The evolution of English sparkling wine over the last decade has been remarkable. Ten years ago few outside what was a dynamic but very domestic cottage industry took it seriously. But with investment, huge improvements in technology and vineyard management, and — most important — a clutch of major awards, the best English sparkling is internationally recognized.
Nyetimber, which recently released its first single-vineyard cuvée, the $126 (75 pounds) Tillington, and Ridgeview, which beat Champagnes including Taittinger and Charles Heidsieck to Decanter’s International Sparkling Trophy in 2010, are just two of a clutch of English wines that are taken very seriously indeed.
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Changing misperceptions at Rathfinny
Driver, the owner of Rathfinny, a $16.8-million (10 million pounds) vineyard in Sussex, intends to go some way to meeting demand. With 160 acres (64 hectares) planted, and 250 acres (100 hectacres) more to come, it’s on course to be England’s biggest single estate. There’s a gravity-fed, purpose-built, million-bottle-capacity winery; guesthouses set among rolling fields of young vines (all planted since 2012); and a wastewater treatment plant, all the trappings of the modern, wealth-created winery. I was prepared to find the exorbitant dream of a rich man, complete with luxury hotel and manicured lawns.
How wrong I was. “That’s going to be the hostel over there,” said Georgia Mallinson, the events and hospitality manager, as she pointed to a red-roofed barn in the distance. Ah, the luxury guesthouse, though “hostel” seemed an odd way of describing it. “It’s going to be used for seasonal workers, and the rest of the time it’ll be for visitors, walkers, school groups.” How much will a room be? “Youth hostel prices,” she said.
Youth hostels are for those who like their accommodation cheap, cheerful and sparse. The handsome winery — its curving grass-covered roof echoing the buxom green slopes of the Sussex hills around it — was full of guests. Among them were Vince Cable, the U.K.’s business secretary, and David Dimbleby, host of the BBC’s flagship current affairs panel “Question Time.” In green Rathfinny polo shirts were vineyard manager Cameron Boucher — a New Zealander whose last job was in Hawke’s Bay, supplying grapes to the renowned Craggy Range among others — and winemaker Jonathan Médard, a Frenchman from Epernay, fresh from a stint in the United States and Australia that included such internationally recognized names as Napa’s Newton Vineyard and Margaret River’s Voyager Estate.
Cable is Mark and Sarah Driver’s local representative in Parliament (they live in Twickenham, in west London), and when, early on, they became mired in planning bureaucracy, they sought his advice. “The local council was very obstructive, so I intervened,” Cable told me, concisely. He stepped in, he said, because he believed in what the Drivers were doing.
Finding promise from ‘the depths of the recession’
“The groundwork was done in the depths of recession, and it required courage and imagination to stick with such a project,” he said, praising the couple for the jobs they are bringing to an area of Sussex, with its depressed coastal towns, that has “serious pockets” of unemployment. “This is a real creative, imaginative industry,” Cable said, “and it’s also a successful export industry.” Rathfinny lies in the same band of chalk that forms the Paris Basin, which runs up through Champagne and northern France to form the North and South Downs. Southern England is only two degrees latitude north of Champagne — the only difference between the regions is the summer nighttime temperature, which can be 10 degrees centigrade (18 F) colder here. But there’s a microclimate here, Driver says. A substantial ridge, Cradle Hill, protects Rathfinny from the cooling breezes from the sea, six miles to the south. “It can be minus 6 degrees centigrade (21 F) a few miles away, and plus 6 (43 F) here.”
First vintage due in 2017
There’s no wine yet. The first sparkling vintage, from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, is expected in 2017. Driver doesn’t expect to turn a profit until 2020. He intends to export at least 50%, mostly to the U.S., Japan and Hong Kong. The Drivers are popular, not only for the work they are bringing to the area, but for the money they have put into the restoration of the Gun Room, an 18th century building in the town. “The best thing that ever happened to Alfriston,” June Goodfield, an 87-year-old local historian said. “It’s so nice to have something that isn’t a golf course.”
They also have sponsored a wine research center at nearby Plumpton College, where Driver studied viticulture after making his millions in the world of high finance. The beautiful countryside shimmered in bright spring sun as the guests happily quaffed Plumpton’s non-vintage sparkling (a trifle too acidic for my taste). Cable said his goodbyes and stepped into his ministerial car — into the driving seat, that is, of a nondescript, somewhat grubby 10-year-old Vauxhall — and engaged the gears. It had been a peculiarly English day.
Main photo: Vince Cable, U.K. business secretary, center, gets a tour of the Rathfinny Estate from Mark and Sarah Driver. Credit: Adam Lechmere