Sparkling wine special part one: ‘It’s not Champagne’

In the first of three articles focusing on fizzy wine, Peter Ranscombe meets a French winemaker who’s creating sensational sparklers in England.

“I AM French, but I’m here to express the terroir of England,” declared Exton Park winemaker Corinne Seely as she introduced her latest wine to the press in London this morning.

“It’s not Champagne – it’s a whole different category of wine,” she added later, commenting on the tendency to keep comparing English sparkling wine to France’s flagship fizz.

At Exton Park, Seely has concentrated on creating non-vintage wines, which can use reserve wines from previous years to help add depth to a base wine from a given year.

The technique means that the resulting blend tends to be more balanced than a single vintage, with more concentrated fruit flavours to square off against the characteristic high acidity that’s the tell-take sign of sparkling wines from south of the border.

Her new wine is a wee bit different though – it’s the 2013 Exton Park Blanc de Noir, made using pinot noir and aged for four years in bottle on its “lees”, the dead yeast cells left over after the bubble-creating second fermentation, which add body to the sparkler.

There are plenty of citrus notes on the nose, ranging from lemon to grapefruit, but it’s the red and green apples that take over on the palate, with a hint of tangerine squeezing in on the finish.

It has the toast and biscuit notes of an aged wine, yet it’s still got a vibrant lemon colour too.

What got me even more excited though was the Exton Park Pinot Meunier (£40, Exton Park) – it’s really unusual to see a sparkling rosé made from just pinot meunier and both the pale orange appearance and the elegant taste had me captivated.

Seely and vineyard manager Fred Langdale visited France to look at how pinot meunier vines can be pruned to produce more concentrated fruit flavours and their efforts have paid off, yielding intense red plum and red cherry flavours, with a twist of blackcurrant and savoury note on the finish.

All the colours of the rainbow

Hearing from Seely and Langdale, what strikes me most about Exton Park is the precision with which the grapes are grown and with which the wines are made.

Langdale is experimenting with cover crops growing between the rows to force his vines to dig deeper into the chalk soils for water, with all the grapes used in the wines grown on Exton Park’s 55-acre estate in Hampshire.

And that precision is reflected in the defined fruit flavours in the wines; I’ve been a big fan of Exton Park for a number of years, so it was great to see its three standard bottles showing so well at the tasting too.

The 100% pinot noir Exton Park Blanc de Noirs (£29.95, Exton Park) was packed full of red apples sprinkled with cinnamon on the nose and then fresher green apples and lemon on the palate, while the Exton Park Brut (£27.95, Exton Park) – with its blend of 60% pinot noir and 40% chardonnay – focused more on lemon, grapefruit and apricot, coupled with buttered white bread and rich tea biscuits.

Both had the crisp acidity that would make them ideal food wines – pairing with seafood or salted nuts – or mouth-watering aperitifs.

While the single varietal pinot meunier pink fizz may have stolen the show for me, I still got excited about the Exton Park Rosé (£29.95, Exton Park), with its red plum and redcurrant aromas mingling with a touch of toast and leading into much rounder blackcurrant, red plum and ripe raspberry flavours on the palate.

Check-out the second part of Peter Ranscombe’s sparkling wine special at