Rathfinny Wine Estate

Lessons learnt…

It is almost three years since we bought Rathfinny.

We were on a sailing holiday in Menorca when I received a call from a land agent at Strutt and Parker. “Mr Driver, I think I’ve found the perfect site for your vineyard!”.

vine growth

So three years on what have we learnt?

  • Planting vines is easy. You order and purchase your vines, eighteen months ahead of time from a nursery and hire the help of a friendly German who will machine plant them with GPS accuracy.
  • All consultants seem to have different opinions on your soil, what vines to plant – root stocks and clonal varieties, vine spacing, winery design and what trees to plant for windbreaks.
  • There are a plethora of consultants required for every conceivable bat, badger, archeological feature and historical reference, and when they hear that you are planting a vineyard they seem to double to price.
  • Getting planning permission takes a long time and costs a lot of money.
  • Irrigation – do we really need it in England? We thought we did in 2011 then we had the summer of 2012, this year (2013) we needed it.
  • Wind – is the main enemy of vines, more on this later.
  • How to work with my wife. Oh, and my wife is always right!! But I knew that already.
  • Double time and double money! (My lovely wife told me that as well!)
  • People love wine. Everyone, everywhere asks me “how are the vines Mark?” We have over three hundred acres of wheat and barley but no one asks me how are my cereal crops.

However, the main thing I’ve learnt, apart from the fact that my wife is always right, is that wind is the main enemy of vines.

When I studied at Plumpton College we learnt how winds above 10mph stop photosynthesis in vines. Basically, when the wind picks up the stomata, the little holes on the bottom of the leaves that allow gases, CO2, oxygen and water vapour, to enter or leave the leaf, close and so the plant stops transpiration. They close to stop the vine from drying out but this also stops photosynthesis which, if you remember back to your biology lessons, is the means by which the cells in the leaf convert water and CO2 into sugars which, move around the plant, providing energy for the vine and ends up in the grapes. So before we bought Rathfinny I thought long and hard about wind and I looked at historical weather statistics from the Met office. They seemed to be okay, the average wind speed during the summer growing months was 4.5metres per second, which is less that 10mph, and that is the average for the whole site and the lower part of the slope at Rathfinny gives much greater protection from the south-westerly winds and we could plant wind breaks to slow it down further. How wrong could I be?

Well as it turns out the average is the 24 hour average and the winds tend to be stronger during the afternoon, when the vines are meant to be growing! And the trees we planted as windbreaks are taking a lot longer to grow than I had expected. So we have taken the decision to put up more temporary wind-breaks, made of netting, which will hopefully provide the wind protection needed until the trees grow.

Shot Berries

I am still confident of a small crop this year but it will be very small as the vines we planted last year had to cope with the wet cold summer of 2012 and the vines we planted this year are too immature. The good news is that they are putting on enough growth this year to lay down a small cane so hopefully next year we will get a decent crop.

Young vines

Lastly, as an eternal optimist, I have to mention on the positive side at least we rarely get hail storms in East Sussex. A recent hail storm in Champagne wiped out 300 hectares of vines in 2 hours!

Enjoy the rest of the summer….

Mark Driver

Read Mark's Article

More Progress

There was much excitement at Rathfinny this week as the first three fermentation tanks arrived from France.

Tank on the lorry

The rest of the tanks were inspected in France by Jonathan last week and are due for delivery on the 16th July.

tanks in France

I keep being told that the winery will be ready on the 16th August and fully tested and ready for operation by the end of August, but there still seems to be a lot to do. However, it was nice to see the first three of twenty-four tanks arrive this week and they are currently housed in our grain barns waiting to be set up in the winery in mid-July.

The floor of the fermentation hall has been prepared; drainage channels put in, the floor levelled and covered in epoxy non-slip coating. So we are ready to go. The offices and tasting room are taking shape as well, the ceilings are going in and the under-floor heating is in and the cladding is going up on the outside.

vine growth

Meanwhile the vineyard is looking very tidy. The vines are still a bit behind and we are still trying to tame the wind, which has been unusually strong again this year. However, we have a few inflorescence (flower clusters) on some of the vines and as we expect to have some better/hotter weather they should be flowering in the next two weeks. So I am still hopeful of getting a very small crop this year, enough to play with the new equipment in the winery. Ever the optimist…

Meanwhile the new vineyard is taking shape. The vineyard team, now featured on our website under People– http://www.rathfinnyestate.com/people/ – have been working very hard putting in the trellising posts and recently we have had some students in trimming vines and putting clips on the stakes to hold them to the fruiting wires.

young vine growth

So lots of progress, including the work on the Gun Room which will serve as our tasting room on the Tye, in Alfriston that we hope to open in November this year.

Enjoy the warmer weather, we are….

Mark Driver

Read Mark's Article