Boisdale Life Magazine (Issue 18) - Page 55

Left: Mark and
Sarah Driver survey
the vines on their
Rathfinny estate. Right:
Jonathan Medard,
senior winemaker at
Rathfinny. Opposite
page: Harvest time at
“It’s just the
perfect spot for
growing grapes.
If we become the
English Krug we’ll
be doing okay”
wine. For years it was written off as a
cottage industry, with only a few
names, like Nyetimber, Hambledon and
Chapel Down, breaking out of the
realms of the specialists into broader
awareness. But recently there has been
a surge in new growers with big plans.
Rathfinny is one of them. Driver bought
the land in 2010, having retired young
from a career in fund management, and
since then has sunk a decade and more
than £10 million of his own money into
creating sparkling wines to rival the
best. Rathfinny is now on the list at
many of the capital’s best bars: at
Richard Caring’s restaurants, the Savoy,
the Ritz and the Connaught. In contrast
to the classic biscuity Champagnes,
English sparkling wines tend to be drier
and Pinot Noir-dominated.
Thanks to climate change, the south
of England finds itself in the sweet spot
for growing sparkling wine. “We’ve had
about a one degree increase in the
average temperature over the past thirty
years,” Driver says. “So we’re now more
or less where Champagne was in the
Fifties and Sixties.” The French regions,
in turn, must cope with being hotter
than before. “They’re struggling now
because they have to start picking at the
end of August or early September. Ours
have another four weeks to go.”
“We’re stealing market share from
Champagne, especially the entry-level
wines,” he says. “A lot of lower priced
wine comes across the Channel and is
labelled as Champagne when it’s really
not the same quality, whereas a lot of
English sparkling wine is really up
there. People want something local,
want to know where it comes from, and
that has lower food miles. Where we’ve
struggled is where people already have
a favourite, and love their Pol or Bolly.
That’s a difficult market to tap in to. But
more and more people are tasting our
wines, and the quality is there.”
This isn’t mere salesmanship. There
are now more than 500 commercial
vineyards in England and Wales, and
last year’s harvest produced 15.6
million bottles, up from 4.2 million in
2016. Three million vines were planted
this year, making it a fast-growing sector
in agriculture. “When we bought the
farm it was employing about one and
a half people full-time,” Driver says.
“We’re creating jobs in the countryside
that simply weren’t there before.”
he French houses tremblent
comme une feuille, chastened by
results in blind tastings and
declining sales. They want a piece of
the action. In 2015 Tattinger bought a
farm in Kent, planning its first
drinking in 2023 as ‘Domaine
Evremond’, named for a 17th-century
Frenchman who introduced
Champagne to London. Driver says
they looked at buying Rathfinny, too,
but he didn’t want to sell. “A lot of
people said we were mad to turn them
down, but what were they going to do?
Back then we hadn’t even released a
wine, and now our wine is sold in the
best places in London. I think it’s a
much better story.”
Pommery has released an English
wine, grown in Hampshire. Bollinger
and Louis Roederer are looking
around, too. Investors have ploughed
into Chapel Down, while Eric
Hereema, a Dutchman with big plans,
owns Nyetimber. “These are large,
long-term business decisions,” Driver
says. “In Kent, one vineyard just
planted a million vines. That’s three
times the size of our whole farm.”
The constraints on English wine are
mainly financial. Land and salaries are
more expensive than on the Continent,
and England doesn’t yet have the scale
of older regions. Brexit could bring
lower tariffs on our sparkling wines, but
has been a headache because so much
equipment is imported and has had to
be stockpiled ahead of possible port
queues. But Driver doesn’t anticipate
problems in terms of exports. “They
make a lot of wine on the Continent,
and some of it is pretty good,” he grins.
“Our aim was that in 10 or 20 years you
could walk into a bar in San Francisco
or Beijing, and be asked, ‘Would you
like a glass of Champagne, or a glass of
Sussex?’ And it’s happening.”
England’s oldest vineyard, this 100,000-vine
estate sells its wines through historic
vendor Berr y Bros & Rudd.
Black Dog Hill
An award-winning boutique vineyard
found in East Sussex, at the foot
of Ditchling Beacon.
Exton Park
A single-estate vineyard in the Hampshire
South Downs, which star ted in 2003 with
just 12 acres and has now grown to 55.

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