The English wine scene is a source of constant intrigue at the moment. Wherever I travel in the world, winemakers and wine lovers have vaguely heard about it, but express both bemusement and surprise when I state unequivocally that England now produces sparkling wines of absolute world class.
There are those closer to home who remain to be convinced, citing the humidity and generally unpredictable weather of England, and the sheer cost of investment in reserve wines and stock, as two negative factors. But I am not sure those concerns are any more significant than in other sparkling wine regions, and indeed there is a small band of truly top-end English producers whose wines and philosophy is already totally convincing. These include not only Nyetimber, England’s most famous name, but superb recent players in the market like Coates & Seely, Wiston Estate and, now, Exton Park.
From their substantial and beautiful estate in rural Hampshire, Exton Park’s first three English sparkling wines were released in May 2015. It is an absolutely fascinating project, with immaculate vineyards covering 55 acres of chalk soils, planted with the three main Champagne grapes, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. On a June visit the size and quality of the project (though admittedly strolling about on a perfect summer’s day) made me think again that English sparkling wine really does have the potential to become one of the best traditional method sparkling wines in the world outside of Champagne. There’s a real chance to be make truly distinctive wines occupying the top echelons.
Of course there will be years like 2012, a wash-out summer leading to reduced crops and reduced production, but even that can be accounted for with careful management. Vineyard manager for Exton Park is Fred Langdale, a local man whose experience spans Peregrine Valley in Central Otago and L’Avenir in South Africa, before he returned to manage the vineyards for Nyetimber. He joined Exton Park in 2008, so has seen good years and bad as he trained and managed the vineyard, and planted new blocks. “2012 was a disastrous year,” he tells me, “but even then we made some reserve wines that are now very useful in the Brut. The Chardonnay was unbelievably good – all the flavour, though we harvested very few grapes.”
Winemaker for Exton Park is Corinne Seely, below with Fred, ex-white wine maker at Lynch-Bages and Domaine de Chevalier in Bordeaux, who also made the first vintages of the excellent Coates & Seely sparkling wines. Corinne came on board in 2011 and says “from the start I insisted we needed a new winery if the quality was to be achieved.” And so, an all-new winery filled with temperature-controlled small vats was built. “It was a really big investment,” she points out, “because one small vat costs almost the same as a big one.”
Clearly an operation such this needs backers with deep pockets and total belief in the project. Step forward Exton Park’s owner, Malcolm Isaac, who made his fortune in local agriculture and who bought Exton Park originally as a 1,000-acre shooting estate. Because of her experience with Coates & Seely Corinne says “I knew it would not be possible to make a vintage every year, so we needed to build up reserves and we needed to be able to vinify each small plot separately. I asked for a second press too – any good vineyard manager wants to harvest as quickly as possible when the grapes are optimum, so with one press there would be too much pressure on the machines.” The second press is used only for rosé. It’s a seriously crack team that has been assembled, and they appear to have a very benevolent boss in Mr Isaac.
With the first blocks planted by a previous owner in 2003, Exton Park was already a very good vineyard, supplying Coates & Seely amongst others. But the vineyard area has expanded significantly, all the time Fred Langdale minutely understanding the diversity of soils, and matching to rootstocks, clones, and vine pruning systems. The estate has beautiful natural slopes that rise between 60 metres and 150 metres, on the chalk soils of the South Downs. Corinne Seely says “I love being in at the start of a very collaborative project like this. It’s like having your own library, where every book is at your disposal.”
I thought Exton Park’s wines were excellent. They are extremely refined, already showing the mineral influence of the chalk soils. The vintage Blanc de Blancs showed brilliantly.