Sussex Vineyard is Climate Change Winner

Rathfinny Estate: Vineyards, Flint Barns and English Channel. Photo: Rathfinny Estate

Rathfinny Estate: Vineyards, Flint Barns and English Channel. Photo: Rathfinny Estate

South Downs, Great Britain

The pretty hill I’m strolling on that slopes south and east toward the blue English Channel is a bright spot amid the dark, dire effects of global warming.

This green and pleasant part of Sussex has warmed enough that enterprising folks are growing grapes and making wine.

I’m visiting the biggest experiment of this kind, the Rathfinny Estate. At 600 acres it dwarfs other Sussex vineyards which number about 40 and tend to be 10 to 15 acres apiece.

Rathfinny has outsize ambitions, too. According to Harpers UK  it is recognized as the UK’s largest single estate vineyard. It bottled its first sparkling wine in 2015 and “aims to eventually reach production of over 80,000 cases by 2025.”

  Why is the wine made here, and being poured for me by the bar hostess, called “Sussex Sparkling” ?

The geology of the South Downs is an extension of the “Paris basin” chalk formation of France’s Champagne region that ducks under the Channel and rises here. Temperatures have been warmer by on average 3°F (0.8°C ) in the last 10 years compared to thirty years that ended in 1990.

Thus a happy pairing of climate adaptation and economic benefit is arising in the South Downs.

“It’s awful to benefit from global warming, but the only reason we can have this vineyard is due to climate change.” says the bar hostess. The glass she pours me is 2015 vintage Rosé released in 2018. (It was so tasty that later I forked out £41 for a bottle.)

Reviews have reflected the bubbly outlook. In May Rathfinny launched its sparkling Blanc de Blancs. The Ritz in London named it “sparkling wine of the month.”

Rathfinny Bar. Photo: Deborah Shapley

Rathfinny Bar. Photo: Deborah Shapley

 “I think a lot of people would actually struggle to tell these wines apart from Champagne,”  wrote Alex Lascelles in The Financial Times’ How to Spend It section.

Booming British Bubbly

Wine-making is a booming sector of the UK economy. New data released by the

Wine & Spirit Trade Association shows the number of bottles released in 2018 were “a record 3.86 million - up 64% on the previous year.“ An awesome 2.36 million bottles were released in 2018 compared to 1.34 million bottles in 2000. Sparkling wine accounts for 60% of all English wine, according to WSTA.

Mark Driver, a hedge fund manager, scoured the South Downs hillsides for promising terroirs before purchasing this land, a few kilometers from Alfriston, in 2010. Among its advantages is the bowl-like slope; frost rolls downhill instead of lingering and harming the bases of the vines.

Mr. Driver and his wife Sarah, a lawyer, envision Rathfinny to be the largest single estate vineyard in Europe. So far they have planted 225 acres with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and small parcels of Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris. The site has the potential for 400 acres in vine.

The Drivers chose the name Rathfinny to connect it to the past. H.W. Finny owned the land in the 19th century; “rath” is Celtic for castle or keep.

Most of these hills along the Channel are in the South Downs National Park.  The SDNP issued a major Climate Change Adaptation Report that spells out the sometimes frightening impacts of climate change such as species loss in hedgerows and waterlogged low-lying land. Raising livestock will be more costly.

But under the new conditions the land can support more soya, fennel, lavender and grapes, the report noted. As part of the shift to viticulture, nearby Plumpton Agricultural College is expanding as a research hub for the wine industry.

Promo at the Flint Barn B&B.    Photo: Deborah Shaple y

Promo at the Flint Barn B&B.

Photo: Deborah Shapley

Jobs, Exports, Roads

Not everyone’s partying.

In  conversations during a few days in the area, I heard strong local concerns dating back to the Drivers’ application to use the land for large-scale wine production. 

Jobs ranked first of these concerns. Many new jobs were promised when the venture was submitted for approvals. The company says 180 worked there this year and “300 could be employed in a few years.” But most will be seasonal laborers. From where? Across the Channel?

A second fear is loss of land for local crops. The South Downs park adaptation report notes that growing grapes and lavender could “externalize” agriculture by taking farmland away from crops consumed locally,

Farmers in southern England were hit by major droughts in 2005, 2011 and 2012. Sustainable farming is of great importance. (Though farmers may lose some land to export crops, their growing season is already 29 days longer than the 1961-1990 average, according to Central England Climate record.)     

Third, Rathfinny Estate can be seen as violating the picture-book Channel coast of chalk cliffs, winding roads and charming small, old structures.  The road along this hill is too wide, people say. It should be the narrow, traditional road that was promised. The old structure known as Flint Barns has been expanded; it is a B & B now.

Mine Flint Barn_6131 adj.jpeg

Adaptation in Action

Adaptation is a grandiose word; it litters international climate reports and manifestos for how we should deal with global warming. I’ve searched through many to learn what the A-word might mean in practice. Most reports promote small-scale examples. Yet temperatures are rising faster; storms are stronger and more frequent than forecast; unusual flooding is hurting Britain’s economy. If adaptation is to make a difference, maybe some projects must be tried on a larger scale sooner rather than later.

And, let’s face it, some projects may not be popular. People may have to adapt as well.

The objections to Rathfinny Estate may be about its size. But without widespread changes, agriculture in southern Britain will suffer. If Rathfinny is seen as a private sector experiment – a draft of how this region could implement the A-word - everyone can lean how the next sparkling wine estate can do better. 

I’m ready to raise my glass to the I-word: Innovation.

Rathfinny Estate shows scale of acreage planted. Photo: Deborah Shapley

Rathfinny Estate shows scale of acreage planted. Photo: Deborah Shapley