Tucked away in a valley between the Alfriston village and the East Sussex coast rests one of England’s newest and largest vineyards, the Rathfinny Wine Estate. Rathfinny produces fine vintage sparkling wine, including its popular Sussex Sparkling wines, and to mark its 10-year anniversary has applied for B Corporation certification. The assessment score was 99.4 and certification is due in May. At the company’s core is the importance of sustainability: Rathfinny aims to set a new global standard for sustainable winemaking.
To learn more about what sustainable practices the Rathfinny estate has put into place as well as how the winery was first established, I recently talked with its founders, Mark and Sarah Driver, and the company’s vineyard manager, Cameron Roucher.
Since planting their very first vines across 50 acres of their land, and bottling their first 11,000 bottles of sparkling wine, the Drivers have grown the Rathfinny estate into more than just a farm. It has also become a tourist destination with tours, rooms and two restaurants, and a manufacturing company in that every stage of the winemaking process is on site. Located in a part of the world that is now hailed as an up-and-coming region for world-class wines, Rathfinny has taught the Drivers one important business lesson: It’s easier to start a company with the goal to be sustainable rather than retroactively fix the company’s core structures and policies.
Location and Climate Made for Winemaking
The Rathfinny vineyards overlook the English coast on a south-facing slope just three miles from the sea, which is the perfect location to plant a vineyard according to the ancient Romans. The estate was established in 2010 after husband and wife Mark and Sarah Driver — a former hedge fund owner and former lawyer retired from the corporate world, respectively — purchased 600 acres of arable farmland with one goal in mind: to produce fine wines.
The land is geologically linked by the Paris Basin to the vineyards of Champagne, a region in France world-renowned for its award-winning sparkling wines. The Paris Basin runs from northern France into southern England and is home to many other world-renowned wine regions, including Chablis, Sancerre, and Côte-d’Or. The temperate climate and chalky soil found in these regions are what make them the perfect sites for growing vines. The Rathfinny vineyard is made up of shallow but fertile, well-drained chalky soil that is ideal for sparkling wine grapes. The chalk works like a sponge, absorbing water throughout the year and thus providing water for the vines all throughout the warm and dry summer months.
Climate is another component of this vineyard’s success. Although climate change is an ongoing problem worldwide, vineyards in England have actually benefited from the rising heat. In parts of France like Champagne, for example, grapes must now be harvested earlier because of the extreme temperature changes. Thanks to its low altitude and proximity to the sea, however, the weather conditions at the Rathfinny estate are more moderate, and there is less risk of frost. Maintaining a long and steady growing season is what allows the grapes to ripen and develop their rich flavors, as well as their natural balance of acids and sugars.
Because the vineyard is benefitting from current climate conditions, the Drivers feel an added responsibility to alleviate any further environmental changes.
Incorporating Sustainability Throughout the Operations
Sustainability and the environment have always been at the heart of Rathfinny Wine Estate. And although the UK climate and scale at which the Drivers farm prevents them from being organic, they were determined to find other ways to employ organic principles. The Drivers found a willing partner in Roucher, who has worked with them since 2011. Together, they have built a mission to keep the environment in mind with everything they do.
“To me sustainability is multi-layered; it’s everything we touch,” Mark says on Rathfinny’s website. “It’s not just about the use of carbon or energy or chemicals. It’s about how we treat our soils, our use of water, and all the inputs we have in the winemaking process — the whole environment.”
Since purchasing this land 10 years ago, the Drivers have experimented with myriad sustainable design techniques and low-carbon technologies. The gravity-fed winery was built with locally sourced flint and oak sourced from within 50 miles of the estate. The farm is now more self-sufficient thanks to use of solar energy and its water recycling plant. Ground water is sourced from the estate’s very own borehole, where the wastewater is treated and released back into the surrounding land — and wineries use a lot of water (3 to 10 liters for every liter produced). The company also generates its own electricity from photo-voltaic cells behind the winery and on the flint barns roof, and have planted wildflowers on top of the roof to aid with heat insulation.
The company is also employing sustainable practices in how the vines get farmed. They have begun to experiment with alternate row mowing, leaving the grass and cover crops to grow longer (a farming method that has already made an impact on the biodiversity of the land), and different mixes of cover crops (in order to grow and store the vine’s own nutrients). Farmers have also cut down on their tractor usage and are cultivating under-vine rather than spraying herbicide.
Other sustainable solutions include how the company packages its wine. Rathfinny has cut its cardboard usage by 26%, and by changing the design of its packaging is fitting 40% more bottles on a pallet. The smaller and lighter packaging will cut down on transport emissions. Rathfinny is also a member of The Porto Protocol, an international foundation that fosters climate change solutions for the wine industry. To top it off, the company has a strict recycling policy across the estate.
The Drivers also agree that joining the B Corp community has influenced Rathfinny to re-evaluate everything it does as a company, from farming practices to how coffee is served to the more than 200 employees during the picking season. And although the Drivers started this business with sustainability in mind, constantly reflecting on their business practices has led them to make even more improvements as a company.
“B Corporation already fit our mentality,” Sarah says. “But I think what it’s also done is it’s made everybody really think about everything. Everything we do has an impact. So we always ask ourselves: What can we do as individuals to really improve our impact in our community and the environment?”
Looking Toward the Future
Building a winery in a burgeoning wine region has proven to be one of the smartest ways to stay sustainable. The Drivers have discovered it’s much easier to build a sustainable business model from the ground up, rather than retrospectively make it more sustainable. Well-established vineyards in France that have been around for hundreds of years are still cleaning up from their past mistakes. For example, between the 1970s and the 1990s, Paris and Reims would dump their waste along the Champagne region of France. Plastic bags, glass, and cardboard were used as “fertilizer” because — at the time — it was thought that the minerals in the trash would treat a common ailment that afflicts vines known as chlorosis. To make up for the choices made by their ancestors, new sustainable wine-growing practices are being implemented.
Unlike their European counterparts which are often governed by strict historical rules, Estates such as Rathfinny don’t have to worry about what kind of practices farmers once employed hundreds of years ago. In fact, the vineyard at Rathfinny is less densely planted than vineyards found in France, this means they can use modern machinery that is far less polluting than its predecessors.
Moving forward, the Drivers are not only looking five to 10 years into the future. They are drawing up a 100-year plan for the estate. “The returns for the wine industry is long term,” Roucher says. “With a 100-year plan, we can at least look forward to what things might look like, and anticipate any changes that might happen in the climate as well as mitigate anything else.”
And with extensive untapped acreages just waiting to be planted, they have a lot of room to grow their sustainable dream.