A sparkling idea: interview with vineyard owner Mark Driver

As a place to stop for a picnic, and maybe a glass or two of fizz, Rathfinny Farm ticks most of the boxes. But new owner Mark Driver doesn't just want to drink sparkling wine here. He plans to make it – and on a grand scale

This 600-acre farm on downland just outside Alfriston will be slowly transformed over the next few years into England’s largest (and, according to the marketing, sunniest) single vineyard. Mark Driver wants to produce a million bottles of wine here every year – most of it in the Champagne style, but also still Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Riesling from the better vintages.It’s the most ambitious project of its kind in the UK, and arguably in Europe. But Driver, a former hedge fund manager now immersing himself in a wine degree at Plumpton College, insists this is no vanity project. He bristles with enthusiasm as he surveys the rolling downland that will soon be clad in vines, and as he thumbs through architect’s drawings of the �1m winery he hopes to build. But his head, he maintains, rules his heart.“It’s quite interesting,” says the father of four, who is running the business in partnership with his wife Sarah. “A lot of people say there’s a big oversupply of English wine, and yet we’ve already had one of the major supermarkets come and knock on the door and say, can we come and have a look at what you’re doing, we’re really interested, we cannot get enough English sparkling wine at the moment. There is a real interest, a real thirst for it.”The first 72,000 vines are already growing – not in Sussex, but in a German nursery. They will be planted at Rathfinny in the spring of 2012, where Driver is optimistic they will thrive. The first tranche will cover 50 acres, increasing to 400 over eight years.“I looked at it first on Google Earth and thought: actually this is fantastic,” says Driver, who paid a reported �3.5 million for Rathfinny last November after an 18-month search for the right site. “Because although it’s very close to the coast and so therefore can be quite prone to wind and also to sea spray, it’s protected by this ridge of land, so the lower slopes particularly are protected from prevailing south westerlies.“It’s also relatively low for South Downs land. The bottom of the slope is about 30 metres or so and it rises up to about 70 metres. You don’t really want to plant grapes above 100 metres, so pretty much the whole 600 acres is perfect for grapes. And it’s all south facing, and it’s on a slope. It doesn’t get much better than this.“The first varieties are going to be Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier for sparkling, and then we’re also planting a couple of varieties for still wine: Riesling and Pinot Gris.

Learning through doing“We can grow really classic varieties here and I think they’ll grow very well. We’ve been very careful to try and choose clones that will hopefully reduce the disease risk. Because we get quite a lot of rain: about 800mm a year, which is quite high for grapes. We’ll also learn as we go along; this is the first 50 acres and we’ll see what’s working and we’ll alter that as we progress and expand the plantings.”Driver is keen for Rathfinny Estate, as it has been renamed, to engage with the local community but he has no ambitions to create the kind of visitor centre and tourist facilities found in many vineyards in England and across the world.“What we’re trying to do here is produce top quality wine, first and foremost,” he says. “I think it will be somewhere that people will want to stop and have a little wander around. So we’ve got to try and think about how we’re going to accommodate that. We’re speaking to the National Trust about opening up trails and we hope that people will be able to walk in and have a look at what we’re doing. But we don’t really want a big car park and tourist facilities; that’s not what we’re about.“My son has got this idea that we can put a little track down the bottom of the hill, and a little VW camper van or something with an awning so passing walkers can come and have a little taste of what we’re producing. We’re working on little ideas. Some will come off and others won’t.

Employment opportunities“We’re not going to be open to the general public; it’s just going to be for trade, by appointment only. We might get small groups up here occasionally for tastings. We’re going to open a little retail outlet in Alfriston and sell our wines there. I think it will be easier. We can have that as our marketing centre. We’ll find something over the next couple of years.”He adds: “We’ve got a beautiful barn down on the farm which used to be the original Rathfinny farmhouse; it’s an old flint barn and it’s really stunning. At the moment it’s just falling down, so we’ve cleared it out and we’re applying for planning permission to build a hostel, essentially, there. This will be for agricultural workers, full-time but also seasonal. “We’re going to need 10 to 12 full-time workers just in the vineyard when we’re fully operational. We’re also going to need two to three people full time in the winery and then we’re going to need about 50 people for pruning, and 150 people for picking. So we need space to house these people, otherwise you’ve got to bus them in from everywhere.” A vineyard manager will join the team this year, and a winemaker will be recruited soon afterwards.Driver is already thinking of labels based on local place names in and around the farm: The Rails, Frog Firle and France Bottom all tickle his fancy, though Rathfinny will be the flagship. He expects it will be a Pinot Noir-dominated blend, and the anticipation of popping the first Rathfinny cork is what sustains him during the laborious planning work which engulfs him now.“It’s the first bottle: that’s the thing that’s most exciting,” he says. But he adds: “I’m quite excited about some of the still wines as well. I think that in good years – and I don’t think it’s going to happen every year – we’re going to make some wonderful still wine. If we can we’ll make a limited amount of Rathfinny Pinot Noir. The Riesling I’m very excited about because I don’t think anyone’s really been able to ripen Riesling grapes.“We’re just at the start of something much, much bigger here. We’re so small as an industry compared to anywhere else in the world. I really think we’re just at the beginning of something that’s going to grow into something quite substantial.”

Sussex – a wine centre of excellenceSussex is already at the centre of the English sparkling wine business. It boasts two of the country’s most celebrated producers, Nyetimber and RidgeView, whose brands have been recognised with numerous awards. Other famous neighbours include Breaky Bottom of Rodmell, and Bookers at Bolney. There are plans for a vineyard and winery on land owned by Lord Hampden on the slopes of Mount Caburn near Lewes. Winemakers and viticulturists from across the UK and beyond learn their craft at Plumpton Agricultural College, where Driver is studying for a foundation degree.

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