There’s a certain image that comes with wine-tasting. Well-off people sniffing their glasses, discussing bouquets and noses; taking a gulp only to spit it out again; and then talking a bit more about tannins and vintages. It’s a sport us mere mortals are wary of, something saved for people who know about grapes and vineyards and can tell their Chablis from their Chardonnay. Us simpletons just want to drink the stuff, we tell ourselves, and judge a wine by what we like – or whether it’s usually a tenner and has been reduced to a fiver and won’t be a complete embarrassment to open in company.
With these concerns in mind, you’ll imagine the fear with which Mr Manning and I approached the Sharpham Wine Estate. Someone was bound to ask us questions we didn’t know the answer to, we would definitely swill the glass wrong, and we would be exposed for the amateurs we are. It was destined to be a disaster.
That couldn’t have been further from the truth. Rounding a corner from the long driveway, we pulled into a carpark that looked more like a delightful French picnic area than what we expected to be a stuffy “wine estate”.
People sat around outdoor tables, enjoying the sun, munching on food while swigging wine. Young, old, posh and not-so-posh, sat together in the almost-unbelievably idyllic setting, quaffing Sharpham’s prize-winning products while taking in a rare highpoint of the British summer.
Before we could even get the sigh of relief out, we were whisked off on a mooch around the estate by the ever-enthuastic, endlessly-helpful Elke. We learned all about the history of Sharpham, about its 100-acre grounds – 10 of which are occupied by its vines, leaving 90 for its herd of Jersey cows – the providers of Sharpham’s other treat, its cheese.
“It’s like Jurassic park”, Mr Manning declared, as we gazed out across the lush rolling hills, complete with the River Dart cutting through. “I can’t believe it’s England.”
Now some might declare we got special treatment in my capacity as a “journalist”. Well, yes, Elke knew we were coming, hence the speedy welcome. But, anyone can be taken on a walking tour around the estate, checking out the vineyards, riveside walk, winery, and the cheese making areas. (And I checked this out with a couple of fellow visitors, who had enjoyed a self-guided walking tour for a few pounds.)
In fact, there’s such a range of options on how you see the place, it gets a bit mind-boggling. From the self-guided tour, all the way up to the £65 Sharpham Experience, you can be as lavish or as laid back as you like, spending as much or as little as you want, and taking in as much as you can handle. After our tour, we perched on some high chairs next to a tree-stump table to embark on what wasn’t my first, but was undoubtedly my most enjoyable, wine-tasting ever.
Obviously, drinking wine is fab anyway but – let’s cut back to the earlier images of swigging and swirling – tasting it can be a whole different ballgame. Not so on this occasion. There wasn’t a reference to bouquet or body to be heard. Just an enthusiastic description of different wines in language even I could decipher, with handy hints of what we were looking out for, suggestions for how to drink it, and ideas for what to drink it with.
A few tastes in and we noticed the couple (the aforementioned visitors) on the next table curiously listening in. One or two tentative questions later and it turned out they weren’t wine fans at all. In fact, the lady had only tried wine a handful of times before, and had never enjoyed it. They’d decided long ago they weren’t really “wine drinkers” but had gone to Sharpham for a bit of a different day out, and boy, did they get one.
They’d already been enjoying their own choice of a bottle of wine and cheeseboard, but once Elke learned of their nervousness about all things wine, they too were treated to her wealth of knowledge as the four of us gathered around trying each of Sharpham’s offerings and trying to work out our favourites – the latter probably the toughest part of the day.
As the sun shone down, we chatted with our new friends, comparing wines, trying some of their cheese, and snaffling a bite of their pea fritters (turns out they’re famous in the area), I realised what the joy of wine-tasting is. What I think it should be anyway. It’s not about snobbery or intimidation, it’s not about what you know and how much wine knowledge you can boast. It’s not even really about guaranteeing you can tell a vintage from a vinegar. It’s about having a glass of vino, in good company, and getting pleasure out of it.
It’s about sharing a glass with friends and family and being able to savour it and enjoy it. Whether it’s a £50 vintage that’s your favourite or a £4.99 bottle, that shouldn’t really matter. But perhaps if people felt more confident to try different wines without fear of getting it wrong, the more enjoyment they would get out of it. Perhaps those who have long decided they aren’t “wine drinkers” would discover a wine – maybe even one of the great varieties now produced in our own country – that they really enjoy.
Needless to say, we left Sharpham with a little bit more knowledge of how wine is made; a lot more appreciation of the great wines made by producers here in the UK; a nice selection of wine in the boot of the car to share with our loved ones at home, and yes, a pair of smiles and some fond memories of a great afternoon out.