It’s like the Napa Valley. . . in Hampshire
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Despite challenging trading conditions, English and Welsh wine sales grew 30 per cent in 2020 to 7.1mn bottles. That’s small fry, of course, compared to a region like Champagne, which ships 300mn bottles a year. But it’s clear: British winemakers mean business. The wine has improved exponentially, and so too has the hospitality – top vineyards are now launching wine clubs, lodgings and restaurants that wouldn’t look out of place in the smartest parts of California’s Napa Valley.
Exton Hall, which opens officially this week, is the glamorous new HQ of the 60-acre Exton Park Vineyard in Hampshire. Kitted out by Dunning & Everard, a company more accustomed to doing interiors in Belgravia and Lake Como, it serves as a club house, tasting room and private events space for invited guests and the winery’s The Vault members.
Visitors are greeted in a baronial triple-height hall, with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking vineyards and the South Downs beyond. An open fire flickers amid clusters of chic soft furnishings; modern art adorns the walls. Overhead, under a ceiling with concert-grade acoustics, a mezzanine leads off on both sides to a vast drawing room and a 22-seat private dining space. There is a vaulted tasting room in the basement, a boardroom with a bar and at least two south-facing terraces equipped for dining alfresco.
Exton Park’s owner is Malcolm Isaac – an entrepreneur who made his fortune in bagged salad. Its public face, though, is the Beauvais-born winemaker Corinne Seely. Intense, inquisitive and mischievous, she is a delight to taste wine with. “My ambition is for Exton Park to become the Bollinger of England,” she says. “I want it to express Hampshire’s intensity – the vibrance of the terroir.”
Access to tastings with Seely is one of the perks of The Vault’s £500 a year membership. Other benefits include invitations to wine dinners with Michelin-starred chefs such as Simon Rogan (L’Enclume). Members are also granted cellarage in the Hall’s “vault” and first dibs on limited releases. Exton Park Limited Releases for 2022 include a dazzling 100 per cent Pinot Meunier (an underdog variety Seely has a soft spot for) and an experimental 2014 Blanc de Blancs aged 60m below the sea. To mark 10 years since the first Exton Park harvest, there will also be a long-aged 2011 Malcolm Isaac cuvée that is toasty and rich.
Commentators draw comparisons between English wineries and their European peers – but Exton Park’s direct-to-consumer model is more characteristic of the New World, where top wines are frequently sold through mailing lists. Another high-rolling Hampshire winery with this approach is England’s oldest commercial vineyard Hambledon. Members of the Hambledon wine club (POA) get first refusal on new releases and priority booking for events such as the Hambledon Jazz & Wine festival. They can also “adopt” their own row of vines and help with pruning and picking at harvest time. This summer, Hambledon will launch its first restaurant, headed up by chef Nick Edgar (Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, Alinea), with interiors by Fabled Studio (Heston Blumenthal, Gordon Ramsay).
Wiston Estate in West Sussex – a former winner of Wine GB Winery of the Year – recently launched a smart little restaurant called Chalk. Housed in a renovated 18th-century threshing barn, it majors in seasonal produce grown locally or on the estate: cured trout with pickles and rye; partridge with salsify, chestnut and pear; chocolate, beetroot and plum.
Gusbourne winery in Kent will host a series of pop-up dinners with leading British chefs this year – partners already confirmed include Tom Sellers’ Restaurant Story and Tom Kerridge’s Hand & Flowers. It is also launching a programme of masterclasses: they include an exploration of late-disgorged, long lees-aged wines, a comparison of single-vineyard wines from terroirs in West Sussex and Kent, and a blending masterclass with master sommelier Laura Rhys.
For stylish lodgings, book the B&B at Tillingham in East Sussex – a winery that splices bucolic bliss with urban cool. The “tree houses” beside Black Chalk winery in Hampshire (run by Wild Escapes) are also masses of fun – they got so booked up last year that seven more are being built.
England might not be widely recognised as a “fine wine” region just yet – but it’s doing an increasingly convincing job of behaving like one that is. As vineyards mature and vintage reserves accrue, it’s producing more single-vineyard, still and long-aged releases. Prices, too, have been creeping up, in some cases into the realms of Champagne prestige cuvées. Elite ventures like Exton Hall and Hambledon’s restaurant are a similarly bold statement of intent. Whether sufficient demand for such places exists – or can be generated – remains to be seen. But every new launch does more to put English wine on the map.