English chalk streams have been used to grow watercress on a commercial scale for over two hundred years. Malcolm Isaacs began growing this crop iusing the chalk streams on his Hampshire land in 1951. He gradually expanded the business through acquisitions, including the farm once owned by Eliza James, The Queen of Watercress. Along with this acquisition he also obtained rights to using James' company name, Vitacress. By the time Hampshire-based Vitacress was sold to Portuguese interests in 2008 for around £50 million, the company was supplying pre-packaged watercress and salads to supermarkets throughout the UK. With an 87% stake in the Vitacress business, the sale gave Mr Isaacs a considerable fortune.
In 2001 another Hampshire businessman, Mark Gardner and his wife, bought the 95 ha Exton Farm, situated in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and which in 2009 became part of the South Downs National Park. They recognised that with its chalky soils there was potential for growing the classic Champagne grape cultivars and they began by planting 4 ha of vines in 2004. An additional hectare of Bacchus was planted in 2005 followed by 5 ha of Pinot Noir in 2008. The following year the entire 95 ha estate was put up for sale with a guide price of £3.8 million and was subsequently purchased by Malcolm Isaac.
Under the new ownership a new winery was established in 2011 and Corinne Seely has been employed to take charge of the winemaking. Fred Langdale, who trained at Plumpton College and who first came to Exton Park in 2008, has been retained as the vineyard manager. Some of the grapes from Exton Park are currently sold to Coates & Seely.
The first wine to be released under the new ownership was the Exton Park Blanc de Blancs 2011, followed by the Exton Park Rosé 2011. The latter was the 8th placed English sparkling rosé at the Judgement of Parson's Green 2014 and placed above the oft-acclaimed Hush Heath Balfour Brut Rosé.
During 2015 we can expect to see more Exton Park wines released, and we should then get a better idea as to their style and quality. With their own established vineyards, a modern winery and an experienced winemaker there is every expectation that some of these wines could be rather special.
(Images © Exton Park)