On a warm autumn day, with the beginnings of a heatwave that would last into the weekend burning away the edges of the cloud, sterilised secateurs were being handed out at Lympstone Manor on the edge of the Exe Estuary.

Amid the nearly 11 acres of grapevines, attendees in the specified ‘sensible shoes’ clipped off bunches of ripe pinot noir grapes that quickly piled up in industrial blue and grey crates. The act was more symbolic than actual graft - the assembled were in attendance for the hotel’s annual Harvest Festival, here for a little light agriculture to accompany their tasting menu paired with the hotel’s growing portfolio of wines.

A portfolio that now, after four years of waiting, had finally delivered its jewel in the crown - the Classic Cuvée.

Great British Life: The vineyard slopes down from the manor house to the estuaryThe vineyard slopes down from the manor house to the estuary

A delicious new wine in the south of England is - with viticulture one of the UK’s fastest growing industries - not such a surprise these days. However, Lympstone Manor’s pedigree, with chef Michael Caines MBE at the centre of its universe, means that this is a launch worthy of notice. Contributing to that is the distinction that Lympstone Manor holds, as the only hotel in the UK with a vineyard that it owns and produces wine from.

On the day, Caines, in a forest green fleece, was his warm and jovial self. He recounted how the vineyard’s origins emerged from a chat he’d had just after buying the dilapidated mansion that would transform into one of the UK’s leading country house hotels. One of his friends asked him - over a glass of bubbly, suitably enough - what his plans were for the huge field that sloped to the edge of the estuary. Caines instinctively thought ‘it must be a vineyard’.

‘I’d been to so many places in Europe where there was a vineyard overlooking an estuary and I just thought: it’s logical,’ he says.

Great British Life: Michael Caines inspects the vines at Lympstone VineyardMichael Caines inspects the vines at Lympstone Vineyard

For Caines, with his extensive experience across the Channel, it’s little surprise to discover that French wines are his north star. Champagne is the benchmark for sparkling wines, while, for still reds, it’s burgundy. And while his plan was always to create a champagne-style sparkling wine - a choice dictated by the cool conditions of the UK - the capability to also create an award-winning pinot noir from his boutique vineyard was a bonus following abundant harvests.

Lympstone’s Triassic Pinot Noir bagged a gold medal at the 2023 International Wine Challenge where it was also crowned the Best English Red Wine. It’s a truly delicious pinot, elegant and rich, aged for 18 months in French oak barriques. The wine was previously only available at the hotel restaurant’s tables but is now available to buy through the hotel’s website.

Joining this in the hotel’s portfolio of now available homegrown tipples is a 2022 Provencal-style rosé, named for Caines’ daughter, Isabeau. A gin and a barrel-aged chardonnay (its release set to coincide with the hotel’s seventh anniversary celebrations) are also forthcoming, but this warm autumn day belonged to the cuvée.

Celebratory glasses, crafted by Riedel to emphasise the particular charms of English sparkling wine, were held up to the hazy sunlight prior to sampling. The long-awaited cuvée - produced using the méthode traditionelle of champagne - is creamy, rich, and elegantly structured, offering notes of apple, spiced pear, and toasted brioche.

For Caines, it’s a result that required serious restraint. Tasting it after nine months ageing in oak, he was bowled over by what his young, boutique vineyard had been able to produce (all of the chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier grapes going into the wine are sourced exclusively from Lympstone Manor).

However, Sarah Massey and James Lambert, the award-winning winemaking team at Lyme Bay Winery, urged patience. Three years ageing on the lees later, the cuvée had developed a compelling complexity.

Contributing to the sense of Lympstone’s sparkling wine as a true expression of the locality is the high percentage (over half) of pinot meunier grapes.

‘They rarely use pinot meunier in champagne anymore,’ Caines explains, ‘but it just goes to show how, in a cool climate, what meunier can bring in terms of freshness.’

Like Triassic, the Classic Cuvée was crafted at Lyme Bay Winery, only about half an hour’s drive south of the hotel. The assemblage of the cuvée, however, was a group effort led by Caines and involving the hotel’s operations director Steve Edwards, the Lyme Bay winemakers, and select other wine professionals. They tasted versions of the cuvée until they’d agreed on an aperitif style that suited Caines’ food pairing vision. Following vinification, a quartet of possible blends was whittled down to the best.

‘The cuvée has extremely low dosage, it’s not even a demi-sec,’ Caines says. The decision on the dosage was aided by a gathering of leading wine journalists that Caines hosted at the hotel during the process. ‘This area does have a microclimate, with rainfall and hours of sun that’s on a par with Sussex,’ the chef adds, ‘which allows us to ferment the grapes without the addition of Tate & Lyle.’

Plans are already in place to relaunch the 2020 vintage as a millesieme after further ageing. Looking ahead to future cuvées, Caines is intrigued as to what the five-year-old vines ‘with their feet only just in the ground’ can produce in terms of greater complexity, minerality, and aromas as the vineyard matures.

Great British Life: 'I'd been to so many places in Europe where there was a vineyard overlooking an estuary''I'd been to so many places in Europe where there was a vineyard overlooking an estuary'

‘It’s a landmark moment for the hotel - the launch of our estate wine,’ he concluded, to the sound of glasses being refilled with fizzing cuvée. ‘By using only fruit from our vineyard, it’s a unique expression of wine that’s unique to this location. When you get deep amid the vines, you can feel the heat, smell the sea, and sense the uniqueness of this place.’

That sense of uniqueness was also apparent on the tasting menu - a showcase of ultra-local wines as an ensemble piece with local produce. First up, Lyme Bay scallops topped with caviar were a decadent starter washed down with the cuvée. A lobster salad (the crustaceans plucked from the seabed near Brixham) had a vivid cardamom and mango vinaigrette elevated further by the berry brightness of the Isabeau rosé.

The Michelin-starred magnificence rolled on, with butter-poached turbot next, arranged on a bed of burnt leeks with a truffle sauce (that latter element a perfect dance partner for a rich Lyme Bay Chardonnay). After three courses of delicate yet powerfully flavoured seafood, it was time for something from the land, specifically the wetlands near the Culm and the Exe where the red ruby cattle graze. The tender beef with the pinot noir was a perfect pairing. Finally, dessert was an exquisitely arranged serving of hay-infused ice cream with honey produced from the estate’s hives.

It was a pairing menu to linger long in the memory, all the more so due to the relative scarcity of the hotel’s pinot noir - only 1,000 or so bottles remain. With a good harvest for sparkling wine this year, the pinot noir has been shelved for the time being in favour of the cuvée.

Caines is anguished by his inability to make more pinot noir, but he’s also pragmatic. ‘If it’s not the best, then it’s not worth making.’

It’s his uncompromising stance on quality that will ensure Lympstone Manor’s legacy as one of the county’s, and the country’s, most outstanding food and wine destinations for years to come.