England’s Rathfinny estate plans to become the country’s biggest vineyard over the next few years. For publication in week starting 10 April 2017.
Rathfinny Wine Estate in southern England will have 162 hectares of vines — the biggest area of vineyards in England –and produce about 1.2 million bottles a year by the time they finish developing the project over the next few years. They will release their first sparkling wine near the end of this year at £35 (USD 44) a bottle.
Owner Mark Driver gave up managing a USD 6,000 million hedge fund to learn to become a winemaker at Plumpton College. Plumpton is the only wine course in Europe that teaches in English. He remains the only student to arrive at school in a Lamborghini, and has sponsored the building of the Rathfinny Research Winery at Plumpton.
Rathfinny’s first 20 hectares of vines – mostly the classic champagne grapes of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier with small portions of Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc – were planted in April 2012.
Diver said he was committed to supporting the “wider ambitions” of the English wine industry, and that meant “nurturing the skills required to fulfil its potential”. Operations manager Richard James said Rathfinny was developing a skilled local workforce to support the expansion plans. The company has established a cellar door in the nearby village of Alfriston at The Gun Room, said to be the weapons store for the Duke of Wellington in the late eighteenth century.
James was unwilling to discuss how much money was spent on Rathfinny, apart from admitting it was “a lot”. Industry estimates vary between GBP 30 million up to GBP 100 million by the time the estate is fully operational. Rathfinny aims to sell up to half of its wine to prestige restaurants in Europe, Asia and New York. James pointed out that all new buildings were made from locally-sourced materials using sustainable technologies such as solar power and wastewater recycling. “We’ve planted more than 15,000 trees in the past few years.” Residues from the winemaking process will be used to make a “sipping gin” called Seven Sisters, in acknowledgement of a local coastal tourist attraction.
By contrast, the Bolney Estate is one of the oldest vineyards in southern England. It was established in 1972 when owners Janet and Rodney Pratt planted 1.2 hectares of vines on a former chicken farm. Bolney has grown to almost 16 hectares of vines on five plots, making about 120,000 bottles a year of still and sparkling wines.
Rodney and Janet’s daughter Samantha Linter took over in the mid 1990s, helped by assistant winemaker Liz Garrett. Both are graduates of Plumpton College.
Local wine expert Alan Jenkins said Bolney aimed to promote and maintain biological diversity in the vineyard. “It’s not uncommon to see deer wandering across the estate,” he said. Vines are trained using the vertical shoot positioning and the Sylvos trellis systems. Both are designed to maximise airflow and sunlight penetration to the vines to produce high-quality fruit. Their 150cm distance from the ground helps reduce the dangers of frost killing the new buds that appear in April.
Bolney is the largest producer of red wine in England and offers a fascinating sparkling red in the 2011 Cuvee Noir, made from the Dornfelder grape from Germany. It has a tight mousse with a savoury finish and a slightly smoky and gamey feel that would pair well with BBQ or game.
The 2014 Lychgate Red is made from the Rondo grape and is named after the Lychgate church in the nearby village of Bolney. Also attractive was the 2014 rosé made from Pinot Noir, with its delicate strawberry aromas and a zesty zing of acidity. It would make a good aperitif.
One of the most impressive wines was the non-vintage Bolney Bubbly, a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with searing acidity and a cascade of citrus flavours. Bolney was named UK wine producer of the year in the International Wine and Spirit Competition In 2012.
Mike and Chris Roberts first planted vines at the Ridgeview estate in the nearby village of Ditchling in 1994. The name is appropriate given the tall ridges of the South Downs on the horizon that form a natural protection around the 6.8 hectares of vines planted to the classic champagne grapes of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.
Dr Christopher Merret, one of the founders of the Royal Society, presented a paper in 1662 describing how to make sparkling wine by adding of sugar to the base wine. His paper appeared about 30 years before Dom Perignon, said to be the creator of champagne, started his work in France at the end of the 17th century. Ridgeview has patented the name “Merret” and has argued that English sparkling should be called by that name.
Most of Ridgeview’s sparkling wines are named after squares in London, in acknowledgement of Merret’s connection with the city. Ridgeview’s sales and marketing manager, Mardi Roberts, said the non-vintage Bloomsbury also evoked the Bloomsbury set of painters and writers who lived in the Sussex area. It has a lovely nose of brioche and nuts and has been made every year since 1995.
The cepage or blend of grapes is roughly the same each year, with about 60 per cent Chardonnay which explains the bread and nut aromas. The estate has also had the same winemaker since it started – Simon Roberts is the son of the founders – a factor which explains the consistency of their fizz.
The non-vintage Cavendish is less well known as the Bloomsbury. Pinot dominates the palate and red fruit notes are more obvious. Mardi Roberts acknowledged the estate’s connection with Plumpton College, noting that many students worked at the estate and later moved around the world. Ridgeview exports about 20 per cent of its wine – it only makes sparkling – and the main markets are the USA, Norway, Finland, Sweden and Japan. The wine is also served at Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant in Bordeaux.
Ridgeview’s Blanc de Blancs, made entirely from Chardonnay, is their flagship product and is only made from fruit grown in the vineyard next to the winery. The 2006 vintage was named the best sparkling wine in the world in 2010, the first time an English wine has beaten champagne for the prize. The current vintage is 2013 and it is clean and zingy with delicate purity of fruit. The 2013 Rose de Noirs is another beautiful wine, made of 86 per cent Pinot Noir with the balance Pinot Meunier. It has a slight saline note and lashings of delicate red fruit.
Disclosure: Stephen Quinn was the guest of the Best of England company which organises tours of English vineyards.