Staying at home

Drink - Victoria Moore risks English wine

Shirley Valentine abandoned an urban housewife's existence in part because Wall wasn't a very lively discussion partner, in part because she yearned to drink wine on the soil on which the grape had grown. She needn't have left these shores. Admittedly Liverpool is not necessarily synonymous with sun-baked terraces, but a Scouser need only travel east a bit to find one of the most northerly commercial vineyards in Europe. Yes, really. Leventhorpe Vineyard, just outside Leeds, harvested its first grapes for wine ten years ago and output has been growing steadily since.

Home-grown wine is not new to these isles. The civilising Romans brought the vine here almost 2,000 years ago and it flourished for centuries. Interest waned when Henry II married Eleanor of Aquitaine and inherited the glorious vineyards of Burgundy. Thereafter there was something of a slump. But in the past 50 years some brave folk have been struggling with the vagaries of the English climate to produce wines they hope will rival - well, if not the French, then at least some of the concoctions from the New World.

It's not easy. The classic vines - Chardonnay, Riesling and Muscat - are barely represented here. Most growers turn to stalwart hybrids developed in Germany, whose climate is as dank and cold as ours. As Shirley Valentine no doubt realised, these climatic problems can make drinking as miserable a process as growing. In a feeble attempt to mirror Shirley's sea-edge sundowner without travelling to Greece, I have dragged a table and deckchair into the garden. Not only is it more dark than dusky, it's also raining. And when my latest love arrives home to find me cracking open a bottle of Sharpham's Dart Valley Reserve 1996, he is more costive than Costas.

"What are you doing?" he says. It isn't rhetorical, it's code for "stop being foolish and get inside and watch Coronation Street and where's my dinner?" We compromise. On the sofa we sip our "rounded and mellow" wine. I don't think it's bad: though not particularly to my taste, it's reminiscent of Loire whites. But my latest love is niggardly. He drinks half a glassful then puts it down with a hard-done-by sigh. "Do you mind," he says with a show of politeness, "if I go and open some proper wine?"

So while he embarks on a Chablis I grit my teeth and open the most amateur-looking of the other two bottles I've bought. This one, Bruisyard St Peter, is made in Suffolk and boasts a label that pictures an ancient village church and writhing vines. It tastes as though it were made from bindweed and deadly nightshade gathered from around the gravestones in a cemetery. It's so incredible I have to have a second opinion. "Weeds," concurs my latest love before getting back to his documentary.

It seems that emulating Shirley on home territory has precipitated a lot of undesired changes, not least in the behaviour of my latest love. Perhaps I will soon repair to the kitchen to cook egg and chips. Fortunately, and completely by accident, I've saved the best prospect until last. In its name alone it offers hope of escape from domestic slavery. Chapel Down's 1997 Bacchus was voted best English wine of its vintage. Bacchus is an early ripening grape, a cross of Sylvaner, Riesling and Muller Thurgau, and represents almost 10 per cent of the total planting in this country. It's quite a favourite in the Welsh Marches, though Chapel Down is in the heart of Kent. I love fragrant, dry wines - which this is. My latest love, however, dismisses it out of hand as "soapy". I disagree. It has a lovely, fresh herby smell and it's perfectly crisp on the palate. Even though Chablis is on offer, I'm more than happy to stick with it.

So what can I conclude? Only what most already realised. Shirley wasn't embarking on an oenological adventure. She was looking for something else altogether. Something she certainly wouldn't find on the sofa in front of the television.

This article first appeared in the 11 October 1999 issue of the New Statesman, A world without children