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‘Sussex will be synonymous with English sparkling wine’

With what looks to be a promising harvest underway, Rathfinny Estate’s Mark Driver is confident that Sussex sparkling wine will only go from strength to strength.

Expectations for the 2022 vintage were high as Rathfinny, situated by the coast, escaped spring frosts and the worst of the summer heat. With picking underway in different sites across the nearly-three kilometre stretch of the estate, it is expected that over the next two weeks the 200 pickers will harvest upwards of 300 tonnes of Pinot Noir, Meunier and Chardonnay by hand.

However, after the difficulties of last year’s “wet, dull summer”, the decision was taken to prune back the buds in order to reduce the yield per hectare to approximately five tonnes, as opposed to the typical eight. The hope, Driver explained, is that by avoiding stressing the vines, 2023 could turn out to be a truly bumper year.

Some of this year’s Chardonnay

While the decision to only produce vintage wines does present challenges, Driver has no plans to make NV sparkling: “I love to celebrate the vintage, it’s about celebrating that year’s production.” Earlier this year, Rathfinny’s 2018s (“a really warm year”) finished maturation and were released.

Despite travel restrictions being lifted, staycations are also still proving popular, particularly among younger people. As UK wine tourism continues to boom, Rathfinny is on-track to receive 60,000 visitors this year, including overseas travellers, with the August Bank Holiday alone attracting 1,000 to the estate.

There is also an abundance of locals who have taken part in this year’s harvest, from those earning a bit of extra cash for pre-university gap years to retirees looking to keep active. “We’ve been really lucky in finding pools of labour locally, which was a surprise,” said Driver.

Driver presents the Blanc de Blancs 2018

The granting of PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status to Sussex Sparkling Wine earlier this year was a major branding success for Rathfinny, but it did not come without criticism. Among those who expressed concern was The Telegraph‘s wine editor Victoria Moore, who argued in June that it was too soon for the fledgling English wine industry: “…in creating regulations too early it risks stunting the experimentation that might create even better wines…”

However, Driver keeps faith in the power of the PDO: “In the early days, when it was being submitted for ratification [around 2016], there were certain people outside of Sussex who were anti- it, and wanted an ‘English’ sparkling brand, but that didn’t give the guarantee of quality and was a bit clunky…The great thing about a PDO is you can set the rules that dictate the quality of a wine labelled as such.”

In his view, Sussex Sparkling Wine will be “the first of a series of PDOs for different areas, like Burgundy” and that competition “will improve quality”.

As for sustainability, Rathfinny is currently at the certification stage of B Corp. One unexpected pitfall of allowing more growth between the vines in an effort to bolster biodiversity was a problem with the prolific insect population biting vineyard workers. As a result, a compromise was reached to slightly reduce plant growth to control the number of insects.

Last month, East Sussex neighbour Ridgeview was granted B Corp accreditation.

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