English sparkling ‘our most successful launch in 15 years’

The introduction of an English sparkling wine brand into the UK restaurant sector has been “the most successful of all the new launches we’ve done in the last 15 years,” according to the manager of its distributor.

Rathfinny Wine Estate was founded in 2010 near Alfriston in the South Downs of Sussex, England

Such a comment came from Martin Skelton, who is managing director at Gonzalez Byass UK, a wine distributor in Britain for the sherry producer by the same name, as well as a selection of brands such as Beronia Rioja and Deutz Champagne.

However, for its surprisingly strong sales performance from a standing start, he singled out English wine brand Rathfinny Wine Estate, which Gonzalez Byass UK took on in late 2017 on an exclusive basis.

Having commented on the success of this launch, Skelton said that the strong performance from the English wine brand concerned not just the speed at which his team managed to “gain distribution in top-flight accounts,” but also the rapidity at which the Rathfinny fizz “sold through”.

“It is one thing selling a case into a customer, but it is another thing seeing it deplete quickly,” he told db.

Continuing, he admitted that his projections for Rathfinny represented “the first time we’ve nailed a business plan… we had a list of 50 customers we wanted, and we are in every one of those.”

Among these are places such as the Connaught, Dorchester, and Savoy hotels, with the latter serving Rathfinny at its American Bar, making it the only English sparkling wine on pour in the famous outlet.

Skelton also said that the English fizz was in the bar at the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, which sells “far more English sparkling than Champagne because it’s where the French come in on the Eurostar, and they want to try English sparkling.”

Also speaking to db about the launch of the English wine brand into the UK on-trade was founder and co-owner of Rathfinny, Mark Driver, who stressed that the success of the product “was not chance, it has been a lot of hard work”.

In terms of volumes sold, he said that Rathfinny had “commercialised” around 60,000 bottles in the past year, with 70% of those sold in the UK, with the rest going to the US, Hong Kong and Europe.

However, he said that production from the 2018 vintage was five times that amount, with 300,000 bottles produced, although these won’t be on the market for another two years.

Rathfinny, which now has 90 hectares of vineyards in Sussex, also produced two still wines from that harvest, which was unusually large and ripe, and these include a white Pinot Blanc/Gris blend and a red Pinot Noir, both branded Cradle Valley.

Speaking about the most recent harvest, he described 2019 as “good” and 20% up on 2018 in terms of quantities produced at Rathfinny.

“2019 was our biggest vintage so far, but it was a bit soggy and muddy, so we had unhappy pickers,” he said, adding, “But the fruit still came in clean and we were still able to pick late… the disease pressure is light where we are because we get plenty of wind, which we have controlled with wind breaks, and it means that we get lovey ripe clean fruit.”

He also said that because Rathfinny is located near the coast, the temperature moderating influence of the sea ensures that the estate tends not to suffer from late spring frost, which means that yields are consistent. “For example, in 2017 [when frosts decimated the harvest in many parts of the UK and Europe], we only had a tiny amount of damage to the vines.”

The average yield at Rathfinny is around 8 tonnes per hectare, which is lower than Champagne where yields are limited by law to 10-12 t/ha depending on the market demand and the level of stocks held by the producers.

Finally, when asked by db if he was concerned by the amount of planting taking place in England, and the future increase in wine supply, he said that he was not unduly worried because “the big ones have a commercial plan”.

“You can’t just build it and they will come, the first question you have to ask is ‘who is going to buy your wine?’, he said.

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Rathfinny will be unveiling a new full range of sparkling wines in April this year, including a new Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Noirs and Rosé.

In addition, the producer will introduce a ‘Classic Cuvée Vintage’.

When asked by db whether he would launch a non-vintage blend, Driver said that his aim was to have “all the wines as vintage”, in contrast to Champagne, where more than 80% of production is a blend of harvests, labelled as Brut Non-Vintage.

“I believe that non-vintage was an accident of history; why else would you dilute really good years with mediocre years,” he said.

“We can adjust the quantity of grapes so we can ensure the quality of grapes we bring in to the winery, because we are grape farmers as well as producers – we are a grower producer; we have control.

“And hopefully in bigger years like 2018 we can hold back some stock and release it later rather than use the wine to bulk up poorer years – I don’t understand why you wouldn’t launch everything as vintage, because it is a premium product,” he said.

Concluding on this topic, he pointed out that wine laws in the UK and Europe state that a vintage must contain a minimum of 85% wine from the harvest stated on the label, “which means you have room to play with”.

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 90ha of predominantly Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier, as well as accommodation in its Flint Barns, a visitor centre, winery and tasting room.

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