You won't be able to taste sparkling wines from the Rathfinny Estate until 2017, but this winery has already made something of a splash in the genteel waters of the English wine industry. New entrants to English wine with fortunes made elsewhere are nothing new (think Simon Robinson at Hattingley Valley or Richard Balfour-Lynn at Hush Heath Estate). Yet Mark Driver's plans for Rathfinny are not only ambitious but breathtaking. Stating his intention to plant the largest vineyard in England and planning to produce 1 million bottles of sparkling wine a year - before even a single vine had been planted - might strike some as foolhardy. More likely this is exactly the sort of turbocharge that will help to propel English sparkling wine into the next levels of visibility and desirability.
Previously a hedge fund manager with Horseman Capital Management, Driver left the company in 2009 and embarked on a two-year course at Plumpton College. Using their own funds, he and his wife Sarah then purchased 250 ha of land on the South Downs. Initial plantings of 57,000 vines took place in April 2012 on a 20 ha site, with the intention being to plant an additional 20 ha/year until 2018. By then the vineyard should cover ca. 160 ha. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Munier are the main varietals that have been planted and will be used for sparkling wine. Additionally smaller amounts of Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Auxerrois have been planted for still and sparkling wines.
Construction on the winery began in September 2012 and was completed in August 2013. It is equipped with a 4-tonne Coquard press and the design allows for the juice to be gravity fed. Use of solarvoltaic panels has allowed the winery to be energy self-sufficient.
The first commercial harvest took place in 2014 and consisted of Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc. The Chardonnay will be used to produce a Blanc de Blancs, while the Pinot Blanc will be used to produce a still white, scheduled for release in 2015.
In conjunction with the South Downs National Park and the National Trust the estate has established the Rathfinny Trail which is a public footpath passing through the estate and which also serves as a wildlife corridor
The "Gun Room" Cellar door opened at Alfriston in Autumn 2013. It currently sells a range of local produce and. will eventually stock the Rathfinny wine range. It also serves as an information point for tours of the estate and tasting room.