March 29, 2012

Rathfinny Estate

By In Articles, Vineyard & Wine Travel
Mark Driver’s first view of Rathfinny was via Google Earth while on holiday in Spain. An excited call from his land agent , a view on google earth and the estate was practically brought then and there. It was a working farm, Rath is a celtic word for small house and finny an Irish family name; combined theey might be more akin to a whisky estate but this is soon to become the UK’s largest vineyard and one of the largest estates in Europe to boot.

To be honest there isn’t that much to see. Wide open fields, swept over, during our visit, by a brisk dust lifting breeze straight of the English Channel. In front of us, as Mark Driver, the founder strides over the field pointing out beneficial remnant sproutings of mustard a three man team plants Pinot Noir in perfectly aligned rows. All down to the GPS system mark explains. Although looking at the contraption huffing its way down the gentle slope one did raise an eye brow. The perfectly aligned vines, just in from Germany, bore him out.

The team – Mark Driver the owner, winemaker Jonathan Médred and estate manager Cameron Roucher have set a date for the first wines to be produced in 2016 or 2017. There is plenty of work to do. The vines are going in. These are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier for the sparkling and some Riesling (a surprise choice perhaps) for some still wine. The planned Pinot Gris plot has, I believe, been abandoned due to a decimating frost in Germany, knocking out most of the planned stocks. There is no winery as yet. Planning permission has only just been given but if you have a look at my photos where the three old hay bales are gently rotting away is where the grapes will first tumble into the soon-to-be-started winery. There is a slope immediately behind where that gravity thing will move the grapes and juice through the various processes.

Rathfinny Sign

The existing asbestos-clad old farm buildings are going to be re-clad in wood and in the field right next to one (the picture of the double track disappearing up a gentle slope) is to have a small solar array nestling under more vines; the plan being that it should provide all the power the complex requires.

With a staff hostel (over 200 seasonal staff will be required once fully operational) on the site and plans for a local heritage centre cum cellar door shop in Alfriston there is plenty for this huge, fledgling estate to do.

I have to say there was little talk of the ‘passion’ or the other stuff wine owners spout out to visiting journalists; Rathfinny is all about the size, the build, the cost, the GPS positioning, the planning permissions and so on. It is all about the figures – 400 acres will be under vine within 5 years, with 20 hectares (50 acres) planted this year, a further 50 earmarked for 2013 and 80,000 vines planted per annum until 2020. I guess the passion and real excitement comes when the first grapes are picked, the first juice runs into the tanks and the first time the bottling line chugs into action.

The environmental aspects were touched on though; indigenous hedge plants are going into the wind breaks for example, wildlife corridors to improve biodiversity and a plan to reclaim more natural chalk grass down land are also to come into play. That solar array will be obscured from walkers along the National Trust owned ridge top by the winery buildings and a new walk, the Rathfinny Trail, is fully set out to allow public access to parts of the estate.

And what of the wines themselves? The still Riesling aside the plan is for a non-vintage sparkler and a rosé sparkling; the latter taking up about 1/3rd of production. There will be a blanc de blanc and a blanc de noir plus a vintage wine, the icon wine of the Rathfinny Estate. It is going to be a while before these last few are going to be available.

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