After a lovely dinner and night spent at the picturesque five star Lainston Hotel near Winchester we set off under a light grey sky in the Bentley Flying Spur heading for Exton Park Vineyard, the last stop on our luxury English wine tour. Exton Park is set in Hampshire overlooking Exton village in the Meon valley (now that’s a great name for a wine region, evocative and rolls off the tongue) and has the same chalky soil as the Champagne region. They are a relatively new company which is already winning some very impressive accolades. They launched their first wine only last year, though they first planted in 2003 and are planting more to reach their full capacity of 55 acres, all at around 120 metres above sea level.
We were greeted by winemaker Corinne Seely, vineyard manager Fred Langdale and pr manager Fiona Campbell, ready with a bottle of Exton sparkling and glasses in hand. But first we took a little tour around the facilities, they have just finished an eco friendly cool cellar with solar panels for temperature control and are soon to complete a new cellar and reception area especially for visitors. The winery is state of the art and recently equipped according to Corinne’s innovative vision. The team here has been pulled together with much thought and is certainly a winning combination.
Malcolm Isaac, the owner and local businessman, bought Exton Park in 2009 after selling his successful cress and salad company that supplied the supermarkets. Far from retiring he has simply followed his passion into this vineyard, making further use of his intimate knowledge of the local area and the terroir. He originally sold all the fruit to nearby winemakers Coates and Seely and then hired Corinne Seely to make their own wine. Corinne is somewhat of a coup, she has a Masters degree in mineral chemistry and soil formation at the P&M Curie University in Paris and qualified as an oenologist at the Institute of Oenology in Bordeaux. Many women are actually now breaking into the business, but she was one of the first and has made wine for fine houses all over the world, from Bordeaux to Australia.
Corinne works closely with viticulturist Fred Langdale, who like many in the British wine trade studied at Plumpton College. Initially working for Davenport vineyards, then in South Africa on a 55 hectare vineyard in Stellenbosch, before returning to England where he worked at Nyetimber managing one of their 32 hectare plots. Fred is just as enthusiastic about the land and the vines and his local knowledge of the terroir goes hand in hand with Malcolm’s and Corinne’s. Chatting to him and Corinne as we drive the Bentley across the vines looking for a suitable shot is a pleasure. Their passion for this stunningly beautiful valley is apparent in the way they extoll this corner of England and how they gaze fondly at the different plots scattered over these magnificent flowing hills. It looks like a film set, with a stream to the east, high metal gates at the south entrance and the vines spiralling out to the north and west. All gleaming and sparkling as the sun starts to penetrate the clouds and catch the water droplets spattered everywhere. We photograph the Bentley Flying Spur with Corinne and Fred near a copse of trees with a bench ideally placed to luxuriate in this view and crack open a bottle of the Pinot Meunier Rosé to start the tasting. It is the ideal place for our first experience of this fine bottle, out amongst the vines, chilled to perfection in the Bentley’s wine cooler, watching the sun’s crepuscular rays, striated through the clouds on the Meon valley around us, with only the purling of the stream in the background.
The Bentley with its four wheel drive had no trouble following Fred’s trusty raised pick up truck through the vines as we made our way back to the tasting room for a proper evaluation of this award winning vineyard. Twelve Silver medals, three Golds and one Trophy in wine competitions so far, not bad for a first year. The afore-mentioned Pinot Meunier Rosé was very well balanced, with a lovely pink glow, definite peach tones with a light fresh finish. Next we tried the Blanc de Noirs, which was great fun, made from all Pinot Noir grapes, 15% new vines, the rest from earlier plantings. A superb, dry, refreshing lime/floral taste, strongly sparkling with a well rounded long finish.Then on to the Exton Park Brut, a citrus, mineral flavour, clean and well balanced, fresh off the chalk, made from a blend of 60 % Blanc de Pinot Noir and 40 % Chardonnay. Last we tried the Exton Park Rosé NV, made by slow pressing 70 % of Pinot Noir and 30 % Pinot Meunier from the older vines, a subtle pink colour, with lots of berry flavours, a fine balance between plum and strawberry, with an interesting depth and range.
The vineyard relies on the three Champagne stables, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, but as they progress they are looking at mixing the rootstock further and experimenting with other varieties to see what works best with the terroir. Corinne also believes in keeping a reserve of wines, around a third of the harvest, vinified plot by plot, stored in French oak barrels and in stainless steel vats to create a library that she can pilfer from to create great non vintage cuvées. They all feel quite strongly that they will only produce vintage if the harvest is right, rather than for the sake of it. So keep an eye out for any vintages they do produce, they will be excellent.
Malcolm has cleverly built his own “A” team pulling the very best people together to build a brand to watch, or more importantly to taste and enjoy. Highly recommended and we feel confident that Exton Park will soon become a prestigious and recognised name in fine sparkling wine. They are even conducting tastings in Paris to a initially sceptical audience (yes the French can be as nationalistic as the English) who we are sure will acknowledge Exton Park to be very fine indeed. We look forward to drinking Exton Park on long winter evenings with friends to remember the Meon valley and the delightful but swift English summer that produces these fine local sparkling wines.