To people outside the business I’ll admit to being a ‘wine writer’, even sometimes a champagne specialist. But this admission tends to result in predictable comments from those that regard such a ‘profession’ as one continuous (alcohol fuelled) jolly. It isn’t of course, as I am pains to point out, but just occasionally there are days when I have to admit it may appear so to the uninformed. One particular days stands out last month.
Invited to take a look at the relatively new sparkling wine operation at Exton Park in the heart of the Hampshire countryside, I was keen to go. I’m trying to visit as many English sparkling wine producers as possible over the next few months in an effort to get a better understanding of this rapidly developing sector. And while I’ve been to some of the longer established wineries before – Chapel Down, Ridgeview and Denbies come to mind – there’s a string of enterprising, ambitious newcomers that have opened their doors in the past five years or so and visiting them is the best way of finding out what they are all about.
But I hesitated because I had a feeling there might be a clash of dates. Wasn’t the Berry Brothers ‘artisan’ champagne producers tasting at Vintners Hall in the same week? And what about meeting that new Gaillac producer. Typically they all turned out to be the same day, the most interesting wine trade events have a nasty habit of clashing, but on paper it looked possible to do all three.
Exton Park is a relatively new vineyard set on rolling, chalky hills planted over the past decade in three tranches over an area of 55 acres (about 10.5 hectares) with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier (The Champagne authorities are now encouraging producers there to shorten the latter to just Meunier, according to Michel Drappier, who I have just returned from visiting [more about this trip soon]. Apparently they want to distinguish it more easily from Pinots Noir, Blanc and Gris [called Fromenteau in Champagne] though these latter varieties between them only account for about 50 hectares in total and nearly all of that is Pinot Blanc). But I digress, back to the lovely sun-bathed Hampshire countryside.
Exton Park fruit used to be sold to the nearby Coates and Seely operation where the winemaker was the French-born Corinne Seely. But she has moved on and is now only involved at Exton Park where she helped owner Malcolm Isaac, who made his money in the watercress business, design a winery on site, following his decision to make his own sparkling wine rather than sell the grapes to other producers.
Was it a good decision? On the basis of this visit, tasting and lunch, it certainly was. The whole set-up looks very professional and the wines, even though the oldest plantings are only 12 years old, are already impressive. Interestingly, while many English wine producers are essentially making purely single vintage sparklers, Seely wants to blend different harvests for the standard Brut Réserve NV, always using at least a third reserve wine, as she feels the weather in southern England is just not reliable enough to produce a consistently good, all vintage product.
This nicely balanced, refreshing fizz is a blend of 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay and, when we move on to try the Exton Park Blanc de Noir it turns out Seely is a bit of Pinot Noir fan and it’s this variety, grown on the south facing chalky slopes, she’s most excited about here. The wine, backs up her judgement, and impresses other interested visitors too including Gerard Basset and Joe Wadsack. It’s got decent Pinot aromas, grip and depth, plus a rounded mellowness. They don’t chaptalise (add sugar to the fermenting wine to raise the alcohol level) here so this is all the more impressive at a relatively light 11.5deg abv. This is definitely an English winery to watch.
Travelling back to London on the train in the warm afternoon sunshine I wasn’t too sure how well I’d cope with tasting 50-odd artisan champagnes at Vintners Hall, but it proved to be a spectacularly good and uplifting tasting, which I will write about separately very soon. As I emerged at around 6pm, palate for fizz now somewhat jaded, all I had to do was get to 28/50 Marylebone in the rush hour.
Despite the difficulty I had finding the restaurant in the maze of streets north of Oxford Street, I’m very glad I did. It would have been worth it just to try the exciting different wines of Clos Rocailleux with English owner and winemaker Jack Reckitt, trained at Plumpton College like some of the vineyard team at Exton Park. The Clos Rocailleux winery is based in Gaillac – which I hope to see for myself next month – and relative beginner Jack Reckitt had bought along the first three vintages of his white (2012 – two different parcels, 2013 and 2014 tank sample) made from Mauzac for us to try. Aromatic, slightly medicinal with honeyed notes, these were a perfect antidote to a palate somewhat dulled by tasting numerous different fizzes, as was the nicely balanced rosé, made by a short maceration.
We also tasted two different reds I hope to enjoy drinking again next month. The 2012 Gaillac Rouge a 70% Syah and 30% Braucol blend and the 2012 Réserve Rouge, again made from a majority of Syrah, plus some Braucol and splash of Duras. Apart from the Syrah these are not really red varieties I know much about, but that’s one of the beauties of this part of south-west France. I love the Clos Rocailleux labels too.
What most impressed me about the wines, white rosé and red, is they came alive with the super fresh and simple menu at 28/50. The white, a far more attractive match to asparagus than Sauvignon Blanc, the reds having the concentration and tannin to partner simple steak, plus the refreshing acidity to make you want to keep drinking them. If there are more wines like this to find in Gaillac it’s going to be a good trip there next month.
Clos Rocailleux 2012 Mauzac Vieilles Vignes, £16.99; Mauzac Blanc Sec 2013, £12.99; 2012 Gaillac Rouge £12.99; 2012 Réserve Rouge £16.99 all from www.redsquirrelwine.com