I think that wine is a very educational beverage and I think it’s safe to say that a lot of the clientèle here at the Passage agree. Admittedly, the various historical backgrounds surrounding ale, whiskey and cider are also fascinating but wine in particular, strikes me as a veritable treasure trove of tales and fables and therefore, is a very worthy choice of drink. Your mind, as mine does, might immediately think of France when you think about wine but actually, the heritage of wine in England and in particular in Devon, is pretty interesting and goes back at least 2000 years.
According to the folk at Sharpham Vineyard, it was probably the Romans that brought wine to England. No one is quite sure whether vines were actually grown here by the intruders but historians are sure that by the time of the Norman Conquest vines were definitely grown in England. When the Domesday survery was taken in the late 11th Century, 46 vineyards were recorded in Southern England.
Wine was especially made in monastic institutions around England and so, it is no surprise that tonic wine was made at our local Buckfast Abbey. In fact, so popular was their recipe for fortified wine with caffeine (good combination eh!) that Buckfast Tonic Wine is to this day, still produced and sold successfully and according to the Guardian, is oddly a popular choice for ‘neds’ in Scotland. The recipe apparently came from the original French monks who came to the Abbey in the 1880’s though was altered slightly in 1927 on the advice of a visiting wine merchant from London to produce a smoother, more palatable taste. Technically, it’s not actually a wine as it’s derived from mistella – a Spanish drink made from unfermented grape juice which is then fortified with ethanol – but I think we should let that slide.
But when it comes to the wine that we tend to choose to drink with dinner (rather than this fortified imposter), it’s Yearlstone Vineyard near Tiverton that claims to be Devon’s oldest vineyard. Founded in 1976 by Gillian Pearkes in the picturesque village of Bickleigh, the site is home to silty clay over red sandstone which is the perfect environment for vines. Pearkes was a pioneer in her experiments with different wine varieties as she tried to hone the best techniques for wine growing in the English climate. Other local vineyards include Sharpham who have been producing wine on their historic estate for over 20 years since the 1990’s and most recently, our very local and beloved Pebblebed Vineyards who have started producing ‘Exeter’s own wine’ from their vineyard just outside Topsham. From 46 vineyards in 1046, apparently there are now nearly 400 vineyards across England and Wales, producing almost 2 million bottles of the glorious stuff a year.
I find the whole process fascinating and as an amateur gardener, am very keen to try making my own one day. I’ve been growing fruit and vegetables to eat as a family for the last 6 years to varying success. Admittedly this year has been one of my worst years – half my tomato plants got blight, I kept forgetting to water my strawberries and my peas and beans seemed to get some kind of disease and died off early in the season. I’ve definitely had better harvests. My dear husband is not opposed to delving into the world of amateur wine making but he has asked me to do a bit more research before we invest in any vines! Thankfully, despite my poor crop this year a kind friend took pity on me and gave me some of her surplus produce which enabled me to fulfill another passion of mine – preserves! Last year I made some (if I do say so myself) scrumptious green tomato chutney alongside a variety of jams and this autumn I’ve made some rhubarb and ginger jam, blackcurrant and gooseberry jam and most recently, a batch of marrow and apple chutney. The former didn’t last long with jam loving friends and family around me but I’ve supplied the Passage with some of the chutney which just begs to be paired with a local mature cheese. Why not nip down and try some yourself whilst it lasts?!
Luckily, the Passage also has a gorgeous selection of wines so while I wait to be able to grow and make my own (and let’s face it, probably after my first attempt goes horribly wrong as well!) I know there’s somewhere I can go to have a carefully chosen delicious glass of wine down by the river. In fact, so seriously do they take their wine that their wine menu is reviewed and updated regularly. They are about to roll out their updated selection, just in time for Autumn and the run up to Christmas and on top of this new menu they will be offering wines from Pebblebed and Sharpham as part of their ‘English Wines’ selection in a nod to supporting local vineyards (and because frankly, they produce some outstandingly good wines!) I don’t know about you but whilst I might choose lighter drinks in the summer, you can’t beat a glass of red by a roaring fire when it’s cold and dark outside. So let’s raise a glass of this age old tipple and reminisce about times gone by together.