Nestled at the foot of the South Downs is the UK’s most ambitious new vineyard and state of the art winery – Rathfinny Estate. Set within 600 acres of East Sussex countryside it aims to produce (and sell) an astonishing 1m bottles of sparkling wine each year.
Rathfinny Estate was was founded by Mark and Sarah Driver in 2010 just outside the picturesque village of Alfriston. Situated just 3 miles from the sea this historic community boasts 3 pubs for its roughly 830 residents and was the inspiration behind Eleanor Farjeon’s popular hymn “Morning Has Broken”.
As you ascend the steep drive that curves though the vineyards to reach the tasting room and restaurant you realise the sheer scale of this project and the substantial investment that must have been made. You pass by the 240,000 vines that have been planted on south facing slopes using only 180 acres of the land and realise the scope for further plantings.
I was visiting to partake in one of the many organised tours (including lunch) that run regularly through spring to autumn. The tour was very much focussed on the vineyard and winery as the Estate will not be releasing any of its sparkling wines until 2018 when they have matured for 3 years in the cellars. The tour was given by Richard, the Operations and Environment Officer and really was very good.
Having all met we were taken by bus to the tasting room where Richard led us into the vineyards giving a thorough and at times humorous commentary. He was extremely knowledgeable and able to answer basic and more abstract/advanced questions and clearly was very passionate about the whole business.
Purchasing land and planting a vineyard of this magnitude takes foresight, planning and belief. It is not something that can be rushed. Before the vines could be planted mustard was grown as the plant takes a substantial amount of nutrients from the soil which benefits the vines which prefer poor soils. Once this natural process was completed the vineyards were planted 2.2 apart with 1m width between to minimise shadows allowing the leaves to benefit fully from the sun.
The planting was undertaken by a huge machine that was bought over especially from Germany (you would not want to be stuck behind it on a journey I imagine!) that is capable of planting 15,000 vines in 12 hours. The machine is GPS enabled to ensure that the lines are perfectly straight and each vine has it’s own unique grid reference recorded. This is to ensure the wires that the vines are tied too are perfectly straight otherwise too much stress would be placed upon the wires. So far over 22km of wire has been used which is quite amazing. This is a continual process as 90,000 vines a year are currently being planted which takes 5 months work afterwards to install the posts, wires and metal work.
90% of the vines are on French rootstocks and have been grafted quite high to prevent frost although this should not be a problem as frosts only occur at the bottom of the valley. It is here near the bottom, but at a safe distance, the the hallowed Pinot Noir is plated as it prefers a wetter soil than Chardonnay or Pinot Meunier.
Being located by the sea you can envisage how windy the land is so wind breaks have been installed which reduce it by 65%. These will become obsolete in the future when the recently planted trees are fully mature. Wild flowers will also be a part of the vineyards as these will attract the right insects which will control the bad insects quite simply by feasting on them. Pests are still a nuisance though and some 20km of netting was used last year to protect the grapes. Badgers can be a real issue but there is nothing that can be done except by natural occurrence. Hawks are a vineyards friend as well due to their great hunting ability.
The winery is state of the art and was designed and constructed by local architects and builders on a eco basis. In fact the whole estate is self sufficient via solar panels and their own boar hole for water which is recycled.
Inside the winery custom fermenting tanks made by Pierre Guerin stand waiting for harvest in mid October where the juice will be gravity fed into them from the (to be) four 8 ton presses with a separate smaller one for the Pinot Noir. Alongside will be a new 80m cellar with capacity for 4m bottles. It was fascinating seeing this new winery being built for purpose with input from the current team to meet their exacting standards.
Once the tour was complete, our host, Richard poured some white wine made at Plumpton College to enjoy with our canapés in the tasting room followed by a delicious lunch. Richard was very informative, knowledgable and humorous and made a wonderful guide. I throughly recommend this tour to anyone with an interest in wine or who has guest that would like to show how advanced wine making has become in the UK.
This is an impressive venture by anyones standards and Rathfinny is very keen to promote their own geographical designation of Sussex Sparkling wine.