From the highest point of Rathfinny Estate, perched on the edge of the South Downs in East Sussex, one has an unbroken view of the gentle foothills of southern England’s Cuckmere Valley. On a clear day, beyond the fields of wheat and oilseed rape, one can just make out the mouth of the River Cuckmere as it meanders gently into the English Channel.
But today isn’t a clear day. It may be the height of the English summer, but the rain is lashing down, blanketing the valley with a sheen of mist. So we’re not getting outside. Instead, we’re sheltering in the car, admiring the view and trying to envisage the 650 hectares in front of us planted with vines. As the rain batters off the bonnet, I can’t help but openly wonder whether Mark Driver was perhaps a little too optimistic when he decided to invest more than £10 million of the money he earned as a hedge-fund manager at Horseman Capital Management to plant what will be England’s largest single vineyard.
“It will be O.K.,” says Mr. Driver, Rathfinny’s owner. “We can handle a wet summer as long as we get a warm and dry September. As well as May, there are two key dates when it comes to making wine in the U.K.: There is Wimbledon fortnight [the last two weeks of June], when the vine sets its buds; if the weather is hot, you will have a good crop for the following year. The other critical time is September. This is the key ripening month, and a cool or wet September can lead to unripe or diseased grapes.” But Mr. Driver plans to hedge against this by planting wet climate clones, which produce small, open clusters that are more robust when facing disease. To help him oversee the staggered planting, he has hired Cameron Roucher, one of New Zealand’s most highly rated viticulturists. He has also recognized that, in England, grape varieties such as Bacchus and Sylvaner might grow, but on the High Street, they don’t sell. So at Rathfinny, they are planting the classic French varieties grown in Champagne: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Chardonnay and a little Riesling and Pinot Gris—the idea being to produce the first bottles of sparkling wine by 2017.
English wine has come a long way since Lt. Col. Robert Gore-Browne and his wife Margaret planted vineyards at Beaulieu in Hampshire in the 1950s. Today, a handful of U.K. producers are making sparkling wine, some of which have won international awards. I’ve still to be convinced of the quality of the majority of English wine on the market, but sparkling wine, such as this example from Ridgeview, does impress. A light, golden color in the glass, when poured it has a creamy mousse that, with time, opens up an attractive note of apples on the nose. In the mouth, the wine is soft, with just a hint of that yeasty character one finds in Champagne.
“Next April we start planting,” says Mr. Driver. “The first stage is to establish top-quality fruit, which we hope will produce top-quality wine. People have to realize here in England we can produce world-class sparkling wine. I passionately believe that.” He has grounds to. Less than 60 kilometers away lie two of England’s most celebrated wineries: Nyetimber and Ridgeview. In a blind tasting held by wine magazine Decanter, Ridgeview was deemed to be of a higher quality than Champagne. The two estates form a growing cluster of wineries, which includes Denbies in Surrey, Chapel Down in Kent and Camel Valley in Cornwall, that are forging a reputation for clean, dry, sparkling wine made in a cool-climate style, with delicate, floral fruit and refreshing, light acidity. It is this that has persuaded wannabe winemakers like Mr. Driver not to scour the foothills of Tuscany or the picturesque valleys of France for a vineyard, but to stay at home and invest in the English countryside.
It’s a big project. There are plans to convert the old grain stores into a hi-tech winery and restore two ancient flint buildings. Mr. Driver has also enrolled in the viticulture course at nearby Plumpton College, which he credits with fueling a local industry that has gone from virtually nonexistent in the 1950s to supporting more than 1,200 hectares under vine today, with 116 wineries producing, on average, two million bottles a year. “We now have the personnel with skills and knowledge learned in England to support the industry,” he says. “These may go abroad, but hopefully they will come back.”
Actually, as we sit amid the wheat fields of southern England, Mr. Driver’s vision doesn’t seem that unrealistic. On the edge of Rathfinny, there is a patch of meadowland where there is evidence of a Roman settlement. “My suspicion is they would have had vines,” he says. “After all, evidence shows that 2,000 years ago, it was considerably warmer in England.” It’s been a long time coming, but if all goes to plan, Mr. Driver will soon realize his goal of growing grapes once again on the slopes of Rathfinny.
via Will Lyons on Wine: England’s Sparkling Dream – WSJ.com.