It's harvest time for grapes, and Cornish wine-maker James Thomas is facing long hours and tense expectation. "It's manic, but it's brilliant," he says. "This is when it all comes alive."
Through October, James is overseeing the hand-picking of about 17,000 vines planted at Porthscatho and Seaton near Looe – and in sampling the fruit, will detect glimmers of quaffs to come.
"In England we are on the brink of what is possible," he says. "It is challenging, and the weather this year had been disappointing to say the least, but at our best, we can produce good-quality fruit with wonderful, elegant flavours.
"Tasting the grapes, I can get an inkling of what will happen with the wine – but you never really know. The flavours will be transformed in the process."
He will also source grapes from other South West growers to get just what he wants.
At six years old, the vines that James looks after are young – only just into cropping age. They belong to Deviock Wine, whose owner Adrian Derx left his city IT job to get back to his roots – his grandfather owned a vineyard in Italy, south of Rome.
"The vineyards have always been a dream for me, but not always a possibility," he explains. "It's only since people have become interested in local wines that it's become a realistic prospect."
Adrian wanted an atmospheric winery and restaurant to show off his wines, and a top chef to put it on the map. His first priority was location, location, location – in this case, a smallholding near an Imerys clay works, and of course the crowd-drawing Eden Project. The derelict buildings have been transformed into a handsome complex. One barn hosts the shiny tuns and vats of the wine-maker's trade; another is the restaurant, with a smart modern interior. Part of the farmhouse can be hired for wedding accommodation.
"Knightor has good wine, and good food, in a central location in Cornwall," says the 52-year-old entrepreneur. They even grow some of their own produce to use in the restaurant; tomatoes, lettuce and herbs grow in a polytunnel, and a flock of chickens scratch nearby.
For James, who cut his teeth in the wine-maker's trade at his parents' vineyard in the Isles of Scilly, wine-making in Cornwall was like a dream come true. "I never imagined I'd be able to follow my career path here," he says – he earned his qualifications in Australia. "I love being back in my own stomping ground."
Chef Angelo Bruno was given charge of Knightor's kitchen. He designed a menu that uses fresh local produce with a Mediterranean flare – originally from Naples, he worked in Sicily and Germany; made paella in some of Ibiza's finest eateries; and in London, dished up Italian favourites for Caravaggio and Florians.
For me, Angelo makes a pan-fried salmon, elegantly presented, to demonstrate his style. Flavours of orange and lemon blended with tarragon and brandy (set aflame to burn off the alcohol) for a succulent whole.
"I don't like to do too many things in one dish," he says. "You must not cover the natural flavour of your ingredients. The key is to choose great ingredients and let the flavours come through. With something delicate like fish, I don't make too much sauce. With pork or chicken, you can add more – I might introduce a technique or a flavour that is Italian or Spanish. The idea is to use Cornish produce, but cook it in a different way than usual."
Puddings allow Angelo and his second chef, award-winner Phil Ferguson, to really strut their stuff. Angelo makes me a tiramisu, Knightor-style: with all the right flavours of coffee, almond and cream, but with a twist. Rather than the usual slice of layered cake, Angelo's tiramisu was a creamy marscapone served in a biscuit cup, sat atop a pool of coffee sauce and garnished with a waffle wafer and amaretto biscuits. "It's taking something traditional and doing something exciting," he says. "We will try a dish two or three times before moving it to menu to make sure we have it right."
Naturally, there's always a dish on the menu that is perfect with a Knightor wine – I love the delicate, perfumey Madeleine Angevine – but James makes sure there is something for everyone (including red wine buffs). "We've made an effort to source good wine at a fair price," he explains. "Our philosophy is to allow people to enjoy wine."
Right now, he's investing in that process for the future, while a few new releases – including sparkling wines – are waiting for their release in 2013. Roll on the harvest!
Knightor wines are sold at Wadebridge Wines in Wadebridge and Ellis Wharton Wines at Par, St Austell. Alternatively, order direct on 01726 851101 (freight charges are £12 per dozen).