The Exton Park vineyard in the Meon Valley has started to produce sparkling wine, 12 years after the vines were planted. Reporter Kimberley Barber went to find out about the hard work and dedication that has gone into making the tasty fizz.
Set on rolling chalklands in the heart of Hampshire, Exton Park vineyard has produced its first batch of sparkling wines.
On a gloriously sunny afternoon, I’ve been invited for a tour around the vineyard, in Allens Farm Lane, Exton, by winemaker Corinne Seely and Fred Langdale, vineyard manager.
As you drive to Exton Park, through the beautiful Meon Valley, the twisting roads take you past acres of farmland, down windy country lanes and through picturesque villages.
Thinking I’m lost, I pull over and reread the directions, which tell me to look up to see the vineyard stretching across the hill.
It’s there and as I drive in through the gate, I am amazed by how big this vineyard is – 55 acres to be exact.
The rows of vines are clearly well-maintained by Fred and there’s not a weed out of place.
Corinne jokes: ‘Even our neighbours talk about Exton as the immaculate vineyard.’
Now, when you think of English wines, it’s easy to imagine the small farmer half-heartedly producing a ropey homebrew, but that could not be further from the truth at Exton Park.
This is a professional production, and at its helm is Corinne, who comes from Bordeaux, in France.
Winemaking runs in Corinne’s blood and it’s a passion that has driven her to create perfection, and she’s excited about the burgeoning English wine industry that has seen vineyards spring up across Hampshire, West Sussex and Dorset.
‘This is the beginning of something special,’ says Corinne.
She’s made wine all over the world and feels she’s finally found the perfect place to create wine.
Corinne says: ‘I have been a winemaker for more than 20 years and I have been working around the world – France, Portugal, Australia – but in Exton there is a diversity.
‘You will see it from the soil, which is different in different places across the vineyard.
‘And because in England we are still planting vines, which is no longer the case in France, you can really play with the rootstock, pruning and the vines, and you can compose your own library.’
The first vineyards were planted at Exton in 2003 and they stretch up to 120m above sea level on south and south-westerly facing slopes. They are all carefully managed for density and space.
But the vineyard would not have been possible without the patience of businessman Malcolm Isaac, who bought Exton Park in 2009.
Fred says: ‘When Malcolm took over, that’s when it all really started.
‘He saw the potential of the place and he took Corinne on.
‘She had a blank sheet to play with so she was extremely lucky, It was a great opportunity for her.’
Corinne says that the combination of two state-of-the-art presses, that are just yards away from where the grapes are picked, plus the creation of a quality base wine has enabled her to produce the three delicious blends of sparkling wine.
She says: ‘There’s around 470 vineyards in England but there’s not a large number of wineries, so most vineyards sell their grapes.
‘Here at Exton we are particular and we don’t buy any grapes and we only make wine with our own grapes.
‘As a French winemaker, when I started to work here in England I noticed that the weather could be quite humid and it would be difficult to make a vintage every year.
‘But the idea is, and still is, that the consumer, when he goes to the shop and sees Exton Park, he will know where he is and know the quality that he is getting.
‘To be able to realise this, we decided to keep wine and make some reserve wines and then to blend them to keep the quality every year.’
There are three main grape varieties at the vineyard – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier – which are the same as what Champagne is based on.
As well as a talented winemaker, a hardworking vineyard manager, and a committed owner, this relatively new vineyard has required a great deal of patience, planning and passion from all involved.
It is one of the largest wineries in the country and its harvest month – October – sees a miliary-like operation.
Teams of people work all hours to bring the grapes in before the rain starts, and the two presses are running non-stop.
Corinne says: ‘Because of the work of Fred, the grapes were ripe enough to begin quite early and in 2014 we were one of the first to begin our harvest.’
Fred explains: ‘There are a number of reasons for that – the aspect of the vineyard, the different micro climates that we get here due to different temperatures, sunlight hours and the surface area of the vines.
‘Some people overburden their vines but we spend a lot of time maintaining the vines to make sure we get the good quality that we need.
‘We control the crop quality by different pruning methods throughout the summer, and we are doing trials all the time to see what works best.
‘It all makes a difference to the taste and the flavour of the grapes.’
There are three people who work full-time all year round but Fred jokes that in October, they take on every gap year student in Hampshire for the harvest.
Fred says: ‘Harvest is a celebration as it’s a whole year’s work gone into six days of work to get it all into the winery.’
The fruit of this diligence and hard work has finally paid off, with three sparkling wines to choose from. After touring the vineyard and winery, we stop opposite the store and Corinne pops open three bottles – all delicious.
I compliment the wine and Corinne smiles, saying: ‘You don’t make a wine for yourself, you make a wine for the dream of other people.’
What it tastes like
Fruity, refreshing, crisp and all with an exquisite bouquet – the three wines produced from Exton Park certainly don’t disappoint.
Set on terroir that mirrors the famous Champagne vineyards 80 miles away, these wines may finally be the ones to give the French a run for their money.
Buoyed by their recent success in the Decanter World Wine Awards and at the International Wine Challenge, the first two competitions the vineyard entered, the team hope to pick up more awards as word spreads about their produce.
Their first wine, a Brut Reserve Bretagne, won a silver medal at the Decanter World Wine Awards and a bronze at the International Wine Challenge. It is made from 60 per cent Blanc de Pinot Noir and 40 per cent Chardonnay wines from several years and is a refreshing wine that can be served as an aperitif and matched to salmon, white meat and raspberry cake. It costs £24.95.
The second, Exton Park Rosé, is a delicate sparkling pale pink wine that has a surprising depth of fruit. It is made of 50 per cent Pinot Noir and 50 per cent Pinot Meunier grapes. It is an ideal aperitif or ‘celebration’ drink. It costs £25.95 and won a silver at the Decanter World Wine Awards.
And finally, but by no means least, the Exton Park Blanc de Noirs is made from 100 per cent Pinot Noir grapes, of which 15 per cent are from recently planted vines, and the rest from more mature vines. This is a wine for gourmets, with rich rounded fruit, and is lovely with nuts as an aperitif. It won a silver at the International Wine Challenge and a bronze at the Decanter World Wine Awards. It costs £27.95.
Go online at extonparkwines.com to buy.