Anyone who’s spent time in many of the region’s eateries will be familiar with Sharpham’s wines. In particular, their award-winning Sharpham Dart Valley Reserve is a familiar sight behind many a South Devon bar and adorns the tables of a number of its high-end restaurants, particularly those with locally-oriented menus.
Intrigued by the story behind the bottle, I visited the Sharpham Estate near Ashprington to learn more from its Head Winemaker, Duncan Schwab. He greeted me in Sharpham’s enticing shop before we found a seat outside – and after that the words flowed freely.
Duncan’s relationship with Sharpham began in 1992. He began to tread the not-so-well-worn path from surveying to professional winemaking 10 years before, when he helped his father survey potential planting sites for a new vineyard in Cornwall.
Duncan’s assistance began to broaden until he was helping his dad with every aspect of growing vines and making wines. He decided to leave surveying behind and make winemaking his future.
Back then barely a handful of English vineyards had the capacity to hire anyone. But Sharpham just about could, and Duncan was employed just at the point the operation was about to expand.
‘At the time there were very few vineyards in the UK,’ he told me. ‘We needed to do trials in order to see which varieties suit our climate. You can’t just ask Uncle Frank how he got on with his Pinot Noir back in 1924, you have to put them in the ground and see what happens yourselves.’
‘We had a trial site of a couple of acres and planted 10-15 different varieties to see what would suit the climate. From there we discovered that Madeline Angevine grapes from the French Loire were what suited it best.’
Sharpham’s French influence
Before we move on, let’s rewind a few decades to the very beginning. Sharpham vineyard and cheese dairy’s journey began in 1960, when Maurice Ash purchased the Sharpham Estate. He brought with him what turned out to be a winning combination of farming knowledge, business acumen and a love of all things French.
It was mainly the latter characteristic that gave Ash his ambition to produce wine and cheese that could rival those produced by our continental cousins. Ash set about bringing in a herd of Jersey cows and growing various varieties of grape on a couple of trial sites. They were still experimenting when Duncan arrived, and indeed continue to do so to this day.
Both the vineyard and the cheese dairy have moved on immensely, with 15 varieties of wine and seven cheeses produced, an al fresco Anchorstone café on-site and popular tasting tours offered seasonally.
How English wine shed its inferiority complex
The market has seen radical change since Duncan’s early days at Sharpham, and he ponders what it was like back in the early 1990s compared with today: ‘at the time there was one other vineyard in Devon and now there’s 25 – in the UK they are increasing at a rate of 40 a year, there’s now about 600 vineyards across the country. Between all of us, we produce about three or four million bottles of wine.’
Four million bottles sounds like a lot, but Duncan emphasises that in fact it’s still very small. In France, there are individual vineyards that produce more than the entire UK wine industry!
‘When we started off, English wines had a slightly dubious reputation – sometimes quite rightly, with people making wine without really understanding it – and it’s taken us the best part of 30 years to work out how to do it, what varieties work best, what blends to put together and what yeasts are best to ferment on. So there are numerous things you have to learn.’
And Duncan believes that now, far from being harmed by our country’s lack of a great wine-making culture, Sharpham actually gains from the publicity that comes from being distinctive. ‘Especially on the awards front, English sparkling wines are going up against Champagnes and beating them in competitions. People that come here to taste a few wines and leave with a crate having absolutely loved it. So I think English wine is definitely separate – people ask is it like French or German wine and we say, ‘No, it’s not. It’s an English line with its own character.’
The expansion of the vineyard and the development of their award-winning wines owe a lot to their willingness to embrace trial and error and learn from other winemakers from all over the globe. But it’s also been helped by the natural endowments of this beautiful stretch of the Dart Valley. The vines sit on the Estate’s south-facing slopes, which act like a deck-chair says Duncan, angled towards the summer sun in a way that enables the soil to soak up more of its heat. Other aspects of the environment have also tilted the odds in their favour, such the mild South Devon microclimate and the extra sunlight that reflects back up from the River Dart. They augmented these natural advantages by planting rows of trees to act as windbreaks.
‘Our climate is getting slightly warmer’ Duncan told me, ‘and our season is getting longer, and there’s definitely a difference between the acidity we had in our early days and the acidity we have now. So everything starts earlier and goes on later. Particularly in the South West, we’re not a frost-prone site, which is beneficial for us as well. So we’re able to ripen our grapes over a nice long period very much like our apples in the south west. A long ripening period is the best thing to encourage our fruit.’
The cream of English produce
Most Sharpham wine is consumed locally, while their cheese often finds its way around the country. ‘It’s expanded organically over the years,’ says Duncan. ‘The cheese has become bigger and bigger since the time it was made on the kitchen table in that the butter content was too high. It’s very, very creamy. So they did various trials and ended up making a sort of Brie-style cheese which has been very popular. That’s our biggest brand on the cheese front.’
‘Since then we’ve gone onto goats’ cheese and sheep’s cheese which we get from local producers on the moors. It’s unpasteurised cheeses so they do change, unlike pasteurised cheeses which kill all the bugs. We flash pasteurise them so it kills off the bad bugs but keeps the good bugs, so it’s a live cheese. It’s sold up and down the country, and we sell some to America as well.’
Sharpham has won several awards for its wines and cheeses – including several based on blind tasting, for which reputation counts for nothing. Their impressive list of awards includes as many as 220 regional, national and international commendations since 2010. There’s been no Eureka moment it seems, just decades of testing and learning until the awards finally started to arrive and the wine – now around 100,000 bottles of it in a good year – began to fly off the shelves. In a typical year, about 40% of these leave the estate in the boots of its visitors’ cars.
‘We don’t produce very alcoholic wines,’ Duncan explained. ‘Most of wines are about 10 or 11%. What we do is produce very nice lunch-time wines which are very refreshing and crisp.’ They produce the full range of wines with whites, rosés, reds and sparkling varieties all represented, meaning visitors can discover their favourites and learn about the differences.’
Visit Sharpham to sample some of their refreshing range and pick up a few bottles, have a bite to eat at the Anchorstone Café, and take in one of the most picturesque stretches of the Dart Valley.
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