09:24, 26 March 2012
17:03, 26 March 2012
A former hedge fund boss is taking
the biggest gamble of his life by opening the country’s newest and
largest vineyard – with plans to produce one million bottles of fizz a
Mark Driver, 47, and a team of 30,
will attempt to take on the French at their own game, producing quality
sparkling wine to rival the best Champagne has to offer.
His picturesque 400-acre plot,
nestled on a south-facing slope, near the coast at Alfriston, East
Sussex, is just 88 miles from Champagne in France, and has a very
similar soil and climate.
The Rathfinny Estate will be one of
the largest single site vineyards in Europe and aims to capitalise on
the booming demand – both nationally and internationally – for high
quality English sparkling wine.
Scroll down to see the first vines being planted
Ready for action: Mark Driver, pictured with his wife Sarah, on the freshly-plowed South Downs vineyard
Some fizz in Sussex? The Rathfinny Estate in South Downs is only 88 miles from Champagne in France, and is said to have similar growing conditions
WHAT’S IN A BOTTLE?
- The Benedictine monk Dom Perignon is
believed to have invented champagne, after allowing carbon dioxide to
build up during the fermentation process
- The three traditional grapes used to make champagne are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier
A taste of things to come: Grape-pickers work in the Champagne Banette’s vineyards in Tauxieres-Mutry
- Sparkling wine is only strictly
‘champagne’ if is made in the Champagne region of northeastern France.
Otherwise it is sparkling wine, sometimes labelled ‘methode champenoise’
if made elsewhere in France
- The pressure inside a bottle is
about three times that of a car-tyre – and corks can leave bottles at up
to 100mph – although typically it is closer to 40mph
- How many bubbles in a typical bottle of ‘bolly’? Approximately 49 million…
Mr Driver, father-of-four, said: ‘A
lot of people don’t realise that English wine producers are making some
of the best sparkling wine in the world. Ridgeview, another local Sussex
producer, won the prestigious Decanter award in 2010 for its sparkling
wine, the first time the award has been won outside of France.
‘So, we know it can be done. We hope that opening such a large operation will help put English wine on the map.
‘I want Rathfinny to be sold not just
in the best restaurants in London, but in Paris, New York, Beijing and
Hong Kong as well,’ he said.
He said that his aim was to produce
sparkling wine that compared favourably with the likes of Bollinger and
Pol Roger, with a retail price of around £25 to £26. He said they would
be using the same methods and grapes as they do in Champagne, so the
wine should be similar, although a touch fruitier.
Mr Driver, whose usual dress as a
stockbroker and then co-manager of a hedge fund, was a suit and tie, now
finds he spends a lot of time traipsing about in wellies on his 400
acre site, which he bought in October 2010. His ambitious plans are even
more astounding, considering that he is in the middle of a degree – in
‘I was lucky enough to be able to
step down from my job and venture into something new. I’ve always been
interested in wine, I’ve drunk a lot of it over the years, and I have a
small, but growing, collection. It was from a personal interest that I
decided to consider the idea of a vineyard
‘The other students find it very
amusing that I am opening up the largest vineyard in the country, when I
haven’t even finished my studies,’ said Mr Driver. ‘However, I think
they believe it is great news for the industry and for them as I may be
employing some of them in the future.’
Mr Driver said that he hadn’t
anticipated buying land until after his degree at Plumpton College, but
when the Rathfinny estate came up for sale the opportunity was too good
‘We were originally looking for a 250
acre site, because we wanted the vineyard to be commercially viable,
not just a hobby, so we needed a large plot of land. When this farm came
up, we jumped at it.
‘We were incredibly lucky, as sites
like this do not come up for sale very often in this part of the world,’
said Mr Driver, who is employing 30 people full-time and will need up
to 200 seasonal workers to help pick the grapes.
The planting of the four varieties of grapes – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Riesling –started this week.
Around 50 acres of grapes will be planted a year until 2020, when the full 400 acres will be under vine.
The first still wine could appear as early as next year, with sparkling hitting the shelves in 2016 or 2017.
Vision: This ruined farmhouse will be restored to its former glory and used as accommodation for workers when they come to pick the grapes
Mists and mellow fruitfulness: Mr Driver said the chance to buy the Rathfinny estate was too good an opportunity to miss
‘We will produce small amounts of
still wine, but this is going to be a predominately sparkling wine
vineyard. High quality Sussex sparkling wine requires at least three
years of bottle fermentation, so everyone will have to be patient while
they wait,’ said Mr Driver.
To help him with the wine production,
Cameron Roucher, estate manager at Rathfinny, moved 12,000 miles from
New Zealand to be part of the ambitious project. ‘You couldn’t really
ask for a better location than this for growing sparkling wine grapes.
The soil, the climate, the geography – they are all perfect,’ he said.
A state-of-the-art winery will be
completed by the summer of 2013. A staff hostel is also being built to
accommodate seasonal workers, who will be needed during harvest and
during the winter to maintain the vines.
The hostel, which uses reclaimed old flint barns, is due to be completed in time for the winter of next year.
Joining Mark and Sarah Driver on the project are Cameron Roucher from New Zealand as vineyard manager and Frenchman Jonathan Medard, winemaker
‘The soil, the climate, the geography – they are all perfect, says estate manager Cameron Roucher
Rathfinny has also hired Jonathan
Médard, a renowned French winemaker, who has spent the last ten years
working in California, to oversee the design and construction of the new
winery as well as make all of the wines.
Working with Natural England and the
National Trust, a programme of improvements is being made to enhance the
local natural habitat while reviving and reclaiming the natural chalk
grass downland and creating wildlife corridors to improve biodiversity. A
new walk, the Rathfinny Trail, is being established, allowing the
public access to parts of the Estate.
One of Rathfinny’s aims is to provide a sustainable built infrastructure to support the vineyard.
Buildings feature locally-sourced oak
and flint. A renewable energy strategy is being implemented based on
photovoltaic cells so that each building is energy self-sufficient.
Ground water is being sourced from the Estate’s own bore hole, purified to removed calcium and microbes.
Can we compare? The vineyards of Ville Dommange, in the Champagne region of France are about to face competition from English sparkling wine
Channelling the French flavour: Around 50 acres of grapes will be planted a year until 2020, leading to 400 acres of growing goodness
Alfriston is already known for a wine heritage: The English Wine Centre is also based there
The waste water used within the wine
making process will be treated on site and released back onto the land.
New windbreaks using indigenous hedge plants and trees are being grown
to manage the micro-conditions on the slopes of the vineyard.
Rathfinny is also funding the
construction of a new Wine Research Centre at Plumpton College, part of
Brighton University, to support the development of skills that the
English wine industry will require as it grows.
Mr Driver said: ‘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 it requires to fulfill its potential.
‘You’ll find that every major wine
area is supported by a research centre, which is why I was so keen to
invest in one at Plumpton. We will need skilled workers in this area as
the industry takes off.
‘I do believe we are at the beginning
of an emerging industry in southern England and I know the local people
here are very supportive of what we are trying to do. We have also had
encouragement from other local wine producers too. All we need to do is
convince people in London and across the country to buy English.’
As for the winemakers across the Channel, they are ‘intrigued’ to see what we are doing here, said Mr Driver.
‘Several French vineyard owners are trying to purchase or rent land here because it is much cheaper than in Champagne.’
Now, all there is to do for Mark and his wife Sarah, is to watch the grapes grow and cross their fingers for some good weather.
So, as a former stockbroker and hedge fund manager, how risky is this venture?
‘Of course, we have done a lot of
research, we know the land is perfect for sparkling wine, we’ve brought
in some experts to help, and we’re feeling very confident. But of
course, the one thing we can’t control is the vagaries of the English
weather,’ he said.
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Trust the DM for getting its facts wrong….. The Champagne region would be over 320 miles from Alfriston. Watford would be 88 miles from Alfriston.
Why? This is a huge gamble. Isn’t there already an oversaturation of wines in the world that gets destroyed?
I bet it will be delicious! Good luck, I’m looking forward to having a bottle or three!
Good luck guys, never liked French wine any way, we grow grapes out here in Bulgaria our favourite wine is known as ” Donkeys Milk” its delecious, £2 for a litre bottle, and NO we dont get drunk we enjoy a tipple, looking forward to a tipple of the British sparkling !!!Chow!!
PS Britain needs MORE to export!
The very best of British to these people, and I hope they can keep the prices competitive.
– jinkymink, Saddleworth, 26/3/2012 17:03
So you haven’t heard about the minimum pricing Cameron and the Nanny State are planning? Cider now, then wine followed by spirits – nobody will be able to afford it here I am afraid.
Why has the Mercedes four trak, got a German number plate ???????????
The very best of British to these people, and I hope they can keep the prices competitive.
haha britains always drunk. No wonder england is a mess.
– ned, dublin, 26/3/2012 13:40
Haha!! You do realise that Ireland is famous for its alcohol
“Many years ago I bought an English wine called ‘Concord’…..”……….that takes me back, and whatever happened to those early supermarket favourites (there were only two) , hirondelle and corrida, the thinking drinker’s alternative to watneys, red barrel and party seven cans?
Better hurry before this government paves it over and builds on it
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