Steeped in a hazy morning mist, between the rolling Sussex downs, between Alfriston and the sea the sun is twinkling on Rathfinny’s vines, which cover the valley like a blanket, as we drive in. They seem to go on for miles, but then Rathfinny is no hobby vineyard – Britain’s youngest sparkling white wine also happens to be its most ambitious. You won’t have heard of Sussex Sparkling yet, as it takes several years for the first vintage to mature, but five years from now Rathfinny’s owner, Mark Driver, hopes that it will be a household name as familiar as Champagne.
And it’s easy to see why, driving into this vast 600-acre estate, with its incredibly modern building and wine room that sits among the swathes of vines. You could be forgiven for thinking you were at a big winery in South Africa or New Zealand, not a tiny village on the South coast. But the soil conditions – the terroirs as the French call it – and the climate are directly comparable with Champagne, if not better, so the question should really be: why has it taken so long for someone to get serious about making decent wine in the UK?
Tucked away at the very end of the vineyard are the Flint Barns – the original farmhouse of the estate built in the 1860s, they have been immaculately restored from a ruin and now house a large dining room, a snug lounge room and 10 ensuite bedrooms, some arranged for couples or families, and some bunk rooms that are ideal for larger groups of up to eight. But unlike other walker’s retreats there’s no Ikea furniture to be seen here. Every detail has been considered, with bespoke beds made to complement the building, the finest linen and cosiest woollen blankets – it’s not grand or fancy, but it is polished and of the highest quality. Evening meals are family-style dining of locally-soured, crowd-pleasing dishes such as lasagne or shepherd’s pie.
The manager and chef Adrian is local to Alfriston and a font of knowledge about local walks and visits. A good one to start with is the Rathfinny Trail, which will take you up to the top of the downs for a birds eye view of the vines on one side and the sea on the other, and you can stop at the end at Rathfinny’s Flint Barns Café – an old H van serving delicious cakes and coffees that only walkers can reach – a local hidden gem, and soak up the warm English sun while gazing out at grapes and wild poppies that are doing much the same thing.
What started as a rambler’s rest and hostel is evolving. This spring, as Flint Barns is becoming more discovered, they are opening up at weekends offering Sunday roasts and are hosting their first weekend yoga retreat in May, I can’t imagine anywhere more tranquil to salute the sun.
In Alfristion, Rathfinny has a tasting room and shop, selling local art and produce as well as the first bottlings from the estate, but the rest of this pretty, artist-friendly town is well worth an explore, with its mix of antiques shops, galleries and tea houses.
At the moment, this is one of Britain’s best-kept secrets, but in 2018 when the first Sussex Sparkling corks are popped, Flint Barns and Rathfinny will be to Sussex what River Cottage is to Dorset. And the news that Taittinger has bought a vineyard in Kent is further proof that Rathfinny is onto a winner. Get there now so that you can gloat at dinner parties about how you stayed before Sussex Sparkling was ‘a thing’.
Rooms from £110 a night B&B, bunk beds from £35pp, Rathfinnyestate.com / flintbarns.com