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 of the 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, both at 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, “which is perfect because we’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 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 essentially – and 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.”
English Bottles In Hong Kong
To be honest, there’s not that much of it about. It’s mostly English sparkling wines that are getting global interest rather than the still varieties, which are made in much smaller quantities. A few producers have been carried on and off at bars, restaurants and bottle shops in Hong Kong in the past decade. Here’s where you can find some right now.
Rathfinny is so newly launched that it’s just available in a few restaurants at the time of writing. It’s on lists at Arcane and Bo Innovation restaurants, and Wagyu bar.
South Downs neighbour Ridgeview, one of England’s sparkling wine pioneers 20 years ago, often served at state functions, has its Marksman blanc de blancs vintage at Marks & Spencer food and drinks outlets.
Coates & Seely, a winery west of Sussex in the adjacent county’s North Hampshire Downs, established a decade ago, is well-thought of by critics that include Jancis Robinson. It’s currently available at Skye Restaurant & Bar at The Pullman, or retail-only at Kerry Wines (www.kerrywines.com).
Nyetimber non-vintage Classic Cuvee and rose are available retail at Watson’s Wine (www.watsonswine.com), and Skye Restaurant & Bar at The Pullman also serves its Classic Cuvee.
Chapel Down, one of the best-known labels in English wine, from Kent county, to the east of those already mentioned has its non-vintage brut in a few retailers locally, including The Bottleshop (www.thebottleshop.hk), The Flying Winemaker (shop.flyingwinemaker.com.hk) and Victoria Wines (www.victoriawines.com.hk) – which also carry the NV rose; and Victoria also has some vintages.