Mark Driver’s Rathfinny Estate has become one of the most talked about English wineries, even though they haven’t released any wine. I caught up with him (he’s pictured above) to hear a bit of his story, and discuss the move towards a PDO (protected designation of origin) for Sussex wine, which has been in the news in the last week.
Building a wine estate like Rathfinny requires a combination of commercial sense but also passion. ‘There’s a 10 year investment before you start making decent returns,’ Mark explains. ‘When I started investing [in Rathfinny] I started working backwards: what do I need to make this economically stable in the long term?’ So he worked out how much wine he’d need to make in order to cover the costs of the capital – and also the significant costs of hiring and retaining good people, something that he feels is key to the success of a venture like this. His calculations told him he’d need 250 acres. In the UK, land prices might be cheaper than Champagne, but yields are lower and wages are relatively high, and you need to invest in skills as well as bring in all the equipment from elsewhere.
Initially he planted 160 of those 250 acres, and another 20 acres are being planted this April. The oldest vines are just about to enter their fourth season. Last year there was a small crop and some wine was made (it will be bottled in April), and there should be a bigger crop this year.
So, why has a winery with no wine to sell been making such a noise? ‘Our production is going to be like a hockey stick,’ says Mark. ‘We have to create a market for our product ahead of time.’
With this in mind he’s just been to Hong Kong, looking to find people he can work with there, and Australia, where he’s been seeing how they do hospitality and wine tourism. ‘People fly to Perth just to go to Margaret River,’ he says. ‘In the future people will fly to Gatwick just to go tasting in Sussex vineyards.’
Mark’s focus is solely on making top quality wines, and he thinks one of the keys to this is getting the small details right. When he was buying vines he visited half a dozen nurseries in France and Germany. Even finding the right vineyard posts was a major project, which at one stage involved designing a post and then trying to find someone in the UK to manufacture it (this didn’t work out, unfortunately). Getting the right people in is vital. ‘We hired a really good vineyard manager,’ he says. ‘He’s got green fingers and really understands vines, and he’s worked in hostile and easy environments. We hired a really good winemaker, who grew up in Epernay, went to the US and when he came back he wanted to work in England because it’s a more creative market for making sparkling wine than Champagne.’
So we turn to the issue of the PDO for Sussex wines. This has become quite a controversial issue.
Driver says that the existing English PDO is not a quality benchmark. He found himself discussing the issue with friends: what does English Sparkling Wine mean? Can’t we have a more interesting term? ‘It doesn’t give you any sense of place or quality,’ he says. ‘The whole thing was set up as a catch-all to allow wines from England to be within a PDO scheme.’
His view was that a new PDO was needed with tighter rules. ‘We need something that matches the quality with which the UK producers are making their wine.’ Mark saw that Sussex had a critical mass of good producers, and about two years ago started speaking to Mike Roberts of Ridgeview. A group of like-minded producers was gathered and they started working on a PDO scheme for Sussex.
‘That’s when we took out the trademark, to stop people naming wines “Sussex Sparkling” that didn’t match the quality we are aiming for,’ says Mark (responding to the question on my blog a few days ago about why Rathfinny trademarked the name ahead of the PDO application). ‘Sussex is such a great name. People have a vision for what Sussex is all about. The idea is that we have something easily identifiable: the South Downs, wonderful vistas, a top quality wine-producing region within England.’ They had the first Sussex wine producers’ meeting in September 2014, which was a big meeting to which lots of people were invited. The aim was to work towards a Sussex Sparkling PDO with high standards. ‘The actual PDO cannot be Sussex Sparkling because sparkling is a generic name,’ Mark explains. So they are having to look at a joint PDO protecting the quality of Sussex still wines as well as sparkling.
‘I think there will be other PDOs,’ says Mark. ‘DEFRA are very keen to encourage them.’ He points out that all PDOs throughout Europe are based on regional names: it’s not about similarities in soil type, because a PDO has to have a regional name involved, or in exceptional cases can have the name of a country. The ‘origin’ bit is at the heart of the system.
The next meeting of the Sussex wine producers working on this proposal is at the end of this month, and someone leaked the email concerning this to Decanter. This led to last week’s media interest in the topic. ‘It’s just a bit unfortunate,’ says Mark. ‘All the rumour mills have started.’ He says that people involved in sparkling wine production outside Sussex are feeling a bit sore and threatened, which he finds understandable. But he doesn’t see why other places can’t follow his lead, now that he has established a template of how establishing a PDO should be carried out in the UK wine industry. Could there be a Kent PDO? A Meon Valley PDO? Or a Jurassic Coast PDO? ‘A PDO is all about the region, the sense of place, for a consumer to identify a product with a place,’ he says.
Not everyone is convinced that the time is right for a Sussex PDO, or even that it is justified. By coincidence, on the same day that I interviewed Mark Driver, I bumped into another key player in the English sparkling wine scence – Ian Kellett of Hambledon, whose vineyards are on a very similar soil type to Rathfinny’s, but in the neighbouring county of Hampshire. ‘I think it’s a bit silly,’ says Kellet, when I ask him about the Sussex PDO. His view that if there were to be a meaningful PDO for top quality sparkling wine in the UK, then it would stipulate that the estate concerned should grow all its own grapes, and be located on chalk soils. ‘There will only be two in the UK, us and Rathfinny,’ he says. ‘It requires a tremendous amount of capital to stick to these [criteria], so others can’t play.’ Regarding the Sussex PDO, he questions why you’d do it for a county that only has 10% chalk soils. ‘Not one of these [Sussex producers in the proposed PDO] is on chalk apart from Mark. It’s pointless; utterly pointless.’
It will be interesting to watch this one unfold. Who is right? Mark or Ian? Or are they both a bit right? Do we need PDOs? Does a PDO for wine from a single county make sense?