Whatever the occasion, we British are more likely than most to crack open some top-quality bubbly.
In 2011 we drank almost 35m bottles of champagne despite the recession, more than any other country in the world bar France. The statistics suggest many of us are no longer waiting for Christmas, the next wedding or that special birthday to pop another cork.
Not surprisingly, English and Welsh wine producers are taking a growing interest in this lucrative market. Once known for its still, often ordinary, Germanic white wines, the domestic industry has gone through enormous change. It now features a growing number of sparkling wine producers that have won a fistful of top awards.
About 40% of the 1,400ha under vines in England and Wales has been planted with the three champagne grapes: pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier. By 2020, the UK will be producing 5m bottles of sparkling wine.
With almost 30 years’ experience in the financial sector, including nine years as founding partner of a successful hedge fund management group, Mark Driver reckons he knows a good investment when he sees one. If all goes to plan, 1m of those 5m bottles will come from his vineyard.
In October 2010 he and his wife Sarah bought the Rathfinny Estate, a south-facing slope on the South Downs overlooking the English Channel near Alfriston. It is the biggest single project – financially and in sheer scale – that the English wine sector has yet seen.
The couple are ploughing £10m into what will be England’s biggest vineyard, which they believe will produce the finest sparkling wine in the world. Work is now well under way – in spring 2012, 60,000 vines were planted across 15ha in the first stage of a five- to six-year programme that will eventually see all 160ha of arable cropping converted to viticulture.
“My passion for wine began when I visited New Zealand in 1990,” he explains.
“Ever since then I have dreamt of owning my own vineyard.”
Rathfinny is funding a new wine research centre at nearby Plumpton College, the country’s centre of excellence in wine production and business education.
Mr Driver recently completed a two-year course in wine production at the college and is keen to help others acquire the wine production skills that the English wine sector needs to fulfil its potential, including sharing the experience and knowledge that the team gains from building the Rathfinny business over the coming years.
Rathfinny is probably the finest location for that vineyard in the country, he says. Its terroir – a combination of geography, soil, climate and ultimately vines – is second to none.
“The land consists of a thin, free-draining silty clay loam over chalk, an extension of the chalk found in Champagne,” he explains. “The south-facing slope is just three miles from the sea, but is protected from prevailing south-westerlies by a bank. It is ideal for vine growing.”
The combination of gradient and coastal location greatly reduces the threat of late frost that can ruin a crop. And nearby Eastbourne lays claim to the sunniest climate in the UK, which, together with an average daily maximum temperature of about 15C, is perfect for producing the high-acidity grapes that sparkling wine needs, says Mr Driver.
While that helps to stack the odds in his favour, it is people that make or break a business, especially one as complex as wine production, says Mr Driver.
To get the project off the ground he was joined last year by vineyard manager Cameron Roucher, an award-winning New Zealand viticulturist who has worked on and managed some of that country’s top estates.
Pinot noir will account for about 40% of the 700,000 vines that will grow here, pinot meunier and chardonnay about 30% apiece. It’s a big investment. Over the two-year planting and establishment phase, Mr Driver will spend about £22,000/ha, and a further £2,000/ha annually.
Vine density is 4,000-5,000/ha. A 2m high vertical trellis system will keep ripening fruit at least 1m above the ground, reducing humidity and maximising exposure to sunlight. Rows are spaced 2m apart, partly for the same reasons but mainly for mechanisation.
Eleven different clones are being tried. Pinot varieties are giesenheim clones, which produce large, open clusters of fruit that dry easily and allow sprays to penetrate – important for controlling botrytis when the fruit starts to swell.
Chardonnay varieties are either dijon or champagne clones producing different berry sizes. “We will eventually aim to use about six clones to produce the variety of grapes our winemaker needs to produce the best blends every year,” says Mr Roucher.
All vines are grafted on Fercal rootstock, which is highly tolerant of alkaline soils. Chlorosis can be a real problem on chalky soils due to magnesium and iron lock-up, says Mr Roucher.
“We will have to apply iron as a foliar spray because it is very immobile in the soil. Other nutrients will be applied as solids to ensure vines are in balance with their environment and in the best health. That will develop their natural defence mechanisms and hopefully avoid the need for costly spray programmes, allowing us to monitor vines and respond accordingly.”
Based on grape yields of 8t/ha, by the end of this decade Mr Driver expects to be producing 1,280t of grapes, enough to make one million bottles of sparkling wine. He has employed top winemaker Jonathan Médard, who has worked in Champagne and the USA, to complete the core team.
Foundations for an 800sq m pressing and fermentation facility have just been laid. Other buildings – a similar-sized bottling plant and wine store, a barrel room and further wine stores will follow. A 50kW solar panel system will generate all energy needs and water will come from the farm’s borehole.
Mr Driver plans to produce three types of wine: a non-vintage, a rosé and, in good years, a vintage. The relatively high acidity of English grapes suits sparkling wine, he explains. “You need good acidity during bottle fermentation, otherwise you end up with a fat, flabby wine.
“Some champagne producers are finding this harder to achieve as climate change intensifies. They are having to pick earlier so the grapes have less time for phenolic ripening [brought about by changes in skin, seed and stem tannins].
“As with all English sparkling wine, ours will be made by the traditional champagne method. However, it has to be laid down on lees for a minimum of two years, compared with 15 months for champagne. Ours will probably be laid down for two to three years and much longer for vintage wines.”
As far as markets are concerned, he believes he is pushing at an open door.
“Given the quality of our wine – the UK has won more prizes in the past seven years that any other country – we should have no trouble competing against champagne here in the UK and on the export market as well,” says Mr Driver.
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