He may be one of the foremost voices in the English wine industry, but when Neil Phillips turns up to his interview with Fluid at Soho's Union Club, where he has been a member for years, the first thing he does is apologise for wearing a suit. Ruefully explaining that it's not really his style, it's easy to see that he is not the usual stuffy wine buff.
Phillips, aka The Wine Tipster, Monty Phillips, is a man of many passions. First and foremost he is a vociferous campaigner for the English wine industry, but he is also known for his racing tips, and his devotion to music. Here Monty talks to Fluid about why English wines are so now, national pride, and his own journey from punk to Pinot Noir.
When did you first get into English wines?
I first went to an English vineyard called Three Choirs about 15 years ago. I remember thinking at the time, ‘OK, there's still a bit of work to do, but it's going to be an upward journey here'. I've been a big supporter since then. Really it's been quite a long journey working out which are the best grapes in this country. Better quality wine making, more investment, and realising that the best way to go forward is through sparkling white wines has resulted in some real improvements.
What's the industry like now?
It's reasonably young. There are about 420 vineyards in this country, and within that you've still got people who have full time jobs and only a couple of hectares. It's changing though. People are sitting up, and saying, ‘hold on, we've got a good industry here and we're going to invest in it'.
Why are English wines gaining in popularity?
There's a new confidence. The message is much clearer now. There's been a change in style – in the 90s we were looking much more at some of the hybrid varieties of grapes that ripen very early, and are very fruity. Now there are some very good quality sparkling wines made primarily with the same three grape varieties we see in champagne – Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier. Our most successful style of wine is the sparkling white, which accounts for about 45% of production and rival others from Spain, New Zealand and Australia. Still white follows up closely at 43%, while still red is 12%.
How much do we produce in England?
If you go back to 2006 we produced about 3. 4 million bottle of wine. But 2007-8 was pretty challenging, and we produced about 1.3 million bottles. It was a difficult vintage, but the brilliant news is that for 2009 production is about 3.2m bottles. We had a sunny September, with a good amount of ripening. The risks are reducing, because confidence and technique is growing.
What's the perception of English wines?
Some still think it's a bit weird. It surprises me how few people have actually never tasted them before. Would you buy someone English wine on a first date for example? It would be a talking point. There's been a lot more press because we've had some wines produced specifically for the World Cup. Denbies have done a specialist wine for Wetherspoons. It's really popular. We're going to get a lot of supporters out of that – and we want to keep them afterwards. By the time we get to 2012 there are going to be a lot more around and we're really need to capitalise on that.
Where can we find restaurants in London that serve them?
Roast in Borough Market, and all Gordon Ramsey restaurants list Chapel Down Bacchus. Jamie Oliver's Fifteen does, so Goodman in Maddox Street, The Artisan & Vine in Battersea and Rules in Covent Garden. You're really seeing some good distribution points, and a range of different wines by the glass.
The criticism of English wines is that they're often more expensive. Is this a fair?
Generally speaking, we don't produce huge amounts. You still need production facilities, and the need to impose the same kind of duty rates. You're not going to see any crazy deals but we are seeing value come in, and people are beginning to embrace local wines just as they do with local food. Waitrose is flying the flag for this. They have local producers represented in their stores, so it's organised geographically. It would be good to see some of the other retailers follow suit.
What brands should we look out for now?
Whites like Chapel Down Bacchus 2009, which is a very attractive style and goes extremely well with spicy food, and the Camel Valley Bacchus 2009. Richard Balfour-Lynn, who owns the Maison du Vin and Malmaison chains, produces the excellent 2006 Hush Heath Balfour Brut rosé. There are other great rosés like Three Choirs Pinot Noir Rose 2009, and there's a lovely red called the Biddenden Gamay 2009. The sparklers go well with oysters, they've got enough structure and dryness to them to match up, and the Balfour, for example, goes well with salmon.
In the way that other countries have geared up to wine tourism, England is really doing that too. Go and visit an English vineyard. Three Choirs has a very good restaurant, a little brewery, and some accommodation, while Denbies do an excellent wine tour.
Do English wines have a certain character?
They have a very nice medium dry style, it's slightly off-dry. They're not massive, rich tastes – but you've got to appreciate the elegance and style. They're very different from something like a chardonnay from the new world. You don't have the intensity, but you do get the aromatic style.
How do you respond to people who claim our wines can't rival those of Europe of the New World?
There are always going to be some people you can't change, those attached to their Clarets or new world wines. But if you want to come and taste quality wine making, a well-made sparkler that more than matches up to other countries, then we've definitely got that here.
English wines aside, do you have any other favourites?
Some of my favourite whites are Chablis, white Burgundies are beautiful. With red, top Bordeaux is brilliant. Lynch-Bages is wonderful, and I've like Soussac for years. The Tuscan reds are fantastic, and also if you get a good Barbera, then they can be very enjoyable. Good quality Vinho Verde from the north of Portugal is absolutely brilliant –lovely aperitif drinks, and great with food – and the Rieslings from Australia have achieved a very high quality.
Where are your favourite places to eat in London?
Punk rock and fine wine aren't usual bedfellows. How did those two passions develop alongside each other for you?
1977 was an important year of my life – it was the year I got into punk rock. But there was only so much lager you could drink. The best gig I ever went to was very early Pulp, and also a band called Kissing the Pink. I remember spending 17p to go and see them, and it was absolutely brilliant.
I'm still crazy about music, and the last band I went to see was to see The National at The Royal Albert Hall. I'm going to see Interpol – great band – but my favourite band is a small one called Sophia. I did buy some wines from the Sunday Times club at university – despite eating cheap burgers and tins. I thought, ‘hey, I really need to be in the wine industry'. So I sent off sixty handwritten letters, and managed to get a job. Secretly my parents were quite pleased. Actually they asked me to their wine society tasting after I just graduated. There was this guy doing a blind tasting on chardonnays – one from Australia, one from Burgundy and one from California. I didn't get any of them right. I did a wine course through the Wine & Spirit Education Trust. It was just the time when wine bars were really popular, the late eighties and early nineties. I've also been at E&J Gallo, and Pernod-Ricard. It has led me into a lot of presenting on TV and radio stuff, too. I met my wife Louise at a wine tasting, and we started Phillips-Hill [Phillip's wine marketing, events and PR company] fairly recently. I'm pretty busy at the moment – I'm doing three days as champagne ambassador for GH Mumm and Perrier Jouet, and I also just did Taste London.
To follow Monty on his wine journey around the world, either check out his Twitter feed - twitter.com/thewinetipster - or his blog www.thewinetipster.co.uk, or contact him through his website - www.phillips-hill.co.uk.
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