October’s launch of Exton Park RB45 is the completion of the new quartet of wines from this influential English estate – joining a trio of reserve-based wines that were launched this April. To achieve a House style and avoid the vagaries of the sometimes inclement Hampshire weather, Exton Park’s new range of English Sparkling Wines owes more than a passing nod to Champagne. Exton Park RB, or Reserve Blend, is a range of four wines that are all multi-vintage and made from up-to 45 different base wines. David Kermode had an audience with winemaker Corinne Seely to find out how she is aiming to make Exton Park “an English Bollinger” and to taste and rate the new wines. Peter Dean visits the virtual launch of the RB45 and provides full tasting notes.
“There’s a confident swagger here in the RB45 Blanc de Blancs, not unlike Bollinger, to which Seely aspires,” writes Dean.
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.
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. In September the launch of the RB45 was also bright, sunny and somewhat windy.
Seely says the panoramic views of Hampshire’s Meon Valley were one of 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 four 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, RB23 Rosé is 70% Pinot Noir and 30% Meunier and RB45 Blanc de Blancs is 100% Chardonnay.
“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 here, and that I am where I want to be.”
So how do the Exton Park RB wines taste?
Exton Park RB28 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.
Peter Dean adds:
Exton Park, RB45 Blanc de Blancs, Reserve Blend Brut (£49)
Being hailed by Seely as the apotheosis of Exton Park’s expression of Chardonnay from the 60-acre estate, this is an unique blend of 45 reserve wines chosen from the estate’s 10 year library. Unlike Champagne NV which uses one vintage as a base for the bulk of the wine, RB45 is a true multi-vintage blend that isn’t based on the latest vintage.
After the vigorous mousse dies down, the wine has a steady, fine bead, medium shiny gold with a green hue; the nose has golden, honeyed autumn orchard fruit, an inviting ripeness, blossom honey, apple blossom, some complexity with hints of leesy patisierre notes, some nuts, grilled pain de perdu, a hint of wood, all lurking in the background. The attack on the palate is fresh, invigorating, balanced and brim full of flavour. It has tension, bright acidity but a delightful textural element on the mid-palate, washes of citrus peel, tart green apple, but not austere – this is balanced with ripeness and age – a little fizz of mineral, aspirin and salty lemon sherbet on the tight finish. There’s a confident swagger here, not unlike Bollinger, to which Seely aspires.
25% of the wine was aged in used French barrels and 30% underwent malolactic fermentation. The dosage is 9 grams per litre, the PH is 3 and the ABV 11.5% The wine was disgorged five months ago.
Exton Park RB are available through Bancroft Wines and the Oxford Wine Company. RB45 is available from October 7.
David Kermode is a writer, broadcaster and wine presenter with his own site vinosaurus.co.uk