As I left home at 5.20am on a dark Monday morning to walk to the station in the rain, I wondered if I might have lost my mind. I was joined there by Jake (AKA The Wise Wine Man – so named by some good friends who visited the shop the other week) who was clearly thinking along similar lines. Our early start had a great purpose, a visit to Rathfinny, home to fabulous fizz & the recently acquired Sussex PDO status. But first, a long train journey from Suffolk to the South Downs – the vineyard is a stones throw away from the coast in between Brighton & Eastbourne. We quickly agreed that caffeine was the order of the journey but had to wait for Cambridge for our first energiser.
There was a choice of one open venue at Cambridge due to the unearthly hour where the world’s fastest bacon rolls & caffeine (tea for me & coffee for Jake & we are both very fussy when it comes to said drinks) definitely hit the spot for our 27 minutes stop. Any excitement about the next leg of the journey quickly evaporated as we boarded the slowest train in the world where high hopes of a buffet car for a caffeine top up were quickly & cruelly dashed – cue sighs & eye rolling at the lack of plush seats, power sockets or wifi. Next stop was Gatwick. We had 14 minutes there & (I’ll cut to the chase), we failed miserably to obtain caffeine, despite some extremely fast walking. Onwards to train three we went – destination Lewes. Of course, no buffet car. Inside my head was a glorious vision of Lewes station with a lovely café serving delicious drinks & snacks (we had 34 minutes to kill on arrival)… I’m pleased to report that Lewes did not disappoint. In fact, it surpassed expectations with a wonderful barista dispensing perfectly brewed cups of loose leaf tea from a large stainless steel teapot. & they had Belgian buns. Enough said, I was wide awake again & super excited about the day ahead.
As the clock struck 10am, we met up with the other lucky invitees who congregated from various platforms. We were all in the trade so there was plenty of shop & bar chat as tends to be the way as we wound our way in taxis through the town & out towards the coast. I’ve unashamedly stolen a quote from the Sunday Telegraph to describe the vista as you enter the Rathfinny Estate ‘As we reach the crown of the hill, a green & pleasant Sussex landscape is revealed: a sun-soaked, slanting bowl of 600 acres, protected from the prevailing winds by an escarpment of National Trust land. In the distance, blue & magnificent is the English Channel.’. It really is a stunning location. As we drove in, we passed a lot of people walking in the same direction. Later on we learnt that they were the 2022 Harvest Team - 300 local people employed to pick the grapes over an intense three week period.
The wind whipped around us as we exited the cars but our first destination was The Flint Barns where caffeine, homemade cookies & vast sofas awaited we (slightly) weary travellers. We met up with Kate from Liberty Wines & were hosted by Richard & Andy, Rathfinny’s Brand Ambassadors, who spent the whole day with us. These guys are brilliant – Richard has been with Rathfinny since the start whilst Andy is a relative newcomer with the claim to fame of having been on Deal or No Deal in 2012! Both are super passionate about all things Rathfinny & this really shone out during the day. We were also introduced to Mark Driver who co-owns the vineyard with his wife Sarah.
We were now ready for action so donned our Harvest 2022 t-shirts – cue interesting styling by some of the group. The wind dropped & the sun came out as we trouped out to the vineyard to do some real live harvesting. Rathfinny grow all their own grapes on this single site vineyard so no grapes are bought in from outside the estate. Before letting us loose, Richard gave us a health & safety briefing - 1) cutters are really sharp (ie don’t cut your own fingers off) & 2) always harvest from the same side of the vine (ie don’t cut someone else’s fingers off). We all heard loud & clear or so we thought (I’m not mentioning any names and only two plasters were needed – suffice to say not by Team VG). We spent the rest of the morning harvesting & it’s hard work but great fun too. I can’t wait to talk to customers in the shop about the Pinot Noir that I picked when the 2022 vintage is released. The grapes were delicious to eat too (Jake definitely ate more than me!). As our grapes went on their way to the winery to be quality control checked, we all headed for lunch.
What can be better than tucking into fantastic local charcuterie, cheese & bread whilst sampling delicious glasses of Sussex sparkling & learning more about the Rathfinny way of doing things. Their dedication to everything including (to pick out just a few) doing things sustainably, planning (they have a 35 year business plan) & huge attention to detail are inspiring. All Rathfinny bottles have been custom designed by dropping the neck down to enable more lees contact during the second fermentation. The same attention to detail also shows in their labelling – the foil is embossed with the grapes of the Rathfinny crest, modelled on the East Sussex coat of arms & the front label has an imprint of the Seven Sisters cliffs which are close by. They know exactly who they want to sell to - you’ll find them in wine shops, hotels, bars & restaurants but not on the supermarket shelves.
Over lunch we tasted the full range of Rathfinny & what a pleasure it was. The Classic Cuvée & the rosé have been on the VG shelves since we opened the shop (in fact we poured the 2016 rosé from magnum as our welcome drinks) but it took only the briefest of conversations before we decided to add both the Blanc de Blancs & the Blanc de Noirs to the range – the stand out favourite for the VG duo was the Blanc de Noirs, it’s just superb – grab it from our shelves now &/or put it at the top of your Christmas shopping list.
Richard & Andy didn’t have to ask twice if we wanted to look at the winery after lunch – the enormity of the scale of investment in the winemaking & bottling kit is both mind boggling & super impressive. Their state of the art electrodialysis machine is the only one of its kind in the UK & means that they don’t need to add finings to filter their wines. Their bottling line was custom made to fit their specially designed bottles. The business is privately owned by Mark & Sarah Driver & it’s a serious passion project. Founded by them in 2010, the first vines were planted in 2012 & their first release was the 2014 vintage. The Rathfinny brand has undoubtedly come a huge way in a short space of time in the wine world.
All too soon, the taxis pulled up & it was time to head off clutching our goody bags. The same barista was in place at the station but we eschewed the caffeine this time & opted for a glass of wine. It may not surprise you to learn that there was no coffee on the journey home either. Team VG arrived back at Bury St Edmunds station just over 15 hours after leaving. Lots of travelling but my goodness it was worth it – what a day! What did I do on arriving home? I put the kettle on of course…