Anne Krebiehl MW puts down her pen and her tasting glass and picks up a pair of secateurs to help the Pinot Noir harvest at Rathfinny Estate in Sussex, where she gets a glimpse at the full-scale ambition of Mark and Sarah Driver, the latest entrepreneurs to set up a winery in the South of England. Forget the five year strategy that Rupert Lovie mapped out yesterday that English wineries need to have to succeed, the Drivers have a ‘seven year itch’ – they just cannot wait to get to launch day next year.
Since buying the land in 2010, there are 180 acres under vine on Rathfinny Estate, with another 220 to be planted, enabling the Drivers to produce 100,000 9-litre cases per annum. With the launch of their first wines onto the market next year, the winemakers really do have a ‘seven year itch’.
Far be it from me to suggest any infidelities chez Mark and Sarah Driver, owners of the Rathfinny Estate near Alfriston in Sussex. The itch I refer to is the eager anticipation of the first release of their sparkling wine in 2018: “We launch next year and I can’t wait,” says Sarah excitedly. The first wines in the pipeline, yet to be disgorged, are the 2014 Blanc de Blancs and the 2015 Rosé.
Sarah was part of the harvest crew on Rathfinny’s annual ‘village day’, where local residents – and some scribes – are invited to come and pick in return for lunch.
But quite apart from the villagers, Mark Driver proved a point this year when he managed to get a UK seasonal work force: “We’re very proud to have recruited nearly 100 people from the local area to pick grapes. Something we were told we wouldn’t be able to do,” Mark asserted in a blog post earlier in the month. The vineyard was alive with chatter from the villagers (working alongside the hired crew) as we picked pristine Pinot Noir on a windy, cloudy mid October morning on the South Downs.
Rathfinny is an ambitious project relying solely on private investment of the Driver family.
“It’s a partnership between the two of us [Sarah and Mark]. Our daughter Millie is now working for us full-time helping to run events and our son helps run the social media side,” explains Mark.
Planting a vineyard was his idea. Both Mark and Sarah worked in Hong Kong and the initial idea came when they visited New Zealand. They bought the land in 2010 and started planting in 2012.
“We always say that Mark’s the person with the vision and I am the detail,” says Sarah.
The vision is indeed big. Right now 180 acres are under vine and in full production. This is split into 44% Pinot Noir, 38% Chardonnay, 12% Pinot Meunier and a small amount of Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris. By 2021 that will have increased to just under 400 acres which will enable them to bottle approximately 100,000 9-l cases of sparkling wine per annum.
Where did they take the confidence to invest into a project of such magnitude?
“It’s very simple,” says Mark: “We consume nearly five million bottles of wine a day in the UK. Yet we only produce five million bottles of wine in total. We’re also the largest market for Champagne outside of France, consuming 34 million bottles per annum. So if we can produce a wine to rival the best in the world we have a good market both domestically and overseas.” He hopes to break even in 2020 – record time in wine industry years. As we pick, construction of more winery buildings is still under way.
The estate has had significant local impact: “One of the best things is that this is a good news industry for England; particularly in this part of the country,” notes Sarah. “When this was just an arable farm there were 1.5 employees, we now have 30 full-time staff and 120 local, seasonal workers. It’s just fantastic. All you see is a team effort; everyone is really invested.”
The quality and crucially also the quantity of fruit we harvested – numerous bunches of ripe Pinot Noir on every vine – is high.
“It’s the result of a lot of hard work from a great team of people who work in the vineyard,” says Mark. “It’s also a vindication of good site selection. We’ve always thought that Rathfinny was the perfect place to grow grapes and the crop this year just confirms that. We expect that we’ll have picked close to 200 tonnes of grapes by next Tuesday and that translates into approximately 140,000 bottles of wine.”
The estate was spared any losses in this year’s late spring frosts due to the proximity of the English Channel which can be glimpsed from the estate. But there is more than just wine to the equation with hospitality and accommodation part of the initial business plan.
“We hope to sell approximately 10-15% of our production from our cellar door and into the local market,” Mark says. “But wine tourism is more than just accommodation and wine tours, it’s about brand building and educating people about how wine is made and what traditional method sparkling wine is all about. Vineyards are fairly new in the UK so we need to explain how wine is made and that Sussex sparkling wine is a hand crafted product.”
Above all, it is a hand-crafted product that takes time and patience. When will I be able to taste the wine made from this pristine Pinot Noir I picked today?
“We will be making a rosé from some of the Pinot Noir and I like to release that a little younger at about 24-30 months. The rest will spend a minimum of 36 months in bottle, in the cellar, on the lees. We’ll release some in late 2020/21,” answers Mark. Clearly the seven-year-itch is just a mini-milestone in the family’s long term plan.