Posted on 23.04.21 #209

Exton Park sparkling: an English revolution but what’s it like?

Britain’s sparkling wine scene is an exciting place to be right now. Just a decade ago, it was still relatively niche, led by a handful of plucky pioneers like Ridgeview and Nyetimber. It is still small, certainly when compared with Champagne, but it now punches well above its weight in reputational terms and barely a month goes by without an innovation or a launch.

Most English (or Welsh) sparklers are still ‘vintage’, coming from a specific year, but increasingly, we are seeing ‘non-vintage’ styles emerge: a technique used for most Champagnes, where the latest ‘base’ year is complemented by reserve wines from different ones to achieve a consistent, ‘signature’ style. Hence, when you pop open a bottle of Bolly, you know exactly what you’re going to get.

not quite non-vintage

Exton Park has chosen a different course that’s definitely not vintage and not quite non-vintage, with an approach that puts ‘reserve wines’ front and centre, with the newest cuvées playing a supporting role. To do this, you need plenty of patience, not to mention deep pockets to build up a ‘library’ of wines from which to choose. Exton Park’s owner Malcolm Isaac has the cash – having made his fortune supplying bagged salads to supermarkets – and winemaker Corinne Seely has the experience, as one of the youngest women to lead a Bordeaux Grand Cru Classé at Domaine de Chevalier.

“I am French, but I am not here to make a copy of Champagne,” she says, “we are creating a new style … I want Exton Park to be like an English Bollinger.”

That’s some ambition, but it makes a lot of sense, as the reserve-led style both defines a decidedly premium product and also helps mitigate the effects of the unpredictable British weather, which can make one vintage very different to another.

There was nothing inclement about the conditions for the launch of Seely’s new trio of sparklers: the skies were blue and the sun was shining as she, vineyard director Fred Langdale and the boss Kit Ellen took 28 of us on a virtual Zoom tour of the state-of-the-art winery and 30 hectare vineyard, on the south-facing chalk slopes of the South Downs National Park.

Seely says the panoramic views of Hampshire’s Meon Valley were one the things that attracted her to Exton Park and it’s easy to see why, having taken our tour of the nine different plots, all farmed sustainably as part of Wine GB‘s new certification scheme. We were also shown around the new, cathedral-like ‘hosting centre’, still under construction but soon to welcome top sommeliers, critics and corporate visitors.

Exton Park is simultaneously launching three new products, all of them in sleek branding, with the insides of the foil tops revealing one of a series of different views of the terroir, a really smart piece of marketing that I have never seen before, yet could easily be from the playbook of one of the top Champagne houses.

Each of the wines has a number in its name, denoting the corresponding amount of different reserve wines, going back a decade, in its blend. So RB32 Brut Reserve, 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir, consists of 32 such wines and so on. RB28 Blanc de Noirs is 100% Pinot Noir and RB23 Rosé is 70% Pinot Noir and 30% Meunier. The products are being launched in Selfridges, while the respected Bancroft Wines will market them to the trade.

“The possibility exists for Exton Park Vineyard to become one of the best ambassadors for English Sparking Wines in the world,” says Seely.

“It somehow made a smile on the face of my friends at the beginning of the story but not anymore,” she says, of her move to England, “as they know that we are doing something very special and that I am where I want to be.”

The taste test

Exton Park RB 28 Blanc de Noirs (£43 at Selfridges), my favourite of the trio because it has the most emphatic ‘English’ signature which, to me at least, is all about fresh fruit, firm acidity and a chalky note. There’s real precision, with crunchy cox apple, a hint of that ‘Lilt,   totally tropical taste’ (remember that?) and buttered sourdough toast all dancing around a maypole of clean citrus acidity, with a lovely chalky note on the finish. I’d love to try this again in a couple of years as I think its evolution will be fascinating.

Exton Park RB32 Reserve Brut (£39), described as the ‘pure expression of the house style’, this contains the oldest reserve wines and offers a slightly more delicate, savoury style, with bright lemon, golden delicious apple and a subtle grind of white pepper, well balanced with toasted brioche and a touch of chalk.

Exton Park RB23 Rosé (£39), showcases the Meon Valley’s fragrant fresh fruit, with aromas of ‘pick your own’ strawberries and rose petals on the nose, with vibrant raspberries, apricot and peach on the palate. The acidity is firm and the finish is fruity, with a clean mineral close.

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