By Taragh Godfrey
English wine is undoubtedly on the up. The steadily increasing temperatures coupled with the unique chalky soil of the south east has led many French vineyard bosses trying to buy land in the south of England in hope of emulating the climate and geology that originally made Champagne so popular. However, English wine-growers are not so easily bought out. East Sussex alone has eight vineyards producing still and sparkling wine, many of which have beaten their French rivals in blind tests. The most famous of these is the Ridgeview Wine Estate in Ditchling, which has won over 200 awards and has been the Queen’s English sparkling wine of choice for a number of years. The ever-increasing popularity of English sparkling wine has created new commercial opportunities for farmers in East Sussex and it is predicted that there will be a reduction in wine imports to the UK over the next few decades, as consumers begin to consistently choose home-grown produce over Champagne and Prosecco.
We decided to pay a visit to the Rathfinny Wine Estate to discover how they plan to produce the finest Sussex sparkling wine from their perfect English site. Located just outside the picturesque village of Alfriston and occupying a perfect south-facing slope, just three miles from the sea, Rathfinny is a vineyard capable of producing the perfect English sparkling wines. Bought in 2010 by Mark Driver and his wife Sarah, the estate sits at 600 acres with 160 under vine and plans to plant a further 300-400 acres in time. The magnitude of this is not lost on us as we drive through the gates up to their offices, which overlooks the breathtakingly beautiful Cuckmere Haven. With planting beginning back in 2012, there are rows upon rows of vines everywhere we look. Their first harvest was in 2014, and using the traditional champagne method they produced 6,000 bottles of sparkling wine, whilst also producing 6,000 bottles of still wine. The following year they had an even better harvest and bottled 22,000 sparkling wines.
“When you go into a bar in London or Tokyo or New York in say 20 years’ time, the waiter will ask you: ‘Would you like a glass of Champagne or a glass of Sussex?’” – Mark Driver, owner.
The estate is a working vineyard that employs around 25 people, many of whom have studied at Plumpton College in Plumpton, Lewes. The College is Britain’s Centre of Excellence in wine education, training and research, and it is the only Higher Education Institution to offer undergraduate degrees in Wine Business and Production in English in Europe. The courses include the best practice from both the ‘Old’ and the ‘New’ World, and the college has excellent contacts within the English wine trade and with wine producers in Europe. First offered in 1996, around 150 students attend these courses each year. Rathfinny have recently sponsored the construction of the new Rathfinny Research Centre, part of the college, which will further strengthen the industry’s knowledge and skill base. Thus, by working closely with Plumpton, Rathfinny ensure that the finest quality wine is produced in East Sussex.
“The Rathfinny project is not just about making wine: we are committed to supporting the wider ambitions of the English wine industry, and that means nurturing the skills required to fulfill its potential.” – Mark Driver, owner.
Rathfinny isn’t alone in this. The focus of East Sussex vineyards is always on the quality of their product rather than profit, insisting on ‘Product over Profit’. Bluebell Vineyard Estates, which sits on the edge of Ashdown Forest in Furner’s Green, first planted in 2005 and their 2011 Blanc de Blancs was awarded the Food Match Trophy at the Sommelier Wine Awards 2016. Their sparkling wines have won over 60 national and international awards in just five years, which is testament to their aim of keeping East Sussex at the forefront of the English wine industry.
Applications for protected designation of origin (PDO), similar to products such as Cornish clotted cream and Jersey new potatoes began more than two years ago and if granted Sussex will become the quality bench mark for English wine. This means that each bottle must follow strict methods in order to be called a ‘Sussex sparkling wine’. It is expected that by 2020 Rathfinny will be producing about one million bottles a year of Sussex sparkling wine, with the aim of exporting around 50% of the product.
There are many ways to visit the county’s vineyards. During our visit to Rathfinny we discovered that they offer a variety of options, such as: guided estate tours by appointment that take you through the vineyard, followed by either a winemaker’s lunch or an afternoon tea in the Tasting Room; the Rathfinny Trail, a walker’s dream that takes you on a walk across the Estate learning about the landscape and wildlife or you can pay a visit to the Gun Room in Alfriston, a small shop that specialises in local produce, people and artists, where you can taste the wine of Rathfinny.
If you want to stay longer there is accommodation in the Estate’s Flint Barns, originally the site of the 19th-century farmhouse. The beautiful building houses the pickers and pruners who work on the vineyard during the autumn and winter. For the rest of the year The Flint Barns are available for Bed and Breakfast and for functions throughout the year. All of Rathfinny’s new buildings, including the Flint Barns and the Tasting Rooms, are constructed with locally sourced materials and use sustainable technologies. If you haven’t got time for a tour you can visit the English Wine Centre. Located in the charming village of Berwick, this picturesque centre not only offers regular wine tastings but also has a restaurant, stunning wedding venue and the rustic Green Oak Lodge. The English Wine Centre stocks all of the finest English wines from East Sussex, including: Breaky Bottom Vineyards; Black Dog Hill Vineyard; Court Garden Vineyard and Winery; Bluebell Vineyard Estates and Carr Taylor Vineyards. It is also interesting to note that Plumpton College also produces its own wine available at the English Wine Centre.
East Sussex’s success is not limited to the wine industry; the county is home to many successful breweries. According to the Department for Communities and Local Government, a new brewery is opening in Britain every other day. This has led to the beer and pub sector supporting almost 900,000 jobs across the country. In East Sussex there are a variety of breweries that include: Gun Brewery; Rother Valley Brewing Co Ltd; Hastings Beer Co and The Three Legs Brewing Company.
The oldest brewery in East Sussex is the iconic Harveys Brewery, founded in 1790 and brewing since 1880. Located in the heart of Lewes, the brewery is a staple part of the Lewes landscape. Harveys only deliver to establishments within a 30-mile radius and their shop is located directly within the brewery offering a wide range of their beers and other locally produced products. There are tours available throughout the year, but there is an extensive waiting list due to high demand.
Another brewery fast-becoming one of the most popular in the county is Burning Sky Brewery in Firle. In 2013 Mark Tranter, who has over 20 years’ experience in the brewing industry, set up Burning Man Brewery, with the support of East Sussex County Council. Mark applied to East Sussex Invest and was awarded a £50,000 grant to buy equipment including brewing tanks. The brewery is situated in a beautifully converted barn and has the ability to ageing up to 14,500 litres of beer in a mixture of 225 litre oak barriques and 2,500 litre oak foundres. Although not open to visitors the beer can be found in many pubs in the area. As Burning Sky Brewery continues to go from strength to strength, winning countless awards including Brewer of the Year, it is clear that drinking in East Sussex is only going to go from strength to strength.