Rathfinny Wine Estate

We have ordered 72,000 vines!

We have just finalised the first vine order for Rathfinny.  We’ve ordered 72,000 vines for delivery in 2012 and we are planting a mixture of five different varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Riesling and Pinot Gris.

As our intention is to specialise in top quality sparkling wine, we are planting the classic varieties of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier. The most difficult decision was choosing the clones especially for Pinot Noir.

In Europe, all vines are planted on rootstocks.  This is to prevent the resurgence of phylloxera, a horrible insect that eats vine roots and leaves and decimated the vineyards of Europe in the late 19th century.  Choosing the rootstock was a relatively easy decision; we need a rootstock that not only has phylloxera resistance but could also cope with the high pH and chalky soils. We have chosen Fercal, which is widely planted in the Champagne region.  It promotes early ripening and has a very high resistance to lime-induced chlorosis, which causes the leaves to turn yellow.  Onto this rootstock the nursery will graft our selected clones.  We spent many months researching the best clones to use and we have chosen a selection of what are referred to as ‘Dijon’ and ‘Champagne’ clones, as they are suited to still and sparkling wine production.  The main criterion was to select clones that produce the best quality wines but are suited to our climate.  So we needed clones, which develop open clusters that reduce disease risk.  We have chosen each clone variety to give us a balance of flavours and yield to help blend top quality wine.

We have also chosen to plant out some Riesling and Pinot Gris to provide us with some still wine. The reason for this is that apart from providing us with some wine that we can sell earlier(!), the sparkling won’t be available until 2017 and the still wine will become available in 2014, it will also show the provenance of the land. We believe we have found not only one of the most beautiful pieces of land in England but one of the best-suited sites for grapes.

Riesling is one of my favourite grape varieties and it is a very versatile grape that produces wine that has wonderful fruit and acidity and can be aged to produce fantastically complex wine.  However, very few people have had any success with the grape in England. We believe we have the right site to ripen Riesling. Our local farmer always tells us that Rathfinny is the first farm that he harvests every year. We are also very confident that the Pinot Gris will ripen well at Rathfinny and produce a wonderful fresh dry white wine.

After many months of research we have chosen a nursery in Germany to propagate our vines. Quality is the guiding principle at Rathfinny and they supply the best quality plants that we have seen in England. Also, they specialise in high grafted vines. They are a little more expensive but you get what you pay for. We are planting high grafted vines, basically tall vines where the graft is at 90cm instead of 30cm. The reason for this is that they not only give the vines a years head start, because they get to the fruiting wire a year earlier, they also will provide some protection against rabbits – more about those at a later date.

We have also just planted out our Shelter Belts, more about that on the next Blog..

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Canes awaiting processing in the Nursery.

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High grafted vines in a German vineyard.

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Finding the Perfect Site for an English Vineyard

We started searching for the perfect site for an English vineyard in late summer 2009.  But what is the perfect land for grapevines? The main considerations are, temperature, soil type – you need reasonably fertile free draining soil, and aspect – a south-facing slope is generally warmer and will help reduce the risk of frost damage. This is very important because vines seldom recover from frost damage, and a slope allows the cool air to roll down the hill and is replaced by warmer air from above. Lastly, altitude, you lose one degree in temperature every 100m you climb! So I wanted a warm, south-facing slope on free draining soil below 120m.

The trouble is that land rarely comes up for sale. Farms are passed on from generation to generation, or the land is sold with a tenant farmer who has a right to tenancy for several generations. However, I thought as I’m starting my course at Plumpton in September 2010. Had I mentioned that? I thought I’d better learn a little bit about vines. So I have some time to find the right piece of land. We found one farm for sale in Hampshire in the spring of 2010. It was almost perfect, we had the soil tested, but it didn’t have any buildings on the site that we could convert into a winery. Sadly we had to walk away.

Then in early August when we were on a sailing holiday in Menorca I received a phone call from our agent. “I think I’ve found the perfect piece of land.” How right he was. Thanks to the wonders of Google earth we were about to look at Rathfinny Farm.

View Rathfinny Estate in a larger map

It is nearly 600 acres of south facing slopes, protected from the prevailing wind by a ridge of the South Downs. It is only 3 from the sea and given its location and aspect the land is almost frost-free in late spring and autumn. In short, it is perfect. A bidding war took place but we eventually got it for less than the not so perfect land in Hampshire.

Did you know that Eastbourne, just 4 miles away to the east of Rathfinny, still holds the record as the sunniest place in England. I believe it set the record in 1911 and The Halifax Quality of Life Survey 2007 named Eastbourne as the sunniest place in Great Britain.

So that makes Rathfinny the sunniest vineyard in England….!!

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From Hedge Funds to Viticulture Via Ten Bottles of English Sparkling Wine

So here I am, forty-six years of age and out of work, well to be more precise, retired. I’d spent twenty five years working for various investment banks in both London and Hong Kong, never made it to New York, something I always regretted but then again I wouldn’t have met up with John if I’d gone to New York.  Nor even back to Hong Kong; it was offered to me but my wife refused to go.  Thankfully John saved me in the year 2000 when another investment bank I was working for, Donaldson, Lufkin and Jenrette, DLJ, or as my children like to refer to it as ‘Driver Loses Job,’ merged, or more accurately sold-out to CSFB. I called a friend of mine at Credit-Suisse and told him. “It looks like we’ll be working together again.” His response was as an emphatic ‘No,’ it was not likely that we would both survive the “merger”.   He was right. I didn’t survive. However for all my hard work over 2 years I was given a nice green tie by my former boss and with that kicked out. However, John Horseman asked me to come and help him run a hedge fund, which is where I have been working for the last 10 years until the end of last year when we decided to call it a day and pass on the day to day management to someone a little younger.

I must admit that at forty-five I felt a little young to retire, you can only play so much golf, and I’m not good at golf, and given that most of my friends still work you get bored and lonely pretty quickly. So there I was scanning the UCAS website for my daughter, trying to find a course for her, when I got to down to V. Viticulture. I couldn’t believe that you can study wine production in the UK, but you can, at Plumpton College, part of Brighton University.

So I spent the next two months investigating the English Wine scene and it just got better and better. Did you know that several English wine producers have been awarded international awards for their sparkling wine in recent years? I didn’t believe it so I bought a large selection of bottles and tried them, in a blind tasting with a whole bunch of our close friends at a dinner party. Ten bottles of sparkling wine later and the conclusion was that no-one preferred the French Champagne over the English sparkling, in fact even my French friend preferred a Sussex sparkling to Laurent Perrier and although Pol Roger was highly thought of, the overwhelming view was that English sparkling wine was rather good. To be honest anything can taste good after the tenth glass, however, everyone was pleasantly surprised by the quality English sparkling wine.

So I signed up for the course at Plumpton College and started looking for some land to plant out grapes in the UK. Twelve months on I’m sitting in Bordeaux, in the cheapest, crapiest hotel I’ve stayed in since I was last a student, about to attend the Vinitech exhibition with the college. And it’s great.

Oh and I’ve bought some land.

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