ENGLISH sparkling wine has arrived. From the Queen serving it at her recent state dinner with Chinese president Xi Jinping through to Champagne house Taittinger buying up land in Kent, there’s no arguing that English bubbles have gone from being a novelty item to being part of the mainstream.
Many English sparkling wine brands use grapes grown in a variety of vineyards and then bring all of the component parts together in their wineries. There’s nothing unusual in that method; it’s served wine makers at the major Champagne houses well for generations.
Exton Park – Hampshire’s largest vineyard, with 55 acres in the rolling chalk soil of the South Downs – takes a different approach. As a single-vineyard wine, it grows all of its own grapes, setting it apart from many of its peers along the south coast.
The estate is owned by Malcolm Isaac, a local businessman who made his fortune through Vitacress, a company he founded to sell cress to the supermarkets, but which grew to become one of Europe’s largest producers of bagged salads. He spotted the potential for growing grapes in the chalky soil, which mimics that across the Channel in France’s Champagne region.
Isaac teamed up with French-born wine making consultant Corinne Seely to launch Exton Park. Seely has put an emphasis on creating a reserve wine, parts of which can be blended into each year’s offering to create a consistent house style and smooth out any vintage variations caused by the notoriously fickle weather in the south of England.
Three of the first wines to be produced by the estate made for a really interesting tasting. The Exton Park Brut (£26.95) had all the high acidity and dryness you’d expect from a brut sparkling wine, along with some delicious aromas and flavours of bruised apples, cider apples and pears.
The Exton Park Blanc de Noir (£29.95) was my favourite wine from the trio, with a fuller body and more rounded mouth-feel combining to create a smoother sparkler. Exton Park grows the traditional triumvirate of Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir grape varieties in its vineyards, but here only the black-skinned Pinot Noir has been used to make this blanc de noir. There’s a cracking balance between the fruit and the acidity, with the apple and pear flavours being joined by hints of raspberries and strawberries.
For those who prefer their bubbles to come in a shade of pink, the Exton Park Rose (£29.95) didn’t disappoint either, boasting bright lemon and grapefruit flavours, coupled with really concentrated strawberry and raspberry notes. There’s also a long lingering savoury note in the finish, one of the delights of rose sparkling wine.
There are no stockists in Scotland at the moment, but the wines are all available from Exton Park’s website. Though English sparkling wine is unlikely to ever be cheap, these are wines that can hold their own against Champagne and so deserve to be seen in the same price bracket.