Many of us travel hundreds of miles to visit the fabled wine lands of far flung countries and experience their cellar door tastings. But these days plane rides and holidays seem like a mirage, shimmering just out of reach. The good news is we have some fantastic wineries in our own back yard that are just waiting to be explored. My sage advice would be to save the money on the flight and use it to buy wine when you visit!
With lock down easing enough for me to visit my local wine estate in Dorset, I had the absolute pleasure of being hosted for a socially distanced visit at English Oak Vineyards. With a healthy dousing of hand sanitiser and an equally healthy 2 metre distance between us, owner Andrew Pharoah introduced me to this beautiful gem in Lytchett Matravers.
Looking for an early retirement project that would play in particular to his wife, Sarah’s green fingers, they were originally looking at buying a garden centre and turning it around, but luckily for us none caught their attention. A chance encounter in Cyprus with a lovely little local wine got them thinking, wouldn’t this be great back home. But England? Was that possible? Probably not. But that seed had taken root. Looking around there were indeed some very good English wineries, and from there on in, there was no stopping them.
They found a beautiful 23 acre ex-dairy farm, they completed their oenology courses at Plumpton Collage and they recruited England’s most talented winemaker, Dermot Sugrue. In 2007 the dream had become a reality. Andrew and Sarah have thrown themselves into English Oak heart and soul; they do the viticulture, the tours and tastings, they do the deliveries in an electric vehicle and when I visited, Sarah was brandishing a chain saw (which certainly made keeping my social distance a bit easier) as they made improvements to the visitors area. This isn’t an indulgence, it is their life.
They are committed to sustainability, to working with the smallest carbon footprint possible and to clean and green environmental practices, an ever more important consideration in todays world. The quality of their sparkling wine is a true reflection of their passion and dedication.
The life of a vigneron (particularly an environmentally minded one) is not easy. The vagaries of mother nature can bring the strongest viticulturalist to his knees. Spring frost and hail can decimate the crops, persistent cloud cover can retard ripening and summer rain and humidity can lead to mildew and rot, particularly in an unpredictable climate like ours. There was indeed evidence of slight frost damage among the lower vines where the frost sinks and collects at the bottom of the hill, however it was luckily relatively minor. Next time you are scraping ice off your windshield in April spare a thought for the vineyards.
This is a boutique operation in every sense of the word, their sparkling wine is not available in any of the national grocers despite being approached. They are available in local independent retailers and local restaurants, but the majority of their business is a loyal and largely local consumer who visit the vineyard, try the sparkling wine and keep coming back for more. This has thankfully made them largely resilient to the temporary closing of the restaurant industry during the COVID crisis which has so badly impacted so many others.
And so to the wines… a quartet of sparkling wines showing familial likeness in their elegance, balance and concentration, but wonderfully distinct personalities.
Engelmen Cuvee 2017 (56% Chardonnay, 34% Meunier, 10% Pinot Noir. Dosage 12g/l) £35
The entry shows vibrant citrus and pure, crisp, green apples. The palate is elegant with creamy depths showcasing ripe yellow apple, white almond and lemon sherbet. The finish is both persistent and precise. A truly joyful sparkling wine that you want to share with friends (even at a distance of 2 meters)
Chinkapin Rosé 2017 (50% Chardonnay, 34% Meunier, 16% Pinot Noir. Dosage 12g/l) £35
Beautifully perfumed notes of wild strawberry and briar fruit draw you in to a refined palate with fresh red fruit, a hint of crunchy cranberry and lovely subtle notes of spiced orange peel, again the pedigree shines through on the long, elegant finish.
San Gabrial Blanc de Blancs 2014 (100% Chardonnay. Dosage 12g/l) £50
A nose like the scent of wild jasmine on a balmy evening is so compelling. The palate is equally beguiling with delicate flavours of pear, lemon and hazelnut swathed in a creamy textured mousse. The balance been freshness, creaminess and toastiness is beautifully drawn, particularly in this difficult vintage. Utterly charming.
Wainscot Blanc de Noirs 2014 (100% Pinot Noir. Dosage 12g/l) £75
A rich and powerful nose of truffled brie leads to a honeyed yet fresh palate showing red apple skin, baked apple and melon. The muscular core of the wine is swathed in silk making it complex yet graceful.
So you might not be heading to Provence tasting wine this summer, but I have to say, it will take a lot to beat lying in the Dorset sunshine on a picnic blanket in the shade of the sprawling English Oak surrounded by vines, sipping on the cuvee of your choice.
Pictures kindly supplied by English Oak Vineyard