I'm in the company of Jonathan Ritchie, one of the wine experts employed by Waitrose. He’s particularly well qualified for the role: 30 years an hotelier, 10 years a publican and "an unhealthy interest in alcohol since I left hotels", he says with a smile. “When I retired, this was a natural progression. I'd never have worked for any other store.”
Jonathan hands me a map that shows over 160 vineyards across England, including a distinct cluster here in the south eastern corner. “Waitrose tend to support local producers”, he explains, pointing out sparking wine from Breaky Bottom, Chapel Down, Nyetimber and Plumpton on the shelves. “Breaky Bottom, which is without doubt our best seller, is made literally down the road at Northease. It’s fantastic. I drink it on high days and holidays.” Production is influenced by the ‘terroir’ – the combination of climate and soil – with our local blend of sunny weather and chalky ground often compared to the Champagne region of France.
But how do you appreciate a bottle of wine? First of all, it’s important to know what you’re drinking. “British wine can be made with grapes from anywhere in the world”, Jonathan warns me. “English wine is made with grapes that are grown here.” It’s also a question of matching your wine with the food you’re eating. “That’s the question we get asked the most: will this wine go with this, or what food should I serve with this wine? Some wines work well with food, some wines can be drunk on their own. People say ‘I don't like Sauvignon Blanc’ – it’s very acidic, it’s very dry – but it works well with curry. Have it with the right food and it becomes a different wine altogether.”
The techniques of tasting only come with experience, Jonathan says, although the acronym BLIC is a useful reminder to look for Balance (all the elements of the wine working together), Length (how the flavours linger), Intensity (the power of the flavour) and Complexity (the variety of aromas and flavours). “You smell it, you look at it to make sure it's clear, you swirl it around and see how the wine hangs to the glass.” He also points out that different parts of your mouth detect different characteristics: sweetness is felt more strongly towards the tip of your tongue, while bitterness is detected towards the back.
Yet even with his decades of knowledge, Jonathan acknowledges that total wine expertise is beyond any person. “You'll never, ever know it all”, he reassures me. “I learn things from customers every day. And hopefully they learn things from me!”
Waitrose, Eastgate Street. 01273 486286. waitrose.com
First published in Viva Lewes magazine issue 109 October 2015