Despite a mere decade in the business and young vines, Rathfinny is already making restraint its house style. Tempted to release some as zero dosage, the estate has instead been conducting dosage trials with the wines to ensure that they have commercial appeal. That said the new Classic Cuvée 2016, which is the ‘house style’ sparkling clocks in with just 5 grams per litre residual sugar. Sarah and Mark Driver launched their new Rathfinny Sussex Sparkling Wines from their kitchen this year via Zoom, Anne Krebiehl MW had the wines at home, tasted and listened intently. As she always does.
For Krebiehl the Blanc de Blancs 2016 and the Blanc de Noirs 2016 were the stars of the show.
Both Sarah and Mark Driver wore their hearts on their sleeves as they launched a formidable quartet of English Sparkling Wines. Presenting from their kitchen via Zoom link, it was apparent how excited they are about these wines that remain a model of restraint – very much in line with their initial two releases in 2018 and 2019. Three of the new releases, namely the Blanc de Blancs, the Blanc de Noirs and a brand new ‘Classic Cuvée’, hail from the 2016 vintage, the Rosé from 2017.
This is all the more remarkable when you consider that the Drivers have only just completed their first decade in the business. They bought the land in 2010, started planting in 2012 and released their first, impressive wine in 2018. “I cannot believe it’s ten years since we started,” Sarah Driver marvelled. “It seems incredible to think back to this open, arable field.” Of their roughly 90ha of land, 60ha are now in production.
Mark Driver reiterated that Rathfinny is a family-run estate, that all fruit is estate-grown and that its sheltered site on a south-facing slope just three miles from the English Channel is key to the style. With the sea in such close proximity any frost risk is well mitigated while constant breezes keep the fruit ventilated, reducing disease pressure.
“What this allows us to do is produce really ripe grapes, it really means we can pick our grapes late on,” Mark Driver said. Harvests generally are in late October with “pristine” and healthy fruit. “We really try and reflect the quality of the fruit and of the terroir,” he noted. Talking about the new releases he said: “They are all vintage wines, this is going to be our style, we want to release vintage wines and really celebrate the years, the vintages and their challenges.”
This is also true for the newly minted Classic Cuvée.
“Our Classic Cuvée is a slightly different in the way it is dominated by Pinot Noir, I love all the red fruit and the structure it brings into the wine,” noting that a Classic Cuvée “typically is an expression of a house style.” With a retail price just below the £30 mark, Rob Buckhaven, Rathfinny brand ambassador, noted that this new wine in the range was going to be a “volume driver”.
Rathfinny is known for its ultra-low dosage style, enabled by that fruit ripeness. The new Classic Cuvée has a dosage of just 5g/l, low by anyone’s standards, but it was something Buckhaven announced almost apologetically: “We have a slightly higher dosage, in a way perhaps we felt we had to become more commercial,” he said. Aimed at the by-the-glass pours in bars and restaurants, he said the new cuvée “has to appeal to a larger range of customers.”
Mark Driver added that in dosage trials “what we are looking for is the point where it [the dosage] enhances rather than adds anything new or changes the structure.”
While the Classic Cuvée was dubbed the “house style” the Blanc de Noirs was dubbed the “signature wine”. With its portion of Pinot Noir “ramped up” to 91%, 6% Pinot Meunier and just a 3% dash of Chardonnay, Mark confessed that he was “sorely tempted do release this as zero dosage.” In the end it has 3g/l and is a clear affirmation of the restrained, elegant style Rathfinny is making its own.
Mark Driver hailed 2016 as a great year, which had a unremarkable but consistent summer with “temperatures just a little over 20°C recorded at the vineyard, followed by this real Indian summer which led to the fantastic ripening of the fruit, allowing the fruit to hang on the vine, getting the maximum phenolic ripeness” while still delivering “a balance of acidity.”
The three 2016 wines bear this out beautifully. The Rosé, released (like previous vintages) after just 24 months on the lees, “because rosé should be fun,” says Driver, is from 2017. Due to late spring frosts in April which devastated many European vineyards, Mark Driver said that “2017 is a year which is going to be in relatively short supply.” It was the proximity to the sea that saved the Rathfinny vineyards where just a tiny bit of the crop was lost to frost.
“For us, 2017 was a brilliant year because the summer was warm; not as warm as 2016, but then you had that really lovely September. We had days in September where we had 30 degree heat measured in the vineyard. It really ripened the fruit. We picked towards the end of October.”
Sarah Driver also credited viticulturist Cameron Roucher and winemaker Jonathan Médard. The team evidently gels and continues to deliver – despite a mere decade in the business and young vines. The restrained dosage sits well with all the wines. The Blanc de Blancs and the Blanc de Noirs were the stars of the show.
Rathfinny Blanc de Blancs Brut 2016
90% Chardonnay, 8% Pinot Noir, 2% Pinot Meunier, 36 months on lees, 4g/l dosage, 12.5% ABV
The nose takes a while to open up but remains subtle. A touch of oyster shell, it almost has a notion of blossom honey about it. It is in the palate that the true measure is revealed with a slender but resonant depth that owes much to inherent balance. A lovely central vein of lemony brightness set against a backdrop of chalky smoothness underlines both briskness and depth. I’d hang onto this for a little while longer to let that undoubted depth become more apparent. The candied lemon finish gives a glimpse of riches to come.
It is to be noted here that the presence of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier in the blend stems from the initial yeast starter culture. These varieties were harvested first so they were inoculated with yeast which was then used to start fermentation on the Chardonnay. There was no later blending in of varieties.
Rathfinny Classic Cuvée Brut 2016
57% Pinot Noir, 22% Chardonnay, 21% Pinot Meunier, 36 months on lees, 5g/l dosage, 12.5% ABV
Ripe, freshly cut Golden Delicious apple sets a fresh and juicy accent on the nose. Creamy autolysis with hints of brioche adds a notion of richness to the brisk palate where a mellower creaminess is spread with the lively, fine foam. Structure and backbone remain always in focus, softened by lovely autolytic notes that almost attain a rye crumb saltiness, underlined by the firm texture and creamy foam. A mellow apple freshness lingers long.
Rathfinny Blanc de Noirs Brut 2016
91% Pinot Noir, 3% Chardonnay, 6% Pinot Meunier, 36 months on lees, 3g/l dosage, 12.5% ABV
Creamy but brisk richness is immediately suggested on the nose with a hint of nougat and freshly cut Red Delicious apple. There is something honeyed just after a touch of florality. The palate strikes a lovely balance and red apple juiciness appears. The ripeness of the fruit is apparent in the inherent balance, brimming with freshness bedded on sonorous roundness. The creamy foam holds a rye crumb richness with that sourdough hint of white pepper – and all done without an ounce of fat. “It’s begging to be left in the glass,” Mark Driver said. Indeed, air and temperature show its elegance and depth.
Rathfinny Rosé Brut 2017
63% Pinot Noir, 19% Chardonnay, 18% Pinot Meunier, 24 months on lees, 4g/l dosage, 12.5% ABV
That initial hit of tart, primary hedgerow fruit, followed by a whiff of raspberry leads onto a more sonorous palate. Fine, lively, youthful bubbles are the unifying element between vivid briskness and mellower, only slightly autolytic fizziness. The palate is creamy and brisk at the same time, promising resonance with just a little more age. Lovely red fruit is captured and presented in pristine fashion. Lovely, animating and lively.
Rathfinny Sussex Sparkling wines are available via a wide selection of retailers and direct from its own website at the end of May 2020.