Inside top UK sparkling wine vineyard as Sussex gets Champagne-style status

Still and sparkling wines produced in Sussex have joined Champagne, Prosecco, Burgundy and more on the list of food and drink products given geographically protected status. 

Protected designation of origin (PDO) status means products for consumption have to be produced, processed and prepared in a specific geographical area to carry its name. It was a seven-year process for Sussex wines to get their branding certified. checked into Rathfinny in Sussex, the UK’s largest purpose-built vineyard, to see how the bubbles measure up… 

Driving through the Rathfinny estate in the South Downs National Park suddenly transports you from the mayhem of the ever chock-a-blocked motorways to a sedate Champagne-style setting. 

Sat on the same chalk band as its neighbour across the pond, this sprawling 600-acre vineyard is as pretty as a picture, with manicured vines set in meticulously straight lines, a rolling terroir running into a verdant valley, and slips of blue visible in the form of the English Channel. 

The Rathfinny is the largest purpose-built vineyard in the UK (Picture: Michael O’Nion)

Founded by former city slickers Sarah and Mark Driver in 2010, this vineyard has gone from strength to strength over the years and the announcement on June 15 that Sussex wines have been awarded protected designation of origin (PDO) status will no doubt propel its success further. 

The Drivers purchased the plot of land Rathfinny sits on for its positioning and soil type but it took months of planning before the fields would be fit for grape-bearing vines. They concentrated on growing four principal grape varieties – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Gris – to create the sparkling wine they had in mind. 

The first Sussex Sparkling wine produced in line with the strict Sussex PDO guidelines was bottled in early 2015 with this batch released in the summer of 2018. Two years later, Rathfinny released their full range of vintage sparkling wines including a Classic Cuvée, a Blanc de Noirs, a Blanc de Blancs and a Rosé Brut.

Along with having a complete high-tech production facility on the site, the vineyard is now home to a shop, a stunning Michelin guide-recommended restaurant called the Tasting Room led by head chef Chris Bailey and a beautiful barn conversion which has 10 chic bedrooms, a restaurant, a marquee events space and sun-drenched courtyard. 

The Rathfinny sparkling wines are brut in style with low sugar content, in a bid to let the flavours of the grape shine, so be prepared for a drier taste (Picture: Michael O’Nion)

New for this summer, there is also a portable dining cart called The Hut, which has been installed next to the Tasting Room. This is a great option if you can’t get into the highly-acclaimed restaurant as no booking is necessary and there are picnic tables and deck chairs so you can sit back and soak up the heavenly views. 

My partner and I stopped at The Hut before a vineyard tour and tasting session which, we’d booked as part of Rathfinny’s Escape to Sussex package, which also includes a three-course meal at the Flint Barn, an overnight stay and breakfast the next morning. 

The Hut has a great selection of nibbles and sweet treats to line your stomach before tucking into the wines and we plumped for a Neal’s Yard cheese board, some olives and crisps washed down with a glass of classic Classic Cuvée and Rosé Brut.

The Rathfinny sparkling wines are brut in style with low sugar content, in a bid to let the flavours of the grape shine (the Classic Cuvée has just 5 grams per litre residual sugar), so be prepared for a drier taste. The Cuvee was crisp and refreshing but the subtle rose and peach flavours of the rosé won us over.  

Rathfinny’s beautiful barn conversion houses 10 chic bedrooms, a restaurant, a marquee events space and sun-drenched courtyard

A tour of the vineyard is well worth it, and over the course of 90 minutes, you’ll learn about the complete wine-making process, from how the vines are pruned to how the grapes are blended. 

What comes across with Rathfinny is how the business has helped boost the local economy and bring together the surrounding communities. During the harvesting season, our tour guide Judith tells us that the vineyard employees more than 200 workers to pick the crop.

She also reveals how she had a complete career swap thanks to Rathfinny, leaving her job in marketing to learn about viticulture instead. 

After spending several hours at the processing plant, we ventured down to the Flint Barn for our overnight stay, kicking things off with dinner at 7pm. 

While we weren’t dining in the highly-acclaimed Tasting Room, the menu at the Flint Barn is certainly not to be sniffed at. 

One of the starters at the Flint Barn, consisting of toasted mackerel with wasabi creme fraiche (Picture: Sadie Whitelocks)

Crafted by chef Bailey, the three-course feast makes use of locally-sourced seasonal ingredients and it is exceedingly good value at £35. 

The evening we dined, the offerings included toasted mackerel with wasabi creme fraiche to start, market steak with a garlic butter and mushroom stuffed tomato for main and to finish, and an ice cream sandwich crafted from white chocolate cookies didn’t last long on our plates.

Of course, being at Rathfinny, there are copious amounts of wine to try during your stay. 

Along with four sparkling varieties, the vineyard also produces still wines branded under the Cradle Valley label – a nod to where the site where is located – and sells a gin, brandy and vermouth which are refined at the Silent Pool Distillery in Surrey. 

Rathfinny’s Cradle Valley suit features an apex ceiling and two shower rooms

After dipping into the Rathfinny range, we concluded that the 2015 Blanc de Noir was our favourite with a developed taste and slightly stewed apple flavours.

After having our fill and watching the sunset give way to a glittering night sky, we trundled upstairs to bed. In terms of room categories, there are spaces at the Flint Barn to suit all types of guests, from friends to lovers to families. 

We checked into the expansive Cradle Valley suit, which is located on the top floor with a beautiful apex ceiling, two sparkling shower rooms, a double bed, a pull-out sofa bed and dreamy views over the vines beyond. 

It had only been an overnight stay, but we returned to London from Rathfinny in sunny spirits.

This is a gem of a place with real sparkle, from its bottles of bubbles to its sedate location to its friendly service. Cheers to that!

To find more about Rathfinny’s offerings and to shop online visit

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