If you want to make a small fortune, invest a large one in an English vineyard.” I don’t know if Mark and Sarah Driver were familiar with this quip when they began planting the £5m, 600-acre Rathfinny Estate in Sussex with vines back in 2012, but these days it’s a joke that rolls off Mark’s tongue. “Investing in a vineyard is not for the faint-hearted,” admits the former hedgefund manager and founding partner of Horseman Capital Management as he shows me around his sweeping property on the South Downs.
He can afford to crack a few jokes, because his first two sparkling wines, which launch in early June, are going to be good – very good, in fact. The 100 per cent Chardonnay Rathfinny Estate Blanc de Blancs 2014 (£37) is poised and mineral with a touch of sherbetty pineapple that puts me in mind of a young Ruinart Blanc de Blancs. The crisp, copper-pink Rathfinny Estate Rosé 2015 (£35) also has a nicely chiselled fruitiness: tart wild stawberries and red apple skin. There’s not a whiff of that rather pungent sourness that often dogs underripe English wines. I think a lot of people would actually struggle to tell these wines apart from champagne – which will no doubt gratify Rathfinny’s Champenois winemaker, Jonathan Médard.
There were those in the industry who cried “arriviste” when Rathfinny first came on the scene. But as soon as I meet the estate’s founders, it becomes clear this is no vanity project. Mark spent two years at Plumpton College studying viticulture before he bought Rathfinny, and Sarah – a former solicitor and university lecturer – is also deeply involved in the management of the estate. “When the first labels came back from the printers I actually cried,” she says, as we watch the inaugural rosé come off the bottling line.
This picturesque estate – which lies just three miles from the sea – welcomed an astonishing 40,000 visitors last year. Many of those stayed the night at the estate’s Flint Barns, a smart brick‑and-flint building in the middle of the vines that has 10 B&B‑style suites, some sleeping up to four, as well as a restaurant serving local produce. “If you come in September you can even take part in the harvest,” says Sarah.
So far the Drivers have invested over £10m of their own money in Rathfinny, and they don’t expect to break even until at least 2021. “This is just the end of the beginning,” cautions Mark as we sample the wines in the panoramic tasting room. But if the early signs are anything to go by, I’d say they’re onto a winner