Sussex by the sea
Rathfinny Estate’s location is certainly spectacular. But the landscape also turns out to be
ideal for viticulture, and that terroir shines through in its four current releases
Rathfinny Estate looks like it was always designed for English wine production.
Nestled in the South Downs, in East Sussex, the sunniest corner of mainland Britain, its chalky, south-facing vineyards are three miles from the sea: a distance apparently recommended by Roman viticulturalists.
The breezes from the English Channel help keep the vines healthy and the fruit fresh, and the estate is protected from livelier winds by a conveniently located escarpment to the south west.
Ten years ago, Rathfinny was an arable farm, until Mark and Sarah Driver saw its potential as a place where they could fulfil their dream of producing world-class sparkling wine.
Establishing a wine business on this sort of scale takes meticulous planning and heroic levels of patience. What if, after all that build-up, the wines had failed to live up to the fanfare?
Mark Driver chuckles at the question: the answer had been provided well before the inaugural 2014 release began its bottle ageing. “You could taste the quality in the base wines,” he says. “It was just spectacular.”
Critics are in agreement, with journalists and sommeliers united in praise for Rathfinny’s maiden releases as well as those that have followed.
The four most recently-released Rathfinny Estate sparkling wines on the market are Blanc de Blancs 2016, Classic Cuvée 2016 and Blanc de Noirs 2016 – all from a year with a memorably long Indian summer – and Rosé 2017.
Rathfinny Blanc de Blancs 2016
For an estate that focuses so strongly on Pinot Noir, it was quite a statement for Rathfinny to make a Blanc de Blancs one of its first launches in 2014.
Chardonnay has been thriving in Rathfinny’s vineyards and emerges clean, fresh and elegant, with the ripeness of a warm 2016 autumn adding depth and richness.
Brand ambassador Rob Buckhaven notes the citrus element to the nose: not just lemon, but lemon curd, and even a whiff of buttered croissant. “It’s got that fresh bakery note to it and that’s testament to three years on its lees,” he adds. There’s also a saline twist towards the finish, perhaps a hallmark of the sea breezes that keep the vineyards disease-free in those crucial final weeks.
Like all Rathfinny sparklers, Blanc de Blancs is put through malolactic fermentation to round off its acidity, but dosage has been pegged at just 4g. “Dosage is like a seasoning,” maintains Mark Driver. “It’s just there to enhance what we’ve already got. If you can try and keep the dosage down, it seems to increase the length of the wine and provides a certain transport mechanism for other flavours in the mouth.”
Rathfinny Classic Cuvée 2016
This is the wine that’s seen as Rathfinny’s calling card and 2016 was regarded by the team as the first year when all the stars came into alignment in its creation.
“It’s a vintage wine, and that sets us apart from other houses,” says Mark Driver. “I feel it’s great to reflect what has happened throughout the year.
“The other thing that makes our Classic Cuvée different is that it’s predominantly a Pinot Noir – it’s 57% of the blend, along with 22% Chardonnay and 21% Pinot Meunier.
“It’s been aged for 36 months on the lees in the bottle. To me it’s already drinking so well. It’s got lovely expressions of red fruits, as you would expect, but also lovely red orchard apples and toasty notes, as well and all those lovely autolytic characters.”
He adds: “I love Champagne that is predominantly Pinot Noir: things like Bollinger and Pol Roger are the classic examples. To me this really smacks of it. It’s already quite well developed but it’s also got great ageing potential as well.”
The Classic Cuvée is another successful food wine, its deep earthy tones providing an interesting match for umami flavours.
Rathfinny Blanc de Noirs 2016
According to Rob Buckhaven, this is “the wine that Mark always wanted to make”: a homage to the rich Bollinger style, but with a distinct Sussex accent.
Made predominantly from Pinot Noir, “the red fruit practically jumps out of the glass”.
“This was a wine I was so tempted to release with a zero dosage,” says Mark Driver, “because when you taste this after it’s been disgorged it has this incredible, really ripe fruit and lovely controlled acidity. You add just that little bit of sugar, in this case it’s only 3g, and it just helps round it off and enhances that fruit character.”
Pinot Noir accounts for around 45% of the vineyard area and is clearly at home in this Champagne-like terroir. (It’s also the grape of choice for the resident badgers.)
The wine is a Driver family favourite with lamb and venison but can handle itself well with spicy food and Asian dishes. It’s also earned a reputation as an ideal wine to go with afternoon tea – a theory that has been put to the test successfully by the Ritz and Dorchester hotels.
Rathfinny Rosé 2017
Despite challenging conditions across Europe for winemakers, Rathfinny was delighted with the quality of its 2017 wines. “There was a horrible spring frost, which really devastated the vineyards from Rioja all the way to England,” says Mark Driver.
“Luckily, because of our slope and our vicinity to the sea, we were able to survive three nights of what was the worst frost event for something like 26 years and we sustained damage to less than 1% of our vines.
“The summer was nothing to write home about, but the autumn was spectacular. We had temperatures in the late 30s. We weren’t picking until right at the end of October, so I feel you’ve got some of the most developed fruit flavours we were able to achieve.”
Rathfinny will typically age rosé wines for two years in the bottle. “We feel rosé should be young and fresh; it should be fun,” says Driver. “You should be smelling those lovely summer fruits, raspberries and strawberries, those redcurrants and cranberries.”
Another wine that works well with afternoon tea (it’s served at the Savoy), the rosé is a good match for many Thai and Indian dishes, as well as another Driver family favourite, rhubarb crumble.
Feature sponsored by Rathfinny Estate. The wines are distributed by Gonzalez Byass UK. For more information visit www.rathfinnyestate.com or call 01323 870022.