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FOUR years ago I visited Rathfinny and saw the first grapes produced from this outrageously ambitious project that is on track to move from nothing to being the biggest single estate vineyard in the UK. A few days ago we went back to sample the first year’s output. It is already becoming a collector’s item because only 5,000 bottles of the sparkling blanc de blanc and rosé were produced in the first year and there has been such a run on them there are no longer any on sale unless you order with a meal in one of the two fine restaurants located in different parts of the vast estate. (We, we did). There are bottles of their still white (Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc) on sale though sparkling will always be the dominant product.
Rathfinny fascinates for several reasons. It is the most dramatic example of a businessman, Mark Driver, who has made a pile in the City and instead of spending it on flamboyant yachts in the Mediterranean has invested heavily in a long-term project which Is unlikely to be making any profit in the near future. At present Rathfinny has 180 acres of vines planted. This is well short of the 265 acres at Denbies in Surrey but it is on track for an eventual target of 400 acres producing a million bottles of bubbly a year.
Most farms employ only a few workers. Rathfinny is different. It has about 12 full time qualified core workers and 20 to 30 core casual with 140 extra employed at harvest time. Nearly all of the vineyards I have visited employ east Europeans and complain that when they do attract local workers they seldom last more than a few days before complaining of boredom and hard work. Rathfinny is not against foreigners – Cameron Boucher, the vineyard manager, is from New Zealand – but it has managed to succeed in employing local people while paying proper wages.
Winter in the vineyard
This is a significant boost to the local economy along with the fact that most customers buying English sparkling are displacing imports of Champagne thereby helping to reduce the UK’s massive trade deficit in a small way (after imports of machinery, bottles etc have been allowed for).
Rathfinny is a dramatic addition to the current trend of vineyards as destinations where you can taste, linger, walk around or stay the night. This is not new – Denbies has been doing it for decades as have vineyards across the country from Halfpenny Green in Shropshire to Llanerch in Wales but the latest crop – think Hush Heath and Bolney – is giving the whole process an uplift. I have been to dozens and dozens of vineyards in England and Wales and although the quality of wines has varied they have nearly all been fascinating places to visit in their own right. And it is getting better all the time.
Rathfinny is right up there at the top. First there is the sheer size of it. It was over a mile just driving through the vineyard passing the intimate tasting complex complete with restaurant and onto to the Flint Barns where we ate a fine meal in the charmingly restored barn, a thickly wooden structure complete with notes of flint. The only qualification was that the rooms were a little, er, compact and under- designed considering the rich materials employed.
We arrived on a sunny day in time for a peaceful walk along the designated vineyard trail and later in at night communion with an amazing star- spangled sky viewed from a field which might have been on another planet so quiet and isolated it was. There were no lights not even in the road through the vineyard thanks to regulations about light pollution. I can’t remember seeing any other houses. Rathfinny is all vineyard, vineyard, vineyard.
The next morning it poured with rain but we knew it was going to so we beat a retreat to the the tasting area.
Of course, Rathfinny will ultimately be judged by its sparkling wines. It will somehow have to sell a million bottles. They are wisely not entering competitions until they have more stock. Gold medals are important for marketing even though independent surveys show that experts get it wrong as often as they get it right. I have tasted dozens of different English sparkling wines but do not have a sophisticated enough nose to disaggregate their constituent aromas . I certainly could not taste the “acacia notes” claimed for Rathfinny’s Blanc de Blanc and I wonder how many other people, experts or otherwise, could. I don’t even know what acacia smells like. Do you? That said, I thought it was delicious and would not be surprised if it reached the uppermost ranks.