I had previously held off visiting Rathfinny Estate until the release of their inaugural sparkling wines. April saw a lavish launch of the Estate’s first sparkling wines within the elegant surroundings of London’s Somerset House. Upon tasting, the industry let out a collective sigh of relief; the wines were not just good, they were fantastic. Pure and precise, expressive and confident, these wines were a real statement for a producer that has arrived on the English wine scene with ambition and scope that has just not been seen before. Since then, I’ve twice ventured down to the vineyard, situated within the quaint, sleepy English village of Alfriston, and feel it is high time to share my thoughts and impressions on this hugely ambitious and exciting English winemaker.
Rathfinny launched its full Cellar Door experience in June. Situated just outside Lewes, the vineyard now houses The Tasting Room, a modern British restaurant led by chef, Chris Bailey. The quality of the food, in conjunction with a fantastic wine list, and the stunning panoramic views of the expansive vineyards, create a complete picture of what Rathfinny is all about. In short, this is a truly world-class visitor experience. Rathfinny is the brainchild of Mark Driver and his wife, Sarah, and was established in 2010. Their vision is to produce some of the world’s finest sparkling wines, whilst creating something special to give back to the South Downs. In the short eight years that have followed, it feels like the Drivers are now well on the way to the full realisation of that dream.
My first visit to Rathfinny began with a coffee on the balcony that surrounds the Tasting Room and a chat with owner, Mark Driver, and brand ambassador, Rob Buckhaven. The scale of the operation is immediately apparent. New plantings this year take the total amount of land under vine to 185 acres. Further plantings will be made in subsequent years, with a potential capacity of 350 acres of vineyard within the 600-acre site. There's a slight bias towards red grapes, with approximately 40% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay and the remainder split between Pinots Meunier, Gris and Blanc.
We jumped into Mark’s Range Rover for a drive around the vineyard and a closer inspection of the vines. Much has been said previously about this particular site’s exposure to the elements; however, Mark explains that the constant flow of maritime air is an essential aid in combating disease. On the subject of terroir, you only have to travel a couple of miles south to see the iconic bright white chalk of the Seven Sisters cliffs, with the same chalk bedding the vineyard underneath shallow topsoils.
After arriving back at the Tasting Room, we were treated to a tour of the state of the art winery. During harvest, the grapes are brought to the winery at ground level and loaded into two suspended Coquard presses of four and eight-tonne capacity. The resulting juice is taken away by gravity to begin its journey into becoming a bottle of Sussex Sparkling wine. Since this is the country's largest purpose-built winery, there’s space for a further two grape presses. These will be set in place as soon as fruit yields call for them, with Mark having ambitious plans to produce upwards of 1 million bottles a year.
Winemaker Jonathan Médard, whose CV includes Chateau Mouton Rothschild, Louis Roederer, Moët & Chandon and Kluge Estate, joined us for a first-hand insight during a thorough tasting of the Rathfinny range (my tasting notes can be found below). Impressed by the precision and expressive character of the wines, I asked Jonathan what were the essential elements required to produce such a distinctive sparkling wine expression. He explained that vineyard manager, Cameron, has played a considerable part in this. Harvest has taken place mid-October in the last three years, which is typically later than some producers across the country. Cameron was confident to harvest late, keeping the fruit on the vines until the perfect ripeness levels were reached. Mark sums it up nicely: "You can make good wine out of great grapes, but you can't make good wine out of bad grapes. It all starts in the vineyard, and we're lucky to have a great vineyard in a great site with a fantastic vineyard manager." After having the chance to preview what is set to be the Estate's finest release to date, details of which I must remain tight-lipped about, it's clear to see just how special this particular vineyard (and its team) is.
I was back at the vineyard again in the middle of the glorious British summer heatwave at the beginning of August, this time taking the chance to stay with family in the Rathfinny Flint Barns. With ten tastefully decorated en-suite rooms and ample communal lounge space sitting inside a large converted barn, the whole experience feels effortless and incredibly relaxing. Expansive views of the vineyards surround every window, while the exposed brickwork and polished woodwork throughout help to recreate that classic ‘English country house’ feel. Internet access and mobile phone signals are limited across the site, which gives oneself the perfect opportunity to disconnect from the distractions of daily life and instead connect with the land and its surroundings.
My only complaint about the Flint Barns experience is that the Estate’s superb English sparkling wines are not available by the glass. Surely it’s a missed opportunity to entice visitors who have not yet sampled Rathfinny yet? The Cradle Valley white wine, made from Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc is, however, available by the glass and proves to be a most refreshing drop of English white wine to enjoy while you take in views of the vines basking in the summer sun.
During this second visit, I made sure to return to The Tasting Room for another chance to sample Chris Bailey's delicious food. After being greeted by the incredibly welcoming and enthusiastic front of house, Abigail Reid, who got her restaurant grounding at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, we were treated to an experience of fantastic service and remarkable food. We opted for a bottle of the Rathfinny Blanc de Blancs 2014 to accompany our lunch, which began with a delectable starter of Tandoori spiced cod cheeks. The purity of this wine cut through the confidently spiced fleshy fish perfectly. I kept this seafood orientated by opting for a main of Gurnard and Monkfish with prawn tartare and langoustine bisque. The dish was breathtaking in its precision and purity, echoing the vigour of the sparkling Chardonnay. An incredibly pretty dessert of raspberry mille-feuille with strawberry and elderflower perfectly distilled all those staple English summer berry flavours, further lifted by a generous pairing of the Rathfinny Rosé 2015.
With the standards set both in wine quality and hospitality, Rathfinny is set to become a national institution. Mark, Sarah and their growing team have created something truly unique. This is what English wine needs right now: determination, bravery and confidence. With an unprecedented scope and scale that elevate the cellar door visitor experience to new heights, I cannot recommend highly enough a visit to Rathfinny Wine Estate to anyone that has an interest in English wine and how far it has progressed over the last couple of decades.
- 185 Acres (Current) / 350 Acres (Total Planned)
Cradle Valley Pinot Gris Pinot Blanc 2015
GRAPES: Pinot Gris & Pinot Blanc
Despite the focus being firmly on sparkling wine, Rathfinny’s first release was actually a still white blend of Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc. The latest 2016 release is a 50/50 blend.
On the nose, there are clean, pungent aromas of lively citrus fruit with delicate notes of white peach and white flowers.
The bright and bursting citrus fruit zestiness continues on the palate, which develops to a fuller, stone fruit richness.
The Cradle Valley strikes a lovely balance between freshness and riper fleshy peach flavours, drinking well both solo and paired with food.
- Harvey Nicholls £23.50
Rathfinny Rosé 2015
GRAPES: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay & Pinot Meunier
Described as typifying the Rathfinny house-style, this inaugural pink fizz is a Pinot Noir-dominant (50%) blend with Chardonnay (40%) and Pinot Meunier (10%).
The Rosé Brut 2015 is a spectacularly elegant first release, from its delicate peachy tones and fine bubbles to the fresh aromas of wild strawberry, crisp citrus and blossom.
The wine has a brilliantly refined palate, beginning with pure, delicate raspberry and cranberry flavours. There is a slightly fuller honeysuckle note on the mid-taste, with hints of fuller stone fruit flavours.
There’s a lingering beauty here, with citrus and a hint of smoky minerality on the finish. The low dosage (2.5g/l) in this wine is a textbook example of winemaker restraint resulting in a wine of finesse and precision.
- Buy from Harvey Nicholls £51.00
Rathfinny Blanc de Blancs 2014
Much like the rosé, winemaker Jonathan Médard has allowed the purity of this 100% Chardonnay Blanc de Blancs to shout out thanks to its modest dosage of 4g/l.
The journey begins with a fresh, pure nose of green orchard fruit and crisp citrus, seasoned with hints of mineral, honeysuckle and ripe apricot.
A lively, crisp palate awaits with a zesty lemon tart zing before a lightly honeyed stone fruit character sets in.
I love the poise and confidence, it's a hugely expressive wine, yet it retains a beautiful air of elegance. The minerality and bright, pure fruit flavours are extracted with clarity and precision.
- Buy from Harvey Nicholls £54.00
John catches up with Mark Driver, co-owner of Rathfinny to talk about their brand new Classic Cuvée, as well as the full range of sparkling wines.
What better way to show your partner you love them on Valentine's than to pop open a bottle of crisp, home-grown English sparkling rosé.
John's latest round-up of English wine recommendations to enjoy this summer.