I recently had the chance to chat with Mark Driver, co-owner of Rathfinny Estate, about the launch of their new house wine, the Rathfinny Classic Cuvée 2016. It felt rather unusual to be celebrating the release of a new Rathfinny wine sat in front of a computer, with past launches being a little more extravagant at locations such as The Ritz and Somerset House. Still, it was a real sign of the times that we are in. As ever, though, Mark gave a typically detailed and eloquent insight into his new release.
Today, the 29th May, sees the release of not only Rathfinny’s first-ever Classic Cuvée, but three other wines: Blanc de Blancs 2016, Blanc de Noirs 2016 and Rosé 2017. It’s the first time Rathfinny has had a full suite of sparkling wines, and with three coming from 2016, the first true commercial harvest for Rathfinny at approximately 100 tonnes of fruit.
The 2016 vintage was a very good one for Rathfinny, beginning with a slow, late start, followed by a steady, warm July to August. Then an Indian summer sealed the deal with a big push between September and October, and eventual harvest in the third week of October. Mark quipped that the sign of a good vintage was indicated by the amount of chaptalisation that had to conducted in the winery, and in 2016 any such intervention absolutely kept to a minimum. With the quality and ripeness of the fruit that was harvested, 2016 was the right vintage to launch the Classic.
One thing I noted about the Classic Cuvée, and the range as a whole, is the prominence of Pinot Noir. With the Classic being 57% Pinot Noir, the Rosé 63% and the Blanc de Noirs understandably 91%, I asked Mark about the significance of the grape. He explained, “I love Pinot Noir driven sparkling wines. I love the flavours and I love the structure that it brings to the wine”. That Pinot character that Mark talks about is immediately recognisable in the manifestation of red berry richness that is evident in the Classic Cuvée, and even more so in the Rosé and Blanc de Noirs. With the estate split between some 45% Pinot Noir, 35% Chardonnay and the remainder divided between mostly Pinot Meunier and a little Pinot Gris, it’s no surprise to see the prominence of the red grapes in the blends.
“I love Pinot Noir driven sparkling wines. I love the flavours and I love the structure that it brings to the wine.”
– Mark Driver
Mark highlights the fact that it’s unusual for a producer to make their entry-level wine a vintage offering. Ever the eagle eyes, the GBW team had spotted that the original plan for Rathfinny was for the Classic to be a non-vintage offering on some old marketing material. I asked Mark about this, and he again explained that the plans for Rathfinny have very much evolved over the last few years. In the early days, coming off the back of two challenging vintages (2012 and 2013) in England, the initial thoughts were that a non-vintage would make a lot of sense considering the weather anomalies. Mark’s mindset changed, though, as he felt that the NV approach is as much to do with managing wine supply through fluctuating yields and production as it is to do with quality. With everything being estate-grown at Rathfinny, and the focus on quality and not quantity, the decision was taken to stay vintage-focussed.
“2018 was, not just in yield terms, but equally in terms of ripeness of fruit, the vintage of the decade.” He adds, “Why pull a portion of that and then add it to a bad year? We don’t need to do that because we can control yields, we can control the quality of our grapes, and therefore we moved from the idea of a non-vintage to just having vintage.”
With that said, the rules for winemaking specify that a vintage wine must be made up of 85% of grapes harvested from the labelled vintage. Essentially, this allows up to 15% of reserve wines to be blended into a vintage wine. This is relatively common practice in England, and whilst not utilised by Rathfinny on wines released to date, they did hold back a little of the 2018 juice, of which a little has gone into the 2019 vintage blends.
Dosage has been one of the defining characteristics of Rathfinny’s wines, being on the ultra-dry side of Brut at 3-4g/l. While the Classic is the highest in a Rathfinny wine to date at 5g/l, it is still way below the average typically found in both English Sparkling and Champagne. Mark adds, “To me, the dosage is like a seasoning”. The average person tends to taste sugar at approximately 6g of sugar per litre of water. While alcohol and acidity in wine also play a part, the goal is to find a harmony where the taster cannot notice and taste that sugar addition. The resulting wines to date from Rathfinny have been particularly successful with the on-trade and with sommeliers. With the Classic Cuvée, Mark explains that they have been a little more commercially minded, with it being their more widely available house-style. We’re only talking an extra gram here over the other wines, but that does go a long way to hand the wine a more generous immediacy and rounded edges compared to its leaner, ‘somm-friendly’ counterparts.
On that note, I asked Mark briefly about the impact of Covid-19 and lockdown restrictions on Rathfinny, whose business had been 90% based on the on-trade. Mark explained that it’s great that Rathfinny has such a creative, reactive team, as they have had to do a bit of a refocus. They have re-directed a lot of the wines to the off-trade, which was the plan for next year. However, things have been brought forward with restaurants across the country closed. The wines are now more widely available, focussing on independent and quality listings such as Lea & Sandeman, Oxford Wines, Harrods and Selfridges amongst others. This year has seen retailer distribution increase from around fifteen vendors to around fifty. Also consumers are for the first time able to order Rathfinny wines directly through the website.
It was a pleasure to catch up with Mark and talk through and taste the Classic Cuvée 2016, which is available to buy now at the very reasonable price of £28.95. You can find my full tasting notes of the complete range of Rathfinny new releases below.
Rathfinny Classic Cuvée 2016
Grapes: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay & Pinot Meunier
The inaugural Rathfinny Classic Cuvée is a classic blend of 57% Pinot Noir, 22% Chardonnay and 21% Pinot Meunier. It’s the highest Rathfinny dosage to date at 5g/l, but that’s still relatively low, and the wine spent 36 months on lees.
The first signs are good, as the wine has a wonderful golden hue thanks to the Pinot dominance, as well as a gorgeous nose packed with crisp red apples, red berry notes and delicate pastry notes.
This wine is beautifully poised, with crunchy orchard fruit, tangy red berry fruit, delicate umami notes and that signature Rathfinny low dosage expression. It’s also well priced at around £29.
Overall, this is a crisp, crunchy, harmonious celebration of English freshness.
Rathfinny Blanc de Blancs 2016
Grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir & Pinot Meunier
The wait for a new Rathfinny Blanc de Blancs feels like an age. But it has, in fact, been two short years since their 2014, which was part of a duo of first releases in 2018. This new 2016 vintage has a curious inclusion of red grapes (8% Pinot Noir and 2% Pinot Meunier) and spent 36 months on lees with a 4g/l dosage.
The nose on this wine is bright, clean and pristine, with crisp orchard fruits, zesty citrus and suggestions of toasted pastry.
To taste, this has a brisk, clean linear bite of zesty citrus, crunchy green apples and suggestions of honeyed pastry. The mid-taste is lean and elegant, seasoned with minerality, leading to peach and tangy citrus notes on the finish. This wine is in its element when served with oysters.
Rathfinny Rosé 2017
Grapes: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay & Pinot Meunier
Now in its third vintage, the latest rosé is a blend of 63% Pinot Noir, 19% Chardonnay and 18% Pinot Meunier. This wine also had a dosage of 4 g/l and spent 24 months on the lees.
This is easily the most colourful and playful of the four new wines, which you expect from the get-go with its confident pink hues. This rosé entertains with lush, ripe and ready red berry aromas of strawberry and cherry, with the signature hints of honeysuckle.
To taste, this straddles a delicate line between the dry, low-dosage approach, and the confident, bold red fruit character. It feels more intense than previous vintages of Rathfinny but is immediately appealing in its surprising generosity.
Rathfinny Blanc de Noirs 2016
Grapes: Pinot Noir & Chardonnay
This is the second vintage of Blanc de Noirs from Rathfinny, following on from last year’s superb 2015 vintage. The latest, the 2016, is a blend of 91% Pinot Noir, 6% Pinot Meunier with a small inclusion of 3% Chardonnay. This wine has the lowest dosage of the four new releases at 3g/l, and it also spent 36 months on lees.
Decidedly bronzed in colour, the nose on the Blanc de Noirs is a courageous fusion of raspberry and baked apples, with a pleasing complexity of toasted nut.
Again, this wine continues the expected briskness and steely freshness that the low dosage offers. With dried citrus peel and tangy red fruits upfront, the mid-taste is perhaps the deepest and most structured. The richness and nuances of this wine make it a food-friendly favourite.