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Major new Sussex wine estate starts planting

A former hedge fund manager is setting out to plant what will one of the largest vineyards in England, in the South Downs in East Sussex.

Located within a few miles of the south coast, the 162ha (400 acre) Rathfinny Estate was acquired for development last year by Mark Driver (pictured) and his wife Sarah.

Its size potentially positions the venture in a similar league to established producer Nyetimber, with 177ha (438 acres).

Plantings of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Riesling at a rate of 20ha (50 acres) per year are due to start next week with the aim of reaching an annual production of 1m bottles of premium sparkling wine and some still wine. Driver hopes that around half the production will be sold abroad.

Wines will become available in 2017.

Driver, who was inspired by a visit to New Zealand in 1990, said he sees ‘huge advantages’ in English sparkling wine.

‘England has benefited from climate change [for wine growing]. It’s possible to grow and ripen grapes here now and it’s easier to do so; there are similar growing degree days to Champagne and even parts of New Zealand. England produces little but there’s a good market for domestically produced products of good quality.’

The Rathfinny website says the South Downs (pictured) ‘share the geology of the “Paris Basin”, a triassic geological feature that also encompasses the vineyards of Champagne, at its eastern extremity.

‘Consequently, our vines should flourish in the same gently undulating chalky soils that are so essential to the development of the great sparking wines of Champagne.’

He described Rathfinny as ‘an expensive, long term investment’ in terms of establishing vineyards and a winery but ‘considerably different to established winegrowing areas’.

Driver paid around £16,000 (€19,000) per hectare for land in 2010 while in Champagne vine land changes hands at around €1m per hectare.

Key members of the team include New Zealand viticulturalist Cameron Roucher, who has left New Zealand to join the new venture, while Epernay-born Jonathan Médard is Rathfinny’s winemaker.

Médard joins after an early career in France with Champagne houses Louis Roederer, Moët & Chandon and Boizel and has spent the last decade making wine in Virginia and California.

His initial task is to oversee the construction of a new winery for the business.

Written by Patricia Langton

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