Chardonnay vines in The King's Vineyard, Rochester, Kent, recently planted on the site of the vineyard of the medieval priory. Simpsons Wine Estate, near Canterbury, will be making the wine on behalf of Rochester Cathedral (photo taken on 24 June 2021)
I'm limiting this selection to new wines, wines that aren't necessarily new but which I hadn't previously tasted and a pair that I hadn't tasted for a while and was delighted to discover still in fine form. It was the only way of keeping the numbers manageable.
A few quick things to say before I launch in. First, the whole English wine scene is very exciting: classic method (aka traditional method) sparkling wines are still the trump card and overwhelmingly dominate this selection, but the still wines have taken great strides, helped by the 2018 and 2020 vintages (although not by 2019). Secondly, do visit the vineyards and wineries for tastings, tours, some excellent restaurants and cafés, beautiful walks and overnight stays in delightful and unusual accommodation.
Exton Park Reserve Blend range
This is what I mean by very exciting. These three new traditional-method sparkling wines take English wines to a new level. They're blends of different vintages but, unlike conventional non-vintage blends, there isn't a dominant, so-called base wine. Instead, winemaker Corinne Seely draws on the stocks she has built up over the last ten years in small-batch tanks. The 24-ha (60-acre) vineyard, on South Downs chalky soils near Winchester, is planted with 40% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot Noir and 20% Meunier across nine individual plots, each of which is picked and vinified separately. The 'RB' in the name stands for Reserve Blend and is followed by the average number of reserve wines in the blend.
Exton Park RB 32 Brut
60% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay. 32 reserve wines, including some of their oldest. Bottle aged for at least 3 years. RS 7g/l. 11.5% abv.
Pale lemon. Biscuity, lightly toasted nuts, elegant strawberry, peach and citrus fruit, super-fine, creamy, chalky texture. Intense and tensile, carried along by tightwire acidity and chalky, fresh minerality. Such poise, polish, depth and harmony. Out of interest, I tried it with some classic spicy Thai seafood dishes, including one with coconut milk, and it wasn't thrown off-course at all, but top-quality smoked salmon (not a powerful smoke) would be a better partner.
Exton Park RB 28 Blanc de Noirs Brut
100% Pinot Noir. 28 reserve wines. Bottle aged for at least 3 years. RS 10.1g/l. 11.5%.
Opulent patisserie and fresh jasmine floral notes streaked with lime zest and fresh ginger on the nose, then flavours of green apple and pear, dill and soft-leaf herbs. Soft, downy texture cut by rapier acidity. Ideally, I would give this another 5–6 months before broaching it. For the record, it lapped up the coconut milk in the prawn green curry, more so than it did the heat of the Thai dishes without coconut.
Exton Park RB 23 Rosé Brut
70% Pinot Noir, 30% Pinot Meunier. Bottle aged for at least 3 years. RS 9g/l. 11.5%.
Pale salmon. Very expressive nose – peach, floral and spice aromas, with peach, vanilla, sweet almond and chalkiness on the palate sustained by a spine of steely pink-grapefruit acidity.
Balfour Blanc de Noirs 2018
A new wine from the outstanding 2018 vintage from Balfour Winery (Hush Heath Estate in Kent) disgorged in early May 2021 and released in early June.
74% Pinot Noir (clones 777 and 459), 26% Pinot Meunier (clones 865 and 916), primarily from Hush Heath's Foxridge vineyard on Wealden clay, supplemented by two grower vineyards on Kentish ragstone (a hard grey limestone).
TA 8.3g/l, pH 3.02, RS 11g/l, 11.83% abv. No malolactic: "You don't need malolactic if you've got ripe fruit," Owen Elias tells me. "Dad hates malo!" says his son Fergus, who took on the mantle of head winemaker in 2019, although it's still a team effort. No Blanc de Noirs was made in 2019, but I tried a very promising tank sample of the 2020, which has had 15–20% barrel ageing for 6 months in French oak and is 98% Meunier (clones 865, 900 and 977), 2% Pinot Noir (clone 777), all grown in Hush Heath Estate vineyards (mainly Foxridge) on Wealden clay.
The 2018 opens with a burst of sweet red apple, citrus and apricot aromas and tastes, then follows with tangerine and rose petals. The palate is precise, pure and taut, but there's breadth, too, as it relaxes into soft-textured, delicate creaminess and a long, fruit-filled, clean-lined finish.
£35, Balfour Wines
Balfour The Red Miller 2018
100% Pinot Meunier from a single parcel on Kentish ragstone (clones 916 and 865 on 3 different rootstocks, all picked separately). TA 4.5g/l, pH3.64, 11.81%.
Nearly a third of Hush Heath's vineyards are planted with Meunier, an unusually high proportion, but a still red wine wasn't planned. It was a pragmatic solution when the grapes became too ripe for Balfour sparkling wines. Why did they let them get too ripe? No choice: 2018 was such a huge harvest in England that there was no crushing facility available at the right moment for this parcel of Meunier, so Owen Elias made still wine instead.
The result is not only a rarity but delicious, although I would prefer to taste a little less American oak. It's very fragrant and spicy, with a silky texture and an elegant frame. Aromas of roses and black cherry turn to sweet strawberry fringed with kirsch and the spiciness of American oak.
Ashling Park Sparkling Rosé
80% Pinot Noir, 20% Pinot Meunier; 2014 vintage from Ashling Park Estate's Petworth (Sussex) vineyard, planted in 2009. Aged for 5 years on lees.
Pale salmon. A rich, rounded, complex rosé with sweet red berry, peach, spice, patisserie and honey flavours and the truffley richness of Pinot with long ageing. Still impeccably fresh.
Langham Estate Corallian Classic Cuvée
75% Chardonnay, 15% Pinot Noir, 10% Pinot Meunier from the estate's Crawthorne vineyard in Dorset, planted in 2009 on shallow clay loam with flint on deep Cretaceous chalk. The base wine is 2018 (83%) with 17% reserve wine; bottled in May 2019 and aged on lees for 18 months. Dosage: 1.5g/l
Biscuity, buttery shortbread flavours cut with lemon zest, mirabelle plum, canteloupe melon and beeswax, and then a finish that has chalky, salty freshness.
Coates & Seely Brut Reserve
Predominantly Pinot Noir and Chardonnay with some Pinot Meunier.
Apple-scented fruit, lightly toasted, nutty and chalky flavours with shimmering acidity. Dry, graceful, fine-boned.
£32.95, Coates & Seely
Coates & Seely Rosé NV
Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.
Pale copper. An alluring nose of wild strawberries, delicate apricot, rose, spice and a hint of patisserie. Roast almond, citrus and chalky notes on the palate and a texture as fine as chalk dust. Shows lovely evolution, finesse, balance, persistence and freshness.
£34.95, Coates & Seely
Bolney Estate Pinot Noir 2019
A reminder that this lovely Pinot Noir was a Wine of the Week in April.
Photographs by Joanna Simon