With English sparking wine hoovering up the lion’s share of medals in international tasting awards, you can see the logic behind Mark Driver’s decision to extend his Downland vineyard.
Husband and wife team Mark and Sarah founded the Rathfinny Estate on high, rolling farmland to the south-west of Alfriston last year.
In April they began planting the first 50 acres – intriguingly giving every village resident the chance to ‘name’ their own vine. And by 2020 they say Rathfinny will produce about one million bottles of high-quality, bottle-fermented Sussex sparking wine a year.
The wines will be marketing under the ‘Rathfinny’ and ‘Cradle Valley’ labels.
On Thursday this week they held a small press conference to announce a further 85,000 vines planted across a further 20 hectares of land.
Eventually 160 hectares – or 400 acres – will be planted.
The vineyard’s winery will be finished in August this year and should produce up to one million bottles of wine.
It’s been designed with sustainable design techniques in mind and uses innovative low-carbon technologies.
There’s a roof planted with local Downland grasses.
Mark said: “Hopefully this will help the winery blend into the national parkland.”
He went on: “Spring has yet to arrive across northern Europe but the relatively dry weather of recent weeks make for perfect planting conditions.
“By the end of the summer we should be harvesting our first small crop – and hope to produce a small amount of still and Sussex sparking wine.”
Mark insists that the wine must reflect Sussex where, he says, the chalk soil structure mirrors exactly the soil of France’s champagne region, “only 80 miles away as the crow flies!”
Vines being planted are Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Auxerrois – aimed to produce a perfect blend for sparkling wine.
Mark learnt his trade at Plumpton College.
He explained: “French growers balance their wines by blending quite small amounts of grape varieties – so small you would not determine the taste, but they make all the difference to the finished product.”
Many local vineyards faced problems last year with Nyetimber producing no wine at all due to a cold, wet summer, although Ridgeview (at Ditchling,) Camel Valley (Cornwall) and even Bolney managed a small but excellent quality yield.
But at Rathfinny the weather has not yet had a detrimental impact as the vines are still young and maturing.
Why bother to produce wine in England at all?
“English wine has won more awards than any other sparking wines – for example Bolney won the top Decanter award.
“Increasingly English wine is sold overseas; Ridgeview exports 20% (Asia, Scandinavia and North America) but only five million bottles of wine are produced in the UK each year and we drink 1.8 billion.
“You do the maths! People are flocking towards sparkling wines with a good sweetness and fruit, an almost Muscaty flavour.
“Prosecco has been hugely successful, and our wines will reflect that shift in demand.”
And to end on another bit of excellent news; Rathfinny aims to employ about 30 full-timers and at the height of the harvest that extends to about 200 a day.