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Fund Manager Swaps Computer Screens for Watching Grapes Grow

Rathfinny Vineyard
Rathfinny vineyard on the South Downs of Sussex. The chalky soil is similar to that of Champagne, in France. Source: Mission via Bloomberg

Mark Driver, who was a banker in London and Hong Kong before helping found Horseman Capital Management, is learning the virtue of patience.

It’s four years since he bought a farm on the South Downs, in the county of Sussex, and planted grapes to produce English sparkling wines. He may make some next year, but there’s no hurry. He’s biding his time and watching the grapes grow.

Another step in his ambition to build an international brand comes tomorrow when U.K. Business Secretary Vince Cable formally opens Driver’s winery at the Rathfinny Estate, which covers 600 acres (242 hectares) of rolling hillside.

“There’s no comparison with working in the City,” said Driver, 49, whose workplace echoes to the sound of birdsong rather than London buses. “It’s a completely different life. I used to sit in front of a screen and now I work more outside, looking at the vines and how the vineyard is going and building the winery.”

Sussex, on England’s south coast, shares the same band of chalk that forms the Paris Basin, which stretches across the Champagne region. Rising temperatures have helped produce a climate conducive to producing some fine sparkling wines.

His winemaker at Rathfinny is Jonathan Medard, a Frenchman from Epernay who trained at Chateau Mouton Rothschild, Champagne Louis Roederer, Moet & Chandon and Champagne Boizel.

Grape Varieties

Driver originally planned to grow Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes, along with Riesling for still wines. He’s now added Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc to round out the flavor of his sparkling wine.

“The idea is to produce a slightly fruitier wine but not with the sugar content of Prosecco,” he said.

English wineries filled slightly less than 4.5 million bottles in 2013, a record, The Drinks Business reported last week. That compares with Champagne output in France of 349 million bottles, according to the official Comite Champagne.

In England and Wales there are 432 vineyards and 124 wineries, with 1,438 hectares under vine, the English Wine Producers website says. About 60 percent of the output is sparkling, 30 percent still white and 10 percent red or rose, it says. Leading producers include Denbies Wine Estate, home to the largest vineyard in the U.K.

Prior to Horseman, where he co-managed the Horseman Global Fund, Driver spent 11 years covering Asian markets. He set up and managed the Asian equity desk in London for Donaldson Lufkin & Jenrette, and also worked in sales in Hong Kong and London for Societe Generale (Crosby) and Merrill Lynch. He began his career at Fidelity Investment Management in 1985.

Learning Curve

“It’s been a steep learning curve,” he said of his time at Rathfinny, where he hoped to be producing wine in 2013. “Everyone was telling me I was too optimistic, and they were right of course.” A cold winter and a late spring resulted in a small crop that wasn’t worth picking, and the winery wasn’t even ready, he said.

This year is looking very good and he’s hoping to get a crop from the Riesling, he said. “We had a mild winter. It was very wet but that isn’t an issue because we’re on nice slopes that are self-draining and the vines are looking strong.

‘‘This time next year, or slightly earlier, we’ll be bottling some sparkling wine. That will go into storage for two years and, hopefully, be released in late 2017.”

Long term, Driver said, the hope is that Sussex wines will obtain Protected Designation of Origin status, a European Union classification that protects products and foodstuffs -- from Champagne to Yorkshire forced rhubarb -- from imitators.

He would then aim to sell Rathfinny sparkling wine under the Sussex designation in North America and Asia.

(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Bloomberg. Opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines)

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