New Fizz On The Block: The Rise Of English Sparkling Wines
England’s popping sparkling wine production just welcomed a new addition with a Hong Kong connection: Rathfinny, and it’s already turning heads among critics. Owners Sarah Driver—who grew up in the SAR—and her husband Mark, established Rathfinny Wine Estate in 2010 in Alfriston in the South Downs of Sussex in the south of England, a region whose chalky sub-soil is geologically proven to be related to that of Champagne in northern France.
The Drivers adopted the Celtic name of the farm previously on the estate, they explained earlier this month when visiting Hong Kong, which was selected as the first launch destination outside of the UK. Their first releases are two traditional method vintage wines: the Blanc de Blancs 2014 and Rosé 2015 and were received with praise by critics this summer.
If it appears amazingly fast to present first releases, it’s certainly no surprise to the producers. “We always planned to age our wines three years in the bottle–so the earliest we could have released them would have been 2017,” says Mark. And he should know: his switch of career from finance was most serious from the outset—first taking a two-year viticulture degree at Plumpton College, England’s best, and then engaging experts who included Duncan McNeil, founder of vineyard and wine production management firm MVM, who consulted for several respected English producers.
Soon after buying the land, the Drivers took on New Zealander Cameron Roucher as vineyard manager. “He worked on organic and non-organic wines in New Zealand and he also worked for a nursery in Australia, so he’s very ‘green fingered’,” explains Mark. “And he’s now got some of the longest [viticultural] experience of anyone working in the UK.”
Rathfinny also secured a winemaker before the winery building stage, so that he could advise on best options—a dream opportunity for Jonathan Médard, who grew up in Epernay and went to university in Reims, the epicentre of the Champagne region. His father and grandfather both worked for Moët & Chandon; he worked for a number of Champagne’s top houses and then in American wine production for 10 years.
With such preparation and expertise, perhaps it also comes as no surprise that Rathfinny always set out to export half its production—despite its home-grown demand. “The wines are completely sold out in the UK,” admits Mark. “We released them from the beginning of June and by the end of the month they were sold out. We’re now allocating the wine for next year.”
“One thing that talks about the quality of wine to me is that it launched at The Savoy Hotel to celebrate the royal wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex,” adds Sarah, previously a solicitor and then a commercial mediator, who thinks it's perfect because they're producing a Sussex sparkling. "And the hotel said it was one of the most successful [wine] pairings that they have ever done with their afternoon tea—they went through their month’s allocation in 10 days, and we had to re-supply them.”
The reaction is as it should be: the blanc de blancs is elegant with a delicate mousse and a long finish that belies its youth; the rosé, with 50 per cent pinot noir, has some delicacy too but also enough body to hold up well with dishes with black truffle and fried garlic chips—as proved with a pasta dish by chef Shane Osborn during a Rathfinny launch meal at Arcane that this writer attended.
It’s been a very hot summer this year in England, so the grape harvest will start a few weeks earlier in October than usual. And things are looking up for both newly-launched Rathfinny and English sparkling wines in general, says Mark. “We have the same terroir as Champagne essentiallyand we now benefit from the same annual temperatures as they used to have 30 years ago. They made some really good wines there 30 years ago, so we’re really in the sweet spot for making sparkling wine at the moment.”
This article originally appeared on T.Dining by Hong Kong Tatler.