Anyone harbouring lingering doubts over the region’s determination to become a significant producer of the finest quality sparkling wine simply needs to head to the Rathfinny Wine Estate near Alfriston in East Sussex.
Tucked into a valley bottom at the foot of this part of the South Downs is a huge, moonscape-like area where mechanical diggers are preparing the ground for two new winery buildings.
While the chalk they are excavating demonstrates why this part of the world is perfect for wine making, the sheer size of the clearance indicates the scale of the opportunity and the determination of Rathfinny to capitalise on that opportunity.
This is clearly not diversification, a hobby or a “let’s give it a try” approach to wine-making but a multi-million pound commercial decision founded in the growing realisation that this part of the country is a superb location for growing grapes and making bubbly.
With the earthmovers close to finishing their task, by early 2018 the vast site will be home to a dedicated bottle processing facility and a second building that will be used solely for storage.
With each building measuring 80m by 40m and the bottle processing plant featuring a quality of finish and fit-out more suited to a luxury office suite, it’s no surprise that the project has been entrusted to a well-respected name in the industry. Scorpion Engineering Construction is already well known in the world of agriculture, and now the 45 year-old business is broadening its portfolio under the guidance of new managing director Andre Van Heerden.
The company is determined to build on its success by become a leading player in the rapidly growing viticulture industry while retaining Scorpion’s long-held values, particularly around customer service.
With the changing climate making this part of the world increasingly attractive for those with ambitions to grow world class sparking wines – including some of the top French growers – Scorpion plans to lay down a marker with this stunning building at Rathfinny.
The winery buildings also highlight the company’s move into providing a complete package, delivering ‘turnkey’ projects that cover the whole process, from first discussions to fit-out.
The steelwork for the Rathfinny project is set to be delivered to the site shortly, following which the two buildings will start to take shape – and an interesting shape at that.
“We are replicating the existing – but smaller – ‘phase one’ building on the site, which has a flint and wood finish and an attractive curved roof,” explained Andre.
“The fit out will be done to a very high standard and we will be installing high quality kitchens, washrooms and other features. It’s a fantastic project, and we are thrilled at being associated with such a prestigious investment in the UK’s burgeoning viticulture industry.”
The growing importance of English wine is such that no less a giant than French marque Tattinger has bought land in Chilham, Kent, while Champagne Pommery has teamed up with the Hattingly Valley vineyard in Hampshire.
According to industry figures, there were 502 vineyards in the UK in 2015, each covering an average of four hectares. Production that year topped five million bottles, produced from 133 wineries.
“Scorpion has the right skill set to support this growing industry and is proving here at Rathfinny that we can deliver what the South East’s ambitious wine-makers need,” said Andre. “Our turnkey offering can deliver the whole project, on budget and on time.”
The Rathfinny Wine Estate was established in 2010 at the heart of an exceptional South Downs landscape, and has stressed its committed to producing “some of the world’s best sparling wine”.
Set on a perfect south-facing slope just three miles from the sea, its climate and soil – just part of what the French would call its ‘terroir’ – is ideally suited to growing grapes in a region that is already producing some top-notch, award-winning English sparkling wine.
Growers in the South East have suggested the climate in Champagne is threatening to become too warm for world-class sparkling wine – another reason the French are staring to take an interest, along with the huge difference in price between land over here and in Champagne.
With blind tastings proving on several occasions that English sparkling wine is not just catching up, but overtaking, many of the established marques, Scorpion Engineering Construction is determined to support the industry with the buildings it needs. As Rathfinny’s own website explains: “The vineyard will develop to become one of the largest single vineyards in England and one of the largest in Europe. Our RIBA nominated, state-of-the-art winery is capable of producing over one million bottles of Sussex Sparkling wine annually. We aim to achieve quality levels that will see our Sussex Sparkling wine winning international awards and being enjoyed all over the world.”
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