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Climate change is favouring southern England for the growing of grape varieties classically used in sparkling wine. Average temperatures have risen by nearly 1°C over the last 20 years; Eastbourne registered its highest average temperature on record in 2011 at 12.3°C. The South Downs in particular has the sunshine, rainfall, temperatures and free draining chalky soil, which provide perfect conditions to grow grapes. In fact they are very similar conditions to those found across the English Channel in the Champagne region.
Late in 2009, Mark Driver gave up his career in the City to pursue not only a dream but also a hard-headed business plan to make sparkling wine in England of comparable quality and finesse to the great sparkling wines of the Champagne region. He enrolled at Plumpton College, part of the University of Brighton, to study viticulture.
The task of finding the perfect location for an estate on the South Downs lasted 18 months. Then Mark Driver and his wife Sarah came across a 240-hectare (600-acre) farm in what has long been known locally as the ‘secret valley’ near Alfriston in East Sussex. Its name was Rathfinny Farm.
The priority was then to source the vines to complement the soil and the climate at Rathfinny Estate, to produce great English sparkling wines. The vine cultivars and rootstocks were identified, selected and cultivated in a nursery in Germany.
After a world-wide hunt for the best specialist talent to help develop the vineyard and establish the Estate on the surest of foundations, one of New Zealand’s leading viticulturists of the past decade, Cameron Roucher, was appointed as Rathfinny’s Vineyard Manager in April 2011.
The Estate’s first 20 hectares (50 acres) were planted in March 2012. The varietals comprise the classic Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay vines for sparkling wine and Riesling for still wines. Rathfinny expects to produce its first bottles of Sussex Origin Sparkling in 2016 and some still wines in 2014.
A sustainable built infrastructure will support the vineyard. The renewable energy strategy based on photo-voltaic cells will ensure that the whole enterprise is energy self-sufficient. Buildings feature locally-sourced oak and flint.
Ground water is being sourced from the Estate’s own bore hole, purified to removed calcium and microbes. The waste water used within the wine making process will be treated on site and released back onto the land. New windbreaks using indigenous hedge plants and trees are being grown.
Working with Natural England and the National Trust, a programme of improvements is being made to enhance the local natural habitat while reviving and reclaiming the natural chalk grass downland and creating wildlife corridors to improve biodiversity. A new trail, the Rathfinny Trail, is being established, allowing the public access to parts of the Estate.
Creating one of Europe’s largest vineyards requires the employment of a variety of local specialist trades and professionals. Once running at full capacity, the Estate wills have a substantial permanent staff supplemented by seasonal workers who will be accommodated in the grounds.
Although Tacitus, the Roman historian, found the British climate ‘objectionable’, his countrymen did find it sufficiently amenable to making wine. After the invasion of Britain in AD 43, wine drinking became commonplace. Vineyards endured in southern England right up until the Middle Ages – 42 were recorded in the Domesday Book.
In the 17th century, a notable experiment was carried out by the physician, scientist and naturalist Christopher Merret from Gloucestershire. It was he who first documented the deliberate addition of sugar for the production of sparkling wine, predating the efforts of a certain monk, Dom Pérignon, in France by some 30 years.
The revival of winemaking in Britain started in the 1950s. It gathered pace slowly and surely at first and then began accelerate into our own century with the coming of age of truly international class sparkling wines.