English wine, once the punchline to many a joke, is enjoying a growing reputation. Many of us are aware that our sparkling wines have been beating the world’s best in international competition. And yet, how often are such victories reported without a sense of the journalist’s shock or amusement – and how many of us have not yet allowed English wine to pass our lips?
Dominique Hopgood blames the “English curse of self-deprecation,” adding: “there’s a certain dismissal: ‘Why would I drink it?’ Well, why not?” Dominique and business partner Julia Stafford made it their mission to bring the best English wines to the attention, and palettes, of London’s drinkers. Julia undertook a personal odyssey to find the best winemakers in England, from the Home Counties to Devon, Somerset and Leeds – many known no further than local markets and restaurants but deserving, Julia felt, of access to more customers.
Hence the Wine Pantry tasting room, English viniculture’s guerrilla outpost on a prime spot in a compact shop in Borough Market. Pride of place belongs to a gleaming dispensing machine, allowing a wide range of wines to be kept in optimum conditions while the reticent-but-curious can try 25ml samples for around £1.50.
English wine (a vastly different product than cheap ‘British wine’ made with imported grapes) could not have better ambassadors. Julia and Dominique’s six-sample tour begins with a simple query about your preferences. Employing in-depth knowledge and boundless enthusiasm, they offer two wines, consider your reaction and then seek out two more, and a final pair, each time finessing their choices according to your taste. Within a few minutes you’ve been gently mentored in learning a great deal more, both about your palette and the world of English wine.
Julia suggests our national wine is not only a delicious choice, but an ethical one. With imported wines taxed uniformly and facing the same bottle production costs, it begs the question of why some are so cheap, she argues. The difference must be in quality, or in squeezing grape-pickers’ wages. “English wine will always be more expensive because we pay pickers minimum wage and there are high costs, low volumes and strict rules around production.”
This is reassuring, but in the end what matters is taste, and on this count, the Wine Pantry is a hit. “People come in and say these are flavours they have never tasted before, and they are so excited by it,” Dominique reports. By the time I make my goodbyes and totter merrily on my way, I am one of those converts.
By Gavin McGregor
Open Tuesday – Wednesday 11am to 8pm, Thursday – Friday 11am to 10pm and Saturday 11am to 8pm.
1 Stoney Street, Borough Market
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