Six years after the first vines were put in the ground on chalk slopes between Eastbourne and Brighton, Rathfinny Estate has launched its inaugural vintage, with the owners claiming that it is the first official Sussex PDO wine (Protected Designation of Origin).
Press, sommeliers and independent retailers got to try the current range of a 2014 blanc de blanc and 2015 rosé sparkling wine and a Pinot Gris/Pinot Blanc still wine from 2016. The first Classic Cuvée (multi-varietal white blend) from the 2017 vintage will be released in 2020.
Total production at the moment is 15,000 bottles, but this will increase over the next few years as more vines come on stream. The 2017 vintage is expected to produce around 140,000 bottles of sparkling wine alone, according to the estate’s owner and founder Mark Driver.
Driver, a former hedge fund manager, paid £5m for the 240ha estate and when planting tops out at around 150ha Rathfinny will be one of the largest vineyard sites in England, so there was strong interest in the first releases.
The vines are planted on a long south-facing curve on the chalk slopes of the South Downs between Brighton and Eastbourne, and while the vines are still young, the chalk influence is evident in the wines.
Imbibe found them elegant and fine-boned, zesty, delicate, pretty and light-footed. Their trade price, through Gonzalez Byass UK, is £25.50 (rosé) and £26.50 (blanc de blancs) ex VAT and they delivered pretty good finesse for that price.
‘Compare English wines to the competition and I think they’re very good value,’ said (an admittedly slightly biased) Driver. ‘We have the same kind of costs as Champagne – hand-harvesting and whole bunch pressing – but without their benefits of scale.’
Initial interest has been strong, with most of the first vintage already allocated. The Savoy, for instance, has committed to using the rosé for their afternoon tea wine for the whole year and is running a promotion throughout the Royal Wedding month of May with the blanc de blancs. Demand is sure to intensify as more wines come on stream.
‘It’s a great site,’ said Kiwi vineyard manager Cameron Roucher. ‘It all faces south and it’s all chalk, and it’s so close to the sea [3 miles] that there’s zero risk of frost. Yes it’s windy, but I no longer view the wind as an enemy. It helps keep the vines disease-free.’
Currently the estate is farmed ‘on organic principles’ but the sheer scale of the operation at Rathfinny means it’s unlikely ever to go fully organic. ‘You’d need to visit every single vine every day,’ says Roucher.
It is, for sure, a huge investment, and one that is not without risks, but Driver is confident. ‘A few years ago Taittinger tried to buy a stake in us, and we’ve had other approaches from sparkling wine companies since, so I know that we’re onto something.’