College wine-makers have produced a fragrant little number with the sweet taste of success. Joseph Lee reports
At Hakkasan, the Michelin-starred London restaurant, as diners prepare to spend up to pound;100 per head on lavish Chinese food, many will also choose a wine made near the south coast of England - by college students.
English wine is taking off thanks to sparkling varieties that can compete with traditional Champagne, but the story of wine-making at Plumpton college, in Sussex, is even more remarkable.
From its beginnings in 1988, using bought-in grapes and equipment from Boots the chemist, the college says it has been responsible for training almost the entire English wine industry. Now, its wines, made from fruit grown on sandy soil in the South Downs, are winning respect from the catering trade and independent wine shops.
Christine Parkinson, wine buyer at Hakkasan, sends all waiting staff and sommeliers to Plumpton for training. She picked the college's 2005 vintage, made from Ortega grapes, as a perfect match for the restaurant's sophisticated take on Chinese cooking and has bought about 300 bottles.
"People are loving it," she said. "The customers' response has been great and the sommeliers have no hesitation in recommending it."
It is not the first honour for the college's Cloudy Ridge wines. Last year, student Rory Macpherson entered the college rose in the International Wine Challenge, a prestigious competition whose medals cause wines to fly off supermarket shelves.
"Fragrant, its red cherry aromas and flavours are tinged with pretty floral and deep herbal overtones," the judges said as they awarded it a bronze medal. It beat household names such as Hardy's, Fetzer and Freixenet.
Mr Macpherson began studying at the college after working in off licences and is now preparing to start an internship at Cuvaison, a wine producer in California's Napa Valley that makes 750,000 bottles a year.
"I was told not to enter the wine - that we were wasting our time," he said. "No one bigs up English wine, but the amount of interest it generated in Plumpton college was almost exponential."
Plumpton, an agricultural college, offers courses in viticulture (vine-growing), wine-making and, increasingly, the commercial side of wine-selling as either a short course, foundation degree or BSc.
The production of its own wine on 14 acres is a unique selling point, and the college's wine-making operation has just been given its own purpose-built centre.
Former students can be found in France, New Zealand, Portugal, the United States and Chile.
Peter Morgan, lecturer in wine-making, studied at Plumpton himself before going to work at Nyetimber, the celebrated English producer of sparkling wine.
He is cautious about overstating the country's emerging wine industry.
Asked to compare it with wines from other countries, Mr Morgan said: "We're about where New Zealand was 40 years ago. But we are becoming an industry now. Plumpton has been part of that because there is somewhere for people to go and seek professional advice."
The college hopes eventually to sell pound;100,000 worth of wine a year.
Its courses reflect the new commercial potential of English wine and train students to be skilled sales people as well as wine-makers.
But Chris Foss, head of wine studies, said commercial success would not interfere with the college's main business. "Teaching comes first," he said.
The challenge of wine-making in England's uncertain climate means students are prepared for anything by the end of their courses, he said. In one case, some students who were making wine in an unfashionable part of France near the Pyrenees took the local style - a fortified red wine similar to port - and made it lighter, drier and much more popular.
"We can be more flexible," he said. "They're not bound by tradition and they've got the aspiration to make wine for an international market."