Plans for a Sussex vineyard to become one of the biggest in Europe are one step closer.
Bosses at the sprawling Rathfinny wine estate in Alfriston, near Seaford, have unveiled a new £5.5 million winery complex that will help the firm produce more than one million bottles of wine a year.
The state-of-the-art winery is the biggest in the UK and will be used to produce a white wine that competes with the likes of Bollinger and Pol Roger, retailing for around £25 a bottle.
The grapes will be pressed, fermented and bottled on site in Sussex and all sourced from the Rathfinny Estate.
The 600-acre site was purchased by husband and wife team Mark and Sarah Driver in 2010 following an 18 month search for the perfect location to match premier French sparkling wine makers.
Mr Driver, 49, a former hedge fund manager who worked in the city, swapped his suit and tie for jeans and wellies in a bid to turn Rathfinny into a world-wide brand.
He said: “It will soon be the biggest single site vineyard in the UK. We planted 67,000 vines in 2012 and 73,000 in 2013. We are just about to do our third plant of 80,000.
“Our final planting in 2020 will bring the total size of the vineyard to 700,000 vines on 160 hectares. Sussex is perfect for producing sparkling wine as it has similar soil and a climate which is very similar to the Champagne region.
“In fact the same band of chalk that runs up through the Champagne region of France comes up out of the English Channel at Beachy Head and forms the South Downs.”
Mr Driver said Rathfinny was the biggest single site in England, but “quality was more important than size”. A long admirer of wine, he studied for a degree in wine making at Plumpton College and took the first steps to fulfilling his dream when he left his job in the city in 2009.
But he is not alone. He will employ a team of around 30 full time staff and 200 seasonal staff when business is in full flow, including renowned French winemaker Jonathan Médard.
The first bottles of Rathfinny sparkling wine will be available in 2017.
Mr Drive added: “Within the winery we have a beautiful trade tasting room, which the public can use for private events and we will be offering tours of the vineyard and winery with lunch or afternoon tea, starting in March.”