What a crying shame only one other person joined The Editor and I for the tasting of Exton Park fizz, the only indisputably fine English wines that I have ever tasted. The boss of Wine Utopia’s Winchester branch should hang their head in shame for failing to pack the shop with people eager to try English, Hampshire to be specific, sparkling wine that could hold its head up high in any company.
I will not mince my words: every other English sparkling wine I have tasted has either been some nauseating confection of vile, ignoble grape varieties or a thin, acrid attempt to mimic Champagne from unsuitable vineyards with unfortunate climates. Consequently, I was planning a torrent of invective for this tasting that I thought The Editor was insane to suggest we attend. I will have to empty all of my spleen into the dustbin as Exton Park amazed us with not only the skill of viticulture and vinification that went into their wines, but more so that the wines had a recognisable vineyard character – they were wines with a transparent sense of place.
We began to think we were onto a winner when the sales manager, Mark Ferguson, said all the right things about Exton Park wines.. The wines are the product of a 55 hectare vineyard on a South-South East facing slope. 45% each of the total plantings are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, with 10% Pinot Meunier. I was surprised there was so little Pinot Meunier as I would have thought this variety more suited to English conditions. Mark was quick to praise the qualities of the Pinot Meunier, as it was part of the oldest plantings of the vineyard (planted 2003) and so gave wines of deeper complexity and more intense fruit.
The Exton Park vineyard soil is mostly limestone, with a high active lime content, with some flint in the soil as well. Mark made the obvious connection between the limestone soils at Exton Park and those in Champagne and Burgundy – obviously the varieties planted thrive in limestone soils. You can see in the picture below (thank you Exton Park website) of the Exton Park vineyard the soil is very light-coloured, almost white – that is the limestone that provides such a good soil type for these vines.
The high active lime content in the soil allows the soil to absorb and then release water very quickly. This means the soil is less likely to get water-logged and stop the dreaded ‘wet feet’ that leads to the vines producing watery, poor quality fruit.
The Exton Park vineyard is rigorously green harvested, with the viticultural team aiming for a maximum yield of 45 Hectolitres per Hectare. In some vintages, like 2012, they don’t even manage this impressively low yield – which shames most Champagne producers – with the primary aim to grow healthy fruit even at the expense lower yields. This commitment to producing healthy grapes fit for making the highest quality fruit is admirable.
I asked what potential alcohol they generally harvested grapes at, Mark said 8.5-10%. This may seem low but it is not terribly different from the potential alcohol most Champagne producers aim for. He then told us that Exton Park aim to chapitalise the final wines up to 11.2%. This piqued our interest as so many English sparkling wines are chapitalised to buggery to get them up to the perceived Champagne ideal of 12.5%. Over chapitalisation is a mistake and leads to poorly balanced wines – if the climate only produces healthy grapes of lower potential alcohol it is wrong to push the wines too far beyond their natural state.
Mark made it abundantly clear that Exton Park were not aiming to produce Champagne clones. They want to make wines that speak of the place they are grown, the limestone slope in the Meon Valley in Hampshire. They strongly believe they have an excellent terroir for producing sparkling wines and they want their wines to express that sense of place.
The three non-vintage wines we tasted did this with laudable panache. Given our previous experiences with English sparkling wines it was a definite joy that Exton Park try, and succeed, in making their own wines; not some weedy, lesser, faux Champagne-efforts. The character of the vineyard was present in and enhanced each wine. They were fine wines in a very real sense.
Exton Park have also made two vintage wines, from the 2011 vintage (and will probably make 2013 vintage wines); these are not cheap. However, given our glowing experience of the three non-vintage wines I would be surprised if they were not worth every penny. You can buy the vintage, and non-vintage, wines on the Exton Park website.
So let us get on with the tasting notes!
Brut Reserve Non-Vintage, Exton Park
60% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay, mostly a blend of the 2011 and 2013 vintages.
Almost none of the bready, toasty, autolytic aromas one associates with Champagne, and definitely none of the vile peardrops, cold-fermentation aromas one associates with horribly cheap fizz.
Rather this nose is gently fruity with lemon aromas and a hint of more exotic fruit. There is a touch of fresh strawberry too, which I assume is the Pinot speaking.
It has a very satisfying creaminess to the nose that I think is a product of the limestone vineyard. You certainly get the impression that there is more than just fruit speaking to you on the nose – this wine comes from somewhere specific.
The palate is rather dry with the most deliciously fine of mousses – it sparkles gently with small bubbles rather than harshly with course, large bubbles.
There is more of that delicious, subtle fruit: lemons and strawberries. Nothing on the palate overpowers, it is a refined, delightful little number.
The finish is very long, with a grippy, savoury tang that I am sure comes from the limestone in the vineyard. It really does persist with excellent élan. Delicious and classy.
Blanc des Noirs Non-Vintage, Exton Park
100% Pinot Noir mainly from the 2011 and 2013 vintages.
Another softly fragrant wine, with delicate strawberry and raspberry fruit together with a hint of something floral beyond my botanical skills to identify.
Again, there are creamy flashes of the vineyard on the nose. Whilst the melody of the nose is different to the non-vintage reserve it certainly has the same tempo imparted by its place of origin.
Lovely, subtle, refined red fruit on the palate, deliciously complex in expression. This is a real charmer.
The finish of the wine is very similar to the Reserve, it has a grippy chalkiness that combines with the fine mousse to give it a long, savoury finish. This is a really classy wine.
Brut Rosé Non-Vintage, Exton Park
70% Pinot Noir 30% Pinot Meunier
This gets its colour from slow pressing of whole bunches under an inert nitrogen atmosphere – the gentle skin contact gives the juice its gentle pink colour.
A more pronounced red fruit and floral aroma to this, I think the flowers are somewhat rose-like. There is a hint of white fruit to it. Again, these aromas are very subtle and refined, integrated into a whole being, with the creamy vineyard character, of distinct complexity and pronounced charm.
The palate has delicate raspberry, crushed strawberry and white fruit flavours that are brightly fresh and vivacious. The charm of this palate is only matched by its complexity.
It has the same vineyard-derived characteristics on the finish: a fine mouse delivering a savoury, stoney grip that goes on and on. Not many non-vintage rosés (of any country of origin) express their vineyard of birth so transparently. Wonderful.
Stockists and direct purchases on the Exton Park website. Also stocked by Wine Utopia, where we attended the tasting. These wines are £25-30 and they are a steal at those prices.