Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Wine tasting at Chiltern Valley Winery

The idea of drinking English wine has never really appealed to me. There's got to be a reason the English countryside isn't covered in vines, I thought. And if we're not really a grape-producing country, the wine's going to taste pretty ropey, surely? After all, if English wine was good and marketable, surely there would be more of it around? After just five minutes at Chiltern Valley Winery & Brewery near Hambleden, my dodgy reasoning was proven unfounded and I was ready to taste some English vino.

According to our knowledgeable but unpretentious former sommelier tour guide, grapes don't need a hot climate to grow in. When the owner of Chiltern Valley Winery, David Ealand, purchased Old Luxters Farm in the early 1980s, a survey of the land revealed that the soil was ideal for growing grapes or rhubarb. Crumble may be delicious, but it's not as profitable as the hard stuff, so David made the sensible choice and went into wine production. Three decades later, Chiltern Valley produce 120,000 bottles a year, have won over 600 awards around the world and even have a Royal Warrant - apparently Prince Philip enjoys a glass of their Old Windsor Ale with a pie. In addition to making white, red, sparkling, blush and rose wines, they also produce bottle-conditioned real ales and a range of liqueurs.

Tours of Chiltern Valley begin with a potted history of the company, which is still a family run operation, before moving on to a visit to the micro-brewery, wine press and bottling and labelling room. The entire production process happens on site, and 90% of the company's sales are made through the shop at Old Luxters - the only other stockists are Windsor Farm Shop and Fortnum & Mason.

Suitably informed about the beer- and wine-making processes, we headed into the shop for the real reason for everyone's visit: the tasting. Our guide had definitely whipped up plenty of enthusiasm for Chiltern Valley's wines, but would they live up to our now rather high expectations? We started with a dry white wine (£8.95): and dry it was. It was crisp and delicious. I have no idea about its floral bouquet or any of that malarkey (and nor were we fed any such information, although several of our fellow tourists were doing a lot of swirling and sniffing), I just know it tasted better than anything I've had in any of Oxford's pubs recently and that I bought a bottle at the end of the tour. The blush and rose were less impressive; one a little bitter and the other too sweet, but the medium dry white was another hit and the special cuvee very drinkable. The sparkling wine (£19.95) was the star: produced in the same method as champagne, it could certainly have taken on its French counterpart. The dessert wine, Autumn Glory, was similarly delicious. I passed on the two ales, but my tasting partner J informed me that they were excellent, so I'll take her word for it. Damson vodka (£17.50) was a surprise hit, as was the wild strawberry liqueur (£18.50). As soon as our guide mentioned pouring it over vanilla ice cream, J & I had to resist a strong urge to whip out our credit cards there and then. We finished strong: an Irish cream liqueur that made Baileys taste synthetic and pathetic. Chiltern Valley's Irish cream is almost indecently creamy, with a caramel taste that comes from the specially blended whiskey they use.

If you're looking for a day out with a difference and can find a designated driver willing to limit themselves to dainty sips (thanks J!), Chiltern Valley Winery is well worth a visit. Tours are interesting and informative, and the quality of the wines we sampled made me wish that English wines were far more widely available. I might just have to start drinking local.

Tours are £12.50 per person and must be booked in advance. The shop is open daily.

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