‘End of the beginning’ as first Rathfinny sparkling wines disgorged

England’s newest wine estate, and one of the most ambitious, Rathfinny, has disgorged its first sparkling wines ahead of a planned release in June after eight years of preparation, marking the “end of the beginning” for the East Sussex estate.

Mark Driver with his Chardonnay vines at Rathfinny in Alfriston

The wines, a 2014 blanc de blancs and a 2015 sparkling rosé, have been made by Rathfinny winemaker Jonathan Médard, from Epernay, who trained at the wineries of Chateau Mouton Rothschild, Champagne Louis Roederer, Moët & Chandon and Champagne Boizel before honing his skills in California and Virginia at Newton Vineyard and Kluge Estate respectively.

Both wines, which spent three and two years respectively on their lees before being disgorged last week, will be officially launched at an event in April before going on sale in June, marking the culmination of almost a decade of preparation for the ambitious estate.

Founded in 2010 by husband and wife, Mark and Sarah Driver, Rathfinny’s first vines were planted in 2012 and today the estate in Alfriston, East Sussex, comprises 74.8ha of predominantly Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier, as well as accommodation in its Flint Barns, a visitor centre, winery and tasting room.

Before moving into wine Mark was a founding partner of the hedge fund management group Horseman Capital Management where, together with John Horseman, he managed the Horseman Global Fund. Sarah meanwhile, was brought up in Hong Kong on a tea plantation, trained as a solicitor working in the City and in Hong Kong before changing direction to work as a lecturer for the Open University and as a commercial mediator in the UK.

“I did a viticulture foundation degree at Plumpton to learn viticulture and that’s where it all started,” explained Mark, speaking to the drinks business during a visit to the estate last week. “We didn’t think we would find land for years, but we did. I had real confidence that we had found a fantastic piece of land.”

That piece of land was a 600-acre arable farm in Alfriston benefitting from a largely south facing aspect and chalk soils. A further 87ha is expected to be planted by 2021, taking its total vineyard to 140 hectares and making it one of the largest single vineyard estates in the country.

LONG TERM INVESTMENT

“[Wine] is a ridiculous business, and it’s a long term investment,” said Mark. “People think, ‘you worked at a hedge fund, you are really short term’. No – I think the long term nature of wine makes it actually that much more challenging and rewarding. We bought the land in 2010 and are releasing the first wines 2018, eight years from planting the vines in 2012. So it’s a long process.”

Sarah Driver with winery dog Buster

Unusually for such a large scale, newly established wine business, the couple have funded the entire project themselves, without any outside investment. But they are yet to break even, and don’t expect to make a profit for around four years.

“I thought everybody planted 250 acres of vines,” said Mark, on the scale of the project and the challenges of turning a profit. “When we started I thought, how many bottles do I need to sell in order to be able to employ really good people to run the business? I knew I needed a really good winemaker and viticulturist, and I also knew I didn’t want to be in on the back of a tractor, so I worked backwards from there.

“I wanted to build something that could really take on not just the markets in London and the UK, but around the world, and for that we needed a bit of scale. So we needed that scale. There are some economies of that scale but less than you might think because the process and the amount of capital that’s required is considerable. What it does mean is that you can address a market over seas which what I really wanted to do. We are selling some wines this year overseas, and we will be looking at parts of Northern Europe as well.”

In fact, Rathfinny is aiming to sell up to 50% of its production to key overseas markets in Europe, Asia and North America immediately upon release, as well as to the UK premium on-trade and independent retailers.

“The demand is there and there are some producers already out there that are ahead of us. Ridgeview and Hattingley Valley, Nyetimber and Chapel Down, already have exposure overseas,” said Driver.

“These producers are doing a great job in raising the profile of English wine. It means that people are now starting to talk about English sparkling wine. People are buzzing about English sparkling wine, and it has reached another level of interest, but it is about working together with other Sussex wine producers.”

Mark with one of 11,000 recently disgorged sparkling wines

SUSSEX PDO

Rathfinny has also been instrumental in pushing forward the Sussex Sparkling PDO, which covers both still and sparkling wines, and has been given temporary protection by Defra in the UK, while it awaits ratification from the European Union.

Last year Rathfinny became the first to gain the Sussex PDO stamp for its Cradle Valley white blend of Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris, which passed an independent analytical test and approval from a tasting panel, while its new sparkling wines have also gained the Sussex Sparkling PDO.

“Everyone in France wants to protect wine of the quality of Champagne,” explained Driver. “It has a very strict PDO so if your wine isn’t up to scratch you can’t call it Champagne. Everyone wants to be Champagne. We have set the bar here with Sussex, and everyone is going to want to protect a wine of the same quality. To me, it’s all about the soil. We have good soil and a good location. Wines are always about the vineyard and expression of the vineyard and what people call the terroir and that’s what I think is quite special about Rathfinny.”

WINE TOURISM

One day, Mark hopes that Sussex will become an even more firmly established wine tourism destination, comparing their ambitions to those of South Africa and its famed ‘Garden Route’.

“In South Africa they have incredible wineries and restaurants and some of the best restaurants are in wineries, like in Stellenbosch and Franschoek. I think that there’s going to be quite a big route in Sussex. The garden route of Sussex? Who knows, but I think there will be a route through the South Downs of vineyards and we are working with other vineyards like Bolney and Ridgeview and Stopham on that. For Sussex I think there’s a whole route to be explored.”

While the Rathfinny brand will remain exclusively dedicated to sparkling wines (its Cradle Valley brand for still), the Drivers have also dabbled in the world of spirits having produced a Seven Sisters gin last year.

This year, the pair are working on a limited batch of Seven Sisters Vermouth, made from a third pressing of Pinot Gris as a base, in collaboration with the Silent Pool distillery in Albury.

González Byass UK has already been appointed Rathfinny’s exclusive UK distributor.

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