Rathfinny Wine Estate and Sussex Sparkling wine. If you’ve not heard of them yet you soon will because Sussex vineyards are at the centre of English wine production. With award-winning sparklling wines spilling out of the county it won’t be long before you insist on toasting your celebrations with a glass or two of Sussex Sparkling.
Rathfinny Estate Vineyard
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Rathfinny, near Alfriston in East Sussex, is the state-of-the-art vineyard that’s on course to become England’s largest single-site wine estate. I dropped by this stunning East Sussex vineyard for a wine tasting tour, lunch and overnight stay to find out what all the fuss and fizz is about.
Rathfinny Wine Estate
I’ve been driving along the same stretch of road, past Alfriston, for years and had no idea that beyond the treeline something rather special was going on.
Rathfinny Vineyard was being carefully planned, planted and nurtured. The family vineyard is owned by Mark and Sarah Driver and was established in 2010.
This most impressive of Sussex wineries sits cosseted from the south-westerlies of the English Channel by National Trust lands. To the North it’s bordered by pale cornfields and nestles within a south-facing bowl. The English Channel sparkles to the south.
The chalk soils, terroir and micro-climate make Rathfinny wine estate the perfect location for producing English sparkling wine.
Sussex – the perfect climate for wine-making
Sussex has the same climate that the Champagne capital Épernay had 30 years ago and Rathfinny is just one of dozens of Sussex vineyards that have put roots down in the county.
We are growing our very own wine region here in the South with over 40 wine producers in East and West Sussex alone. Sussex wines are some of the best in England.
Recently, instead of driving straight past, we hung a left and followed the road to Rathfinny Wine Estate. A tour of the vineyard and winery was on the menu followed by a wine tasting, lunch and a night in Rathfinny’s ‘home away from home’ Flint Barns.
I was captivated by the view as we drove through the highest point of the estate towards the winery. Blue sea sparkled in the distance and the South Downs graduated from natural thickets, wild flowers and grassland into a bowl of lush, green regimented vines marching into the distance.
Rathfinny Wine Estate tour and wine tasting
Richard James, the estate’s Operations and Environment Officer took us straight into the vines explaining why different vines are planted in certain areas. Rathfinny has three main types of vine; Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Small quantities of Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris are also grown.
Rathfinny’s vines, which are mainly from French rootstock, are high grafted to prevent frost damage. Frost only occurs at the bottom of the bowl and we could feel the difference in temperature as we walked downhill to the bottom. Pinot Noir is planted lower down as it prefers a damper soil.
The vines are planted in dead straight rows – German GPS enabled machinery helped with this. With a difference of less than 14mm from the top of the row to the bottom, the precision of the rows are a thing of beauty.
Each vine is even attributed its own grid reference. This has to be one of the most precisely planted Sussex vineyards.
Rathfinny Wine Estate, East Sussex
The state-of-the-art winery was designed by a local architect using locally sourced materials. A wild-flower planted roof follows the rolling lines of the South Downs. The building is designed to be sustainable using recycled water, where possible, and solar panels for energy. We take a tour of the presses and gleaming fermentation equipment.
It’s clear that the Rathfinny vision is about more than producing exceptional wines. The vineyard has become intertwined with the local community providing jobs and sponsoring the new Rathfinny Research Winery which is part of the Plumpton College Wine Research Centre.
The first vintage of Sussex Sparkling was launched in April 2018. Rathfinny produces three sparkling wines. A non-vintage blend, a vintage blend in exceptional years and a rose. One million bottles a year are planned; 50% for the UK market and 50% for export.
“We think of the Estate’s vines and trellises as being stitched into the past, and growing out of the chalky soil into the future.”Mark and Sarah Driver
Lunch at Rathfinny
After the vineyard tour the Tasting Room is the setting for lunch with panoramic views over the Sussex vineyard. We start with an aperitif of Plumpton sparkling rose and canapes of olives, breads and local oils.
Lunch is a delicious range of locally sourced produce. Starters are a sharing platter of vegetable salsa in pastry cases, Mackerel pate on charcoal biscuits and broad bean and mint crostini.
Individual quiches made with Sussex Charmer cheese and roasted vegetables with green salad are followed by a piquant lemon posset with shortbread. The food is delicious as is the light, crisp 2014 Cradle Valley white made with a blend of Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay that accompanies.
There are many different food offerings at Rathfinny including fine dining in the Michelin-recommended Tasting Room restaurant. If you’re looking for something more relaxed opt for an evening meal in the Flint Barns Dining Room.
The Harvest Marquee restaurant serves seasonally inspired offerings during harvest time in October. Sunday lunches are served between winter and spring and there’s al fresco dining in the summer.
The Hut, an al fresco wine bar is open every day for walk-in food and drink.
Stay at the Flint Barns at Rathfinny
A few hundred yards from the winery are the Flint Barns. The brick and flint structure was built on the site of the original farmhouse to house the pickers and pruners during the autumn and winter.
Don’t let that put you off, I imagine this is much more upmarket than your average picker’s accommodation.
The lobby opens into a light-flooded dining room with separate lounge area. Exposed beams, brickwork and reclaimed oak flooring give a rustic but contemporary feel. There are long refectory tables, an open kitchen and views across the vineyard.
Our Room at the Flint Barns – Frog Firle
Bedrooms are named after nearby beauty spots – we’re in ‘Frog Firle’. ‘Francebottom’ and ‘Pinchmedown’ are also in our corridor. I’m sure there’s a joke there somewhere… The rooms are small and basic but cosy and comfortable with wooden floors, bright woollen throws and cushions.
There’s no furniture except the comfy bed with its crisp, white duvet but there’s hanging space, a shelf and a good shower. A large window behind the bed looks down on the huge barn doors to the garden and the rooms opposite so we keep the blind down.
The tiny town of Alfriston is just a five minute drive away so we drop by for a wander. The cottage-lined lanes and cobbled streets are quintessentially English. There are independent shops, tea rooms, and the tiniest of market squares. The River Cuckmere passes nearby and it’s easy to park.
The church sits on Alfriston Tye next to 14th century Clergy House, the first house ever saved by the National Trust for the princely sum of £10.
The town, which feels more like a village, is on the South Downs way and is a good stop for hikers. There are three pubs but for now we stop at Stones for ice cream. I plump for honey and ginger by The Sussex Ice Cream Company and it’s divine.
Rathfinny Gun Room and Cellar Door
Alfriston is the location for The Gun Room, said to have been the gun store for the Duke of Wellington. Taste Rathfinny wines before you buy, browse the gift shop or get a coffee at the small café.
Prints by Eric Gill, the artist behind the ‘boxing hares’ on the Rathfinny Cradle Valley wine labels, are for sale and make lovely gifts. Upstairs a small heritage centre has info about the history of the local area dating back to Medieval times.
Pubs in Alfriston
The Flint Barns don’t serve evening meals for less than ten guests so we head back to Alfriston in the evening for dinner. Alfriston is a good half-hour walk from the Barns or a short taxi ride away. I
t’s advisable to book as all the pubs get busy. It’s also worth checking whether the Flint Barns will be serving a meal on the evening of your stay.
There are three pubs in Alfriston which all serve food. We ate at the George, probably the most well-known in the village. We’d left it late, because we were still full from lunch, but food stopped being served at 9pm. We missed it by five minutes but they agreed to sort out a sharing platter.
Ye Olde Smuggler’s Inne at the top of the High Street dates back to 1385. It has a smuggling heritage and is said to have been the headquarters of the notorious Alfriston Gang.
The final stop on our mini pub-crawl was the thirteenth century Star Inn with open fires and wooden beams. A pleasant hour was spent at the bar talking ghosts and spooks with the friendly barman who then mysteriously disappeared.
Overnight at the Flint Barns
Back at Rathfinny Flint Barns we chill out in the Snug. Exposed flint walls, big squashy sofas with woollen throws and a log burner-in the corner make it very homely. Perfect for relaxing in up after walking the Rathfinny trail.
A range of books and a big box of board games are there to dip into. Since flicking through some of the ‘Sussex Guides‘ that evening I’ve started collecting them. This beautiful set of books details the quirks and eccentricities of Sussex are a wonderful set for any Sussex lover.
A tiny kitchen for guests stocks a range of teas, coffees and hot drinks so we cosy up with a hot chocolate before heading to bed.
The Rathfinny Trail
Next day, after tearing ourselves away from our incredibly comfy bed, we set out for an early morning walk on the Rathfinny Trail. The Estate’s trail borders part of the beautiful South Downs National Park and the views are stunning. Wildflowers, butterflies and bees abound but the hares were shy.
Back to the Flint Barns we’re served an excellent breakfast. Fruit and cereal is followed by a full English; the perfect way to set us up for the day. It was also a great ending to a very enjoyable 24 hours at the Rathfinny wine estate.
This is, without doubt, one of the best Sussex vineyards to visit – not only is it a stunning winery but you can enjoy your wine tasting and not have to worry about driving by making use of the on-site accommodation.
Seven Sister’s Country Park and hiking the Seven Sisters cliffs is a good way to spend the rest of the day. It’s around an hour’s walk from Rathfinny through the South Downs National park alongside the Cuckmere River. Alternatively, you could drive, it’s around 12 minute’s away. Take a picnic.
If you happen to be in East Sussex do book one of Rathfinny’s excellent tours, stay at the Flint Barn or even join in with the grape picking at harvest time. Rathfinny is one of the best Sussex Vineyards and you’re guaranteed a fabulous time.
Getting to Rathfinny
From London take the M25 and the A27. Exit the A27 to Alfriston on Alfriston Road (direction Drusilla’s Zoo). Drive through Alfriston village passing Deans Place Hotel on your left and Riverdale House B&B on your right. 50 metres after Riverdale House you’ll see Rathfinny’s driveway and entrance to your right. Look out for the grass Rathfinny logo and shield.
From London Victoria the fastest journey is around two hours, changing train in Brighton for Seaford and then a 10-minute transfer by taxi or the local 119 bus heading towards Alfriston. Alternatively, Polegate station is a 15-minute taxi transfer.