Rathfinny Wine Estate

Keeping it Local

Over the years many people for many reasons have carved figures into the chalk – from the Cerne Abbas Giant, Long Man of Wilmington and White Horse in the Cuckmere Valley near Alfriston, these dramatic ‘carvings’ have become both iconic and in some cases mysterious.

Rathfinny Estate are on a journey to produce internationally renowned sparkling wine, and now we have our own chalk work of art.

Ours is steeped in local history. Firstly, the shield itself – this has come from the Sussex county flag which depicts six martlets (these are heraldic swallows, and I can’t help thinking of the scene in Monty Pythons Holy Grail when they discuss air speed velocity of a Barn Swallow flying with a coconut – I’m not sure a heraldic swallow would get to Africa wearing a gold crown!). I digress.

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“The most important thing about education is…”

This is one of the many quotations left to us by the great Winston Churchill. He finished by saying that the most important thing about education is “appetite”. Any of us could finish this sentence in a different way. Here at Rathfinny Estate we aim to whet the appetite as well as fulfil it. We are also aware that education does not stop when you leave school. The appetite may change, you may seek new ideas or just wish to look at the world via a different perspective.

In the English wine industry we are fortunate to have Plumpton College, which is affiliated to Brighton University, right on our doorstep. Plumpton has become world renowned for its courses in both vinification and viticulture. Many of our vineyard staff have been trained at Plumpton and continue to do so. The Estate were major supporters of the new Rathfinny Research Winery at the college to really hone the skills of their students which come from all over the world to study there.

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Mid-Summer Ramblings

Just like a Marmalade fly my thoughts are scattered and flit about for this edition of the blog. It was with some relief that I could announce to the team the other week that our newly constructed access road was drivable. We now have a sinuous driveway which more importantly provides safe access to and from the Estate for authorised vehicles.

Then like the more common ‘house’ fly my relief was swatted as I became entangled between two very well known tele-communication companies. What I was requesting for the Estate appeared to be simple, but as these companies ironically had communication issues this may not be a smooth ride!  Updates to follow.

On a far more positive note the Estate Tours have commenced and feedback has been good as well as constructive. Apart from gaining access to our state of the art winery and consuming chefs locally sourced delights, the visitors have been greeted by a riot of floristic colour straight from the outset. The first wheat field they see is bordered by some of our wild bird seed mix. This is awash with poppies, sainfoin, clover, vetches and speedwells to name but a few. Thus conversely not only can you see the colours but you can hear the field. It’s humming with the sound of summer.

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Our wildbird seed mix above is providing a smorgasbord for insects.

The weather has been kind to us at the moment, and the arable element of the Estate will soon be harvested. Alas, kindness is not a word being used by our wine making counterparts in California. Here, when vines usually require about 700mm of rainfall per annum, they are suffering drought conditions. Time to look to Australia for advice perhaps?

But back to our arable – with harvest approaching over another golden sunset, we have planned our next cropping to ensure we can comply with new agricultural regulations. However, this planning is being thwarted. Much of our Estate is under various “options” to benefit wildlife and enhance the landscape. But we still await government clarity on the details of the new scheme. I will refrain from making any comments on the juxtaposition of a minister showing clarity.  Again, updates to come and please follow me on Twitter for daily musings (@rathfinnyrich).

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This bumblebee is rather laden with pollen as it goes in again to a poppy.

All this Estate planning and forward thinking requires meetings, and meetings must contain caffeine.  (Jamie our COO would, I’m sure, concur.) Which brings this particular rambling to the subject of coffee. I would personally describe myself as a consumer of good coffee (my wife calls me a coffee snob) From the Estate I occasionally provide a substitute role for the Gun Room, our cellar door in Alfriston. To add to the other delights already in the Gun Room we now serve coffee and teas. To ensure I can provide adequate support to the team they trained me to make coffee.

How hard could it be? Hot water, decent coffee and ‘in date’ milk. Surely that’s it? After the first hour – how wrong could I be??

Choose the blend, type of coffee, type of grind, mocha, chai, flat white, speed of pour and don’t even get me started on the complexities of making frothy milk!!

Thank goodness the A-team in the Gun Room are competent baristas to serve visitors to the shop and Heritage Centre. For the time being I’ll avoid the composition and concentrate on the consumption!

(Addendum – night time cycle around Estate last evening provided excellent opportunity to hear and see two quail.  A wonderful farmland bird with a very distinctive call – very happy cyclist!)

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Bubbles and Ballast

Since my last blog it has been a hugely eventful time for Rathfinny Wine Estate. Mark has already described the opening of the Winery by Dr Vincent Cable and I don’t think that could have gone any better.  Mark really pulled in some favours to ensure the sun shone and the wind subsided so all our guests could utilise the veranda and marvel at the expanse of vines!

soilstrip

Soil all removed and ready for stone

Those bubbles were swiftly put to one side as I was soon requested to meet with our contractors constructing our new access road. Geological percolation and compaction tests aren’t new to me, but the peculiarities of C30 or C35 concrete, ACO drains and bonded expansion joints have been a wonderful learning curve.

Stepping back a bit, I think it is important to state that this new road was put forward for planning permission due to the unsafe nature of our current track. Not merely the steepness of the current track but more importantly, how it meets the main B-road between Seaford and Alfriston. Working in close partnership with the South Downs National Park Authority, who are our planning authority, we were able to design a scheme which suited our needs and fitted into the undulating and sinuous landscape.

Trees had to be protected, archaeologists were required to excavate the entire area, a new landscaping scheme was approved, concrete samples assessed and health and safety protocols were duly adhered to. And only then, could Woollards commence the actual construction.

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So the Romans were here! A small section of pot but no gold coins

The concreting has gathered a pace and should be finished in the next week or so (weather dependent) and then we can start with the sympathetic landscaping. This will entail some ‘gapping up’ of the current wooded area with some native saplings and then some larger native specimen trees to semi line the road. These trees will not form a full avenue as the main attraction as you enter the new road will be the vines. At the moment the field is sown with mustard, which is our break crop and natural compost provider, but early next year the vines will be planted.

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A rare species on the Downs – JCB doublediggerus

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Concrete – nice.

This week I dispensed with my steel toe caps to take on the role of ‘wing man’ with Georgia, as we hosted our first delegate day. An eclectic international mix of delegates had a tour and tasting on their first day and then returned the following day for a full agenda of board meetings.   They did manage to stop proceedings for some fresh fruit mid-morning and chef’s delicious locally sourced lunch menu and even a wee cheeky cake in the afternoon. I may be biased, but what a wonderful location to hold a board meeting or seminar.

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Yum!!

Richard James

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Doesn’t time fly?

So, this is a (personal) milestone in blogging for me.  I have now been an employee here at Rathfinny Wine Estate for 12 months.  So what have I done in this time?  (Faint cry from the cheap seats of “not a lot”)

It’s been a whirl wind time of non-stop work where I have been able to utilise my skills and also learn new ones a plenty.  I won’t bore you with the details of my day to day routine, but while I have your undivided attention, I would like to propose that you watch this space for future research from me in the vineyard.  Because, while Cameron, Jamie and Jonathan were shaking hands with Royalty, I was meeting ecological ‘royalty’ in the form of Professor Steve Wratten from New Zealand.  It is early days yet, but in conjunction with Steve and hopefully Professor Dave Goulson* from Sussex University, I’m assessing the best way to enhance native biological gain in our vineyard to improve invertebrates (little critters) which will benefit our vines.  Watch this space and follow me on twitter (@rathfinnyrich) for regular updates.

For those followers of this blog, you may remember a post about the birth of our triplets entitled “Rollercoaster Ride”.  Well, I’m not sure what ticket we purchased but it’s now six months on and the ride shows no sign of stopping or indeed slowing down.  The question my Rock* and I get asked is “what’s it like and how do you do it”.  Firstly, we are not alone.  There are others out there who have triplets and even more!

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The one word that sums it up is relentless.  Relentless feeding, relentless nappy changing and relentless washing to put away!  The numbers game – 560 nappies a month, 900 wipes every 2 weeks, 65kgs of formula(!) and 2016hrs of feeding (12hrs per day – do the math?).

However, the most important and crucial number of all.  We now have 4 beautiful and healthy children.

They are all sitting up, rolling around, giggling, smiling, defecating, laughing and squawking.  Often in the morning before I leave for work, I would put my money on the fact that we had produced three pterodactyls from all the noise emanating from their room.

The lack of sleep has been painful.  The continuous rounds of feeding have been endless.  The Rock has stood her ground and not waivered, purely because, just when you are at your lowest, covered in baby slime, surrounded by washing, still in your pj’s and a six year old that wants to play hula hoop with you – one of the triplets will smile or giggle.  Priceless.

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My personal bug bear – if you’re reading this and you’re local, and you see me and my Rock with the tribe, please come over and chat and ask all the questions you wish.  It gets rather off putting when people just point and assume because we have triplets we miraculously became deaf at the same time – “oooo, that man has three babies, do you think they are all his……or…….wow, three babies I couldn’t do that, how could you?….”

So, come September I’ll be able to provide you all with a 12mth tribe update.  And hopefully by then I will have put that final basket of washing away and conquered the hula hoop.

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(If washing is not put away, then more of the tribe will end up wearing the Rock’s knickers!)

Must go now and count critters between the vines…..

Ed – *Dave Goulson – author of incredible book entitled “Sting in the Tale”.

*the Rock – aka my fantastic and beautiful wife and mother to 4 wonderful children

Richard

 

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More than meets the eye

The Heritage Centre and our cellar door, the Gun Room, are now in full swing and just like any puppy they are simply ‘not just for Christmas’

Upstairs the Heritage Centre provides an insight to the wealth of history in the village of Alfriston and its surrounds.  There’s information on the history of wine with some key facts on its production in England.  This is enhanced by a time lapse film showing the rise of Rathfinny Wine Estate up from the Downs supported with some stunning still photography from Viv Blakey.

Going back downstairs and into the warmth of the oak clad cellar door (where in the future we will be selling our wine).  Now – we are all happy in the knowledge that Jonathan bathes in Beaujolais Nouveau.  But the power of wine does not stop there.  I always tell myself that a glass here and there is good for me, and now I know that wine and the mighty grape IS good for me!

I can consume it and wear it.  Thanks to Caudalie who produce a vast array of products made from grape stems, seeds and skins which form the basis of their skin care range.  Being a bloke I was rather sceptical of all the blurb.  Breaking away from the mould I decided to read the instructions (ingredients in this case).  As I’m not adverse to wearing pink, I can say that it is rather clever and from my point of view – natural.  And it works.

So now I have younger looking skin – what next?  Firstly, we need to gem up on our wine knowledge and that can be done with the hand picked selection of wine literature available or even tickle our nasal hairs with some olfactory obstacles in the form of a wine sensory kit.   But this is not as good as the real thing and for that you need some attractive looking receptacles.  There are glasses, goblets and decanters to suit all tastes and consumption levels.

Once replete with the beverages there are some fantastic champagne chocolates and the devilishly tasting Brix ‘slabs’ of chocolate specifically created to accompany wine.  Absolute heaven. (Did you know that Brix is the measure of sucrose in solution and more importantly the name of Jonathan’s dog? – Ed.)

So skin smooth, stomach sufficed and glass full.  Now to sit back, light a candle, read a book or just relax.  Did I mention there are wine smelling candles, leather bound folios and a myriad of other gifts?

In the future the Gun Room will also be the start and finish point for our Estate Tours and will also be holding specialist events so keep your eyes peeled for updates on the website and in our Newsletter.

Richard James – Trainee Assistant Shop Substitute

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Clearing the Way.

Those fortunate to live in sight of the South Downs may feel that the Red Indians are in full swing at the moment as the skyline becomes peppered with small fires and the associated smoke (signals).

Don’t worry.  No need for the Lone Ranger just yet.  From October to the end of February is the ideal time to manage the internationally important chalk grassland which forms the back bone of the Downs.  During the winter, while so much wildlife lies dormant, we have a window of opportunity to clear any ‘unwanted’ vegetation.

Now the word ‘unwanted’ is a contentious one.  The vegetation we wish to see is the previously mentioned chalk grassland and its myriad of colours.  This can be lost if shrubs and trees such as blackthorn, hawthorn and bramble for example go unchecked.  Historically, the pressure of grazing animals would keep any ‘unwanted’ growth at bay.  Times have changed and it is now down to person power (and the odd chainsaw) to remove this vegetation and allow the flowers and grasses to thrive.  The areas of blackthorn and hawthorn are often referred to as scrub.  And with all things in life, it is a question of balance.  We would like some scrub, as it is important for all kinds of wildlife such as birds and butterflies for example.  Whereas too much scrub means the wonderful flowers are overshadowed and lose out – which affects all manner of things further up the food chain.

We are fortunate, that being within the South Downs National Park, we can utilise the highly skilled workforce which is the South Downs Volunteer Ranger Service.  Here are some of them after a great days work assisting us to restore our chalk grassland.  Thanks so much to them and we hope to see them again soon.

As our vines are dormant at the moment, the vineyard team have done an amazing job clearing the scrub.  The image below depicts the great lengths Health and Safety will go to make us less susceptible to harm.  Even our pitch forks have protective covers on the prongs.

But we do find the marshmallow protectors rather tempting.

After a good day cutting and burning a warm bath is always welcoming. From reading Jonathan’s blog I may just sink into a bath of Beaujolais instead….

 

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Four Seasons in One Day

I was going to report on the seasonal changes on the Estate as the autumnal colours develop and leaves fall and the majority of our feathered friends have left for sunnier climes.

To tell the truth, I’m not totally sure which season we are in!  I know spring was about 3 weeks late because I waited patiently for the blackthorn and hawthorn blossom.  Then today I started in full waterproofs and wellies as if it was a monsoon, and when I joined the ‘elite squad’ down at the Gun Room, to view the build progress and discuss oak flooring, the bright sun was out punched by the gale force wind.  It’s this same wind which Cameron is planning to tame to allow our vines and shelter belt trees some respite.  I’m investigating the more micro climatic properties of using inter row planting of species such as phacelia and clover.  The phacelia could provide some shelter and combined with the clover would support a plethora of predatory insects to aid our vines.  I just need to clarify how to manage/control the phacelia in the future.

Back to today and it was tipped off in our resplendent Winery Tasting Room which was draped in full summer sun!  Good ol’British weather.

Since my last blog, my time has been spent landscaping around our rather majestic looking Winery.  All of this work has been ably supported by the rest of the vineyard team.  I say ‘supported’ in the loosest sense as I spent my days bouncing around on the dumper truck under the watchful eye of Rick (“the other Kiwi”) as he is our resident Chelsea Flower Show medallist.  Every vineyard should have one!

It has warmed my cockles to see the native plants being used in the landscaping such as holly, beech, white beam and my personal favourite the spindle tree.

spindle

Its outstanding fruit in pink and orange is totally juxtaposed with its angular edged bark.  To me, spindle is a vastly underrated element of our countryside.  I can’t wait to see it flourish.

The tree gets it name from its use as a spindle for spinning wool and I won’t dwell on its other use as a laxative.  I’ve personally used it in basic bushcraft as a very useful and straight skewer for cooking with.

Which brings me to the BBC’s announcement of this year’s winner of the Great British Bake Off.  The jury is still out here at Rathfinny for our own Estate award.  Nikki launched a full on assault at the title with a stupendous chocolate cake last week.  This full throttle fat inducing cake puts her in the lead. The only flaw in her composition was its size.  Far, far too small for my liking.

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(image taken after only 3.2mins of round 1)

We patiently await the next entrant to the Bake Off….

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Rollercoaster Ride

Our progress to enhance the landscape and wildlife on the Estate has really gathered pace over the summer.  I was going to highlight our plans for next year’s provision for more pollen and nectar rich wild flower planting or the technicalities of planting over 100 mature trees to landscape the winery.

Then I took this image of a levitating kidney-spot ladybird and following on from Cameron’s blog, I thought I would extoll the virtues of our wild flower areas being a haven for predatory insects which will assist us in controlling vineyard ‘pests’.

ladybird

However, my subject matter changed again as the other weekend I was present for the world’s finest rollercoaster ride.

On the 15th September my ride commenced from the vertiginous 13th floor of the Brighton and Sussex University Hospital.  I was a passenger and my wife had a special reserved seat.  After an incredible undulating journey with apprehension, excitement, tears and fears – the finale was quite incredible!

My wife (and passenger me) are now the proud parents to spontaneous triplets to join our 6 year old daughter Romilly – instant large family achieved.  Edward took the finishing tape at 11.43am weighing in at 4lb 15, closely followed by Miles (3lb 4) and Cordelia (4lb 6).

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Edward is a particular boy’s name we chose, Miles is Latin for soldier as he had to be a little fighter during his time ‘inside’ and Cordelia was King Lear’s favourite and youngest daughter.

My wife and I will forever remember the rollercoaster for various reasons and she has recovered amazingly well from the journey.  She is the proverbial rock.  All 3 small dudes are now in the incredible care of the Trevor Mann Baby Unit.  The level of care is indescribable.  All of the staff should wear halos.  I am completely in awe of the work they undertake to look after all the “little people”.

So deep breaths.  Shoulders back.  Work to be done on the vineyard and surrounding Estate.

What a ride though.

Richard James – Landscape and Environmental Officer

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