancs. This has all the hallmarks of the best that the Champagne region itself can offer. Yeasty, toasty and full-flavoured, buttery characteristics were intertwined with balancing acidity to give the wine grace, charm and structure. It was a triumph I hadn't expected. After all, it's one thing to grow the grapes and blend them correctly, but quite another to ensure that the final product rivals the best in the world.
Onwards and upwards towards London, I was greeted by an unexpected sight. On the road between Dorking and Leatherhead, within spitting distance of London itself, is a major roundabout nestling in vineyards. This is by far the largest wine estate in the UK at 265 acres, from which Denbies has been spearheading the revolution in UK wine.
As at Tenterden, the whites are perhaps more suited to our climate than the reds, which tend to take on the characteristics of the reds we find in the Loire Valley - another cool climate for grape growing.
This wine tour gave me a fascinating insight into how much progress has been made in the UK's production of world-class wine. From the likes of Denbies, Nyetimber and New Wave Wines, the quality is way, way up compared with 10 years ago, and the prejudices I held then were swept away on this trip.
Our wines have a character and quality that are well worth investigating and while I think we need to choose carefully - as we do with every other wine region in the world - we can certainly be proud of what has been achieved by these visionary vignerons.
Indeed, the changing face of Britain's vineyards is not unlike the shifting perceptions of estate cars over the last 10 years. A decade ago, such cars left a lot to be desired, but now Mercedes has given us the option of a sporty, sexy, low-slung estate with huge power and flexibility from a relatively tiny engine. Most importantly, it thinks it's a saloon but has the capacity to hold a sizeable load of wine - very useful if you're planning a trip through the glorious vineyards of England.
Released in 1980, it produces a wine of good colour and some finesse with a perfumed, spicy nose. Good blending material.
Now being grown in this country for sparkling wine production, in good years it makes reds that will try to compete with the Burgundians. Watch the 2003.
A new red with good colour, reasonable sugar and some disease resistance.
A complicated and curious cross from Manchurian and Austrian varieties, it produces intense, dark red wine, with a spicy, Shiraz-like character. High natural alcohols, an affinity to oak and ageing potential make this a very interesting wine for England.
Probably related to Chardonnay and often used as a 'base' in sparkling wine production. Also found in Luxembourg and Burgundy.
Only around since the 1970s, this aromatic grape crossed with Riesling parentage produces great wines in the Sancerre and New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc styles.
Increasingly planted in England for sparkling wine production, the right clone is still being awaited for still wine production.
A pungently aromatic variety, it is thin-skinned and high in sugars, making it susceptible to botrytis. Great potential. Has been used for dessert wines.
Makes soft, aromatic wines for drinking young. Thought to be a cross between Riesling and Chasselas.
Another high-sugar grape with spicy tones, it has the potential for dessert wines.
Can produce wines similar in style to Chardonnay, the difference being that it actually ripens in this country. Good as a fizz base.
A reliable and consistent cropper with high natural sugar. This is a fairly neutral grape, which makes it ideal for blending and as a sparkling base.
This French hybrid with disease resistance can be neutral but responds well to certain yeasts, oak, lees contact and malolactic fermentation.
A grape with flavours like Bacchus, it ripens a month before everything else, which can be inconvenient. Makes excellent wine.
Tel: 01622 859803
Elegant, Grade I listed, 17th-century house set in glorious, rolling countryside with a great restaurant. Four red stars from the AA. From £130 per room.
Cloth Hall Oast,
Coursehorn Lane, Cranbrook
Tel: 01580 712220
In its own garden in the grounds of Old Cloth Hall, this is peaceful, charming, immaculate and cottagey. Three rooms from £60.
Elvey Farm Country Hotel,
Tel: 01233 840442
A privately owned, converted barn, stable and oast houses on a working farm. Nine timbered rooms from £59.50.
Hotel du Vin,
Crescent Road, Tunbridge Wells
Tel: 01892 526455
Part of the stylish group of restaurantcum-posh-bistros, this is a mightily comfortable hotel with great food and a wonderful wine list. From £89 per room.
The Spa Hotel,
Mount Ephraim, Tunbridge Wells
Tel: 01892 520331
Complete with a health and leisure centre and pony-riding for the kids, this is a great family hotel. Rooms from £88.
Tel: 01580 861394
Mediterranean-influenced food in plush pub-restaurant surroundings with a fine wine list. Around £30.
The Dering Arms,
Tel: 01233 840371
A good pub for a light lunch and a decent pint.
The Flushing Inn,
4 Market Street, Rye
Tel: 01797 223292
A traditional, olde-worlde restaurant with rooms in the old, cobbled area of Rye. Lots of seafood and a wine list offering a good selection of local wines. Around £35.
The Landgate Bistro,
5-6 Landgate, Rye
Tel: 01797 222829
An unpretentious bistro with charming and enthusiastic staff serving contemporary-style food at affordable prices. Dinner only. £20 plus.
See also Hotel du Vin and Chilston Park, above.
Tel: 01798 831992
Gorgeous 900-year-old castle with 19 rooms and suites, an excellent restaurant and huge grounds. Part of Relais & Chateaux. £155 plus.
Hotel du Vin & Bistro,
Ship Street, Brighton
Tel: 01273 718588
One of the best places to stay in Brighton, and well worth the detour from vineyard visiting. From £119 per room.
Old Railway Station,
Tel: 01798 342346
Wonderfully restored railway station with rooms in the main house as well as four suites housed in railway carriages. Lots of charm. Summer breakfasts served on the platform. From £60.
The Old Wharf,
Wisborough Green, Billingshurst
Tel: 01403 784096
Former 19th century canalside warehouse with cosy rooms overlooking the water. From £45 per room
Tel: 01403 891711
Huge, rambling manor house that was restored in the early 1990s to a sumptuous standard. Views over the South Downs. From £195; 50 per cent discounts for last-minute bookings.
Les Deux Garçons,
Piries Place, Horsham
Tel: 01403 271125
Modern, bright restaurant with good, keen team, both in the kitchen and front of house. French influences in the food. About £33 a head.
Fleur de Sel,
Manleys Hill, Storrington
Tel: 01903 742331
A rare find in Sussex: a Michelin-starred restaurant. Intimate, warm and friendly with an emphasis on fish. From £35.
George & Dragon,
Tel: 01903 883131
Modern-style food served on polished tables with linen and silver. Charming restaurant (around £25 a head) but bar meals also served.
Grove Lane, Petworth
Tel: 01798 343659
A restored farmhouse with conservatory bar and beamed restaurant. Contemporary cooking at dinner (about £30 a head). Lighter lunch dishes.
See also South Lodge, Amberley Castle and Hotel du Vin, above.
Price: from £22,080
Engine: petrol, 1796cc, 4-cylinder, 16-valve
0-62mph: 10 seconds
Top speed: 134mph
Nick Tarayan's verdict: Agile, sporty shooting-brake, which is solidly constructed and runs like a tight machine. Nippy in town yet a proper tourer out on the open road. Great response from a relatively small engine.
Top Gear's Andy Wilman's verdict : The present C Class is the fastest selling Mercedes in the company's history, and that's some going for a company that invented the car. Now it's four years old, it's had a mid-life nip and tuck, which means a new upgraded interior and a sharper front-end grille. In addition equipment previously listed as optional now becomes standard, including 16 inch tyres and scratch-resistant paintwork. The 180 Kompressor may be the entry level Estate, but it's a fine buy