Rathfinny Wine Estate

Media Coverage of Rathfinny

I must admit that we have been amazed at the response that we’ve had to the initial article that appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on 2nd January about the Rathfinny Wine Estate. I sense that a lot of the interest is due to the scale of the project and I guess the fact that I was a hedge-fund manager had something to do with it, “city slicker…turns to drink” etc. However, so far we have had articles in three different US financial magazines, interviews on two radio stations, the Sydney Morning Herald carried the story (I suppose they wanted a distraction from the Ashes), and last month BBC South East news did a little feature on the project.

Concerns about over supply, voiced in the English wine world about Rathfinny, seem a bit short sighted. Ask yourself this question. When was the last time you found an English wine on a restaurant wine list, let alone an award winning English Sparkling Wine? In fact when was the last time you found any English or even Welsh wine on the shelves of your local store or supermarket? Given the fact that over the last eight years English Sparkling Wine has won more awards than any other country in the world, and last year Ridgeview won the “Best Sparkling Wine in the World” award (this is the first time it has ever been awarded to a wine outside of France), and Nyetimber and Camel Valley have also won International Awards, isn’t it about time that restaurants caught up with this and started to offer us the best Fizz in the world?

Oz Clarke has also been upsetting the English wine world with his predictions that grape prices are heading for a bust. He is right in some respects, but again his nose is too firmly fixed into a glass, he needs to look around and in particular look east. Chinese wine consumption has more than doubled over the last five years to over 1 billion bottles and they are set to over take the UK wine market, which currently consumes over 1.7 billion bottles annually, in the next few years.

Oz used some rather extreme examples, comparing English Chardonnay grapes selling for £2000 a tonne as opposed to the same quantity of Australian grapes selling for £200. Firstly, the real price for English grapes is closer to £1500 a tonne, and Aussie grapes are being given away at £200 a tonne, which is about the cost of picking them! This is because there is massive oversupply in Australia and hence vines are being grubbed up all over the country. I’m not sure that those low prices will last for long or that English grape producers should expect to achieve £2000 a tonne.  However, the fact remains that England only produced about 3.5 million bottles of wine last year, compare that to the 270 million bottles that a little country like New Zealand produced or the 5870 million bottles that came out of France. Also, compare it to the 350 million bottles we imported from Australia last year out of our total consumption of 1.7 billion bottles.  Even when English Sparkling Wine production doubles, as it is forecast to do over the next four years, we will still only be producing a little over 1% of the total production of sparkling wine from Champagne. Did you know that Champagne represents 25% of France’s wine exports but only 6% of French production?

So the next time you go for dinner, ask for a glass of best, ask for English Sparkling Wine.

Now just to set the record straight: I haven’t bought a tractor. The holes in the land visible from Google Earth, are not ancient lay lines, Neolithic settlements or bomb craters, they are probably quarries, which is where the flint came from to build some of the buildings on the land, or dew ponds. Oh and Sarah is not French!

View Rathfinny Estate in a larger map

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Wine tasting and more

Sarah, better known as ‘Crushed Grape,’ here – I know I am completely rubbish at this.  Last week, tired at the end of a long day, we went out for a drink and I ordered my favourite tipple. Mark leans towards me, I lean back, and he says, “What does it taste like?”  “That’s easy,” I think replying, “English sparkling wine” – actually, that’s a lie, I still say Champagne, but I’m learning!  He tries again patiently, “break it down,” he adds to which I churlishly reply, “I don’t want to, I just want to enjoy it!”

This is not the first time I have had this experience.  I am the one at a wine tasting who drinks most of the first glass in one go, pulls a face and is about to say something horrid only to look around and see smiles and joy as others talk of “the sensation of mousse” – salmon or chocolate I wonder?  While others talk of hints of honey and shortbread, I wander into thoughts along the lines of …. I haven’t had shortbread since I made a burnt batch at school, and didn’t we make rock cakes too then as well?  Who makes either of them anymore?  I then get completely absorbed in remembering things like cheese straws, which I loved and pineapple upside down cake which I didn’t, only to find I’ve now drunk 3 glasses and am none the wiser. I’ve said it before, I like what I like and I quickly know what I don’t.

Things I have learnt – to be skipped over by those in the know and that will hopefully redeem me in my husband’s eyes.

  • France has Champagne, which it jealously guards as a name and has protected status
  • Italy has Prosecco
  • Spain has Cava
  • What does England have?  English sparkling wine!

To be honest, I never knew the difference, thinking Champagne was the real thing and everything else was somehow inferior.  But, as we know with Ridgeview winning the prized Decanter award, taking it from the Champagne region for the first time, as well as multiple other awards being won in England, that is not the case.

Forgive me for keeping this simple – it’s how I think.

Champagne and English Sparkling Wine is made using the traditional method.  What this means is that the wine is fermented once in a steel tank and then again, when yeast and sugar are added in the bottle, which provides the fizz.   This gives a more ‘complex’ flavour than say Prosecco which is fermented in tanks in a shorter space of time, with more sugar. (I don’t follow much more than this as Mark talks of ‘yeast’ and I think of Marmite.)

Experiment  – this I can recommend as it involves having to drink a bottle of both Prosecco and English Sparkling wine while pretending to be carrying out research!  “Look at the bubbles in Prosecco,” says Mark, “they are larger, more uneven and don’t last as long as compared to those in the English Sparkling wine/Champagne glass” He looks up to see if I am following.  “It’s true!  I can see it,” pleased with my success.  The only problem is, the glass never stays full enough for long enough to be more exact than that.

Feeling quite pleased with my new found knowledge – more soon!

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Windbreaks and Grape Quality

We were all a bit shocked by events in Christchurch, though luckily Liz’s family are all safe.  Liz has been saying for months that they were expecting another big earthquake, but I am not sure that they expected it to be right under the city centre.

I wanted tell you about the trees we have planted because, as any walker knows, wind has a material effect on temperature.  I was reading this week that winds as low at 11-14km/h can significantly affect the temperature in a vineyard.  As I have been explaining in previous blogs, Rathfinny benefits from have a ridge of the South Downs, just to the south of us, which will shield us from the worst of the prevailing SW winds.  However, the fields are still exposed to winds blowing up and down the Rathfinny valley and up the Cuckmere valley.  So we decided we needed to plant three windbreaks on the first parcel of land destined for grapes, set 270 metres apart.  It’s a tricky business to decide where and how many to plant.  The theory is that you get a 60% reduction in wind speed at distances of up to 10 times the height of the tree.  So assuming these trees grow to 15 metres then we will get a 60% reduction in wind speeds 150 metres away.  However, you still get 10% reduction some 300m away.  And then the next line of trees has the effect of lifting the wind again over the next windbreak.

The fact is that some wind in the vineyard is good news.  Wind helps dry out the leaves and fruit after rain and so reducing humidity and disease risk.  However, wind also lowers temperatures and can close the stomata on the bottom of the leaves, which reduces photosynthesis and respiration.  It’s a balancing act.  Disturb the wind but don’t reduce it so much that we increase the risk of disease.

The Met office data we have shows that although we may experience average winds over the site of 13.6 km/h during whole the year, during the growing season, April – October, we only experience average wind speeds of 12 km/h.  The critical times are flowering in May/June and the ripening period called Veraison, from the end of July onwards.

We thought it was important to plant native trees, so we’ve gone for a mix of broadleaf species that grow well in chalky soil and exposed sites: Ash, Beech, Field Maple and Hawthorn. We resisted planting some of the faster growing varieties like Italian Alder and Eucalyptus principally because they are not native and because they don’t like chalk. Hopefully these windbreaks will help break-up the wind and increase the average temperature in the vineyard so increasing fruit quality.

We have also set up a weather station on the land and we are now collecting weather data from six different monitors at Rathfinny. If you are interested you can see the Rathfinny weather station on line at http://www.weatherlink.com/user/rathfinny/

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Dylan Inspecting the windbreak. Bless him he carried that log all over the farm!

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A windbreak running North-South, showing the slope in front of the land that protects us form the worst of the prevailing SW winds and the Cuckmere Valley to the left.

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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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“A day without Champagne is a wasted day!”

“A day without Champagne is a wasted day!” Patrice Noyelle, President Pol Roger Champagne

Apologises for the delay in posting this blog.  I feel guilty for having already broken one of the main rules of social networking I am told – post regularly, and I have a sinking feeling that before I’ve finished this one, I will have broken a few more.

I could say it’s because of Christmas and school holidays, but if I’m honest too, there are other reasons that I have delayed.  I will admit to having been a touch disgruntled. Having been woken at the crack of dawn on the 2nd January by my husband viewing small photos of blonde women wearing skin tight vests on his ipad, my mood was not enhanced as he proudly claimed them to be ‘twitterers’ responding to his Sunday Telegraph article, ‘City Slicker Hopes For Vintage Year’ with comments like ‘I like wine’ and ‘only with cheese.’  “Who cares?” I snarled covering my head with a pillow.

Too late.  Dark forces were at work.  At a Christmas party a good friend in the advertising world declared, large wine glass in hand, that he wanted our blog to show the whole story, the highs, but in particular the lows, the struggles, the arguments.  He saw my face.  “Sarah, I don’t want you to fail of course – just almost!” he added with a laugh.

Was this the sort of thing he wanted?  Grumpy, post new year’s eve reflections of a put-upon wife who not only was expected to go through CV’s, draft employment contracts, read husband’s essays, learn the intricacies of blogging but had, I realized with a hint of martyrdom, also bought every Christmas present, written every card and decorated the house while my husband swanned around the farm looking happy and having his photo taken.

No, I decided, this was not what the blog was meant to be about.  So I then spent some time trying to stay relevant to our new project but also honest and true (another rule!)  It didn’t get any better.  I realized I don’t really like blogs and never read them.  I’m not even on facebook. (Suspect I’ve just broken yet more rules!)

And then it occurred to me, I know NOTHING about wine.  Seriously.  Nothing.  I simply regard it as either nice or not, and drink rather too much of the former category.

It’s not all bad news though (I say thinking of husband when we he reads this,) I do love sparkling wine, truly.  It is my favourite drink and would be my choice every time.  Daunted in the past by its cost and availability and by the looks I felt exposed to if I dared to ask for a glass of bubbly, I love the new trend where in good bars you can now order a glass, preferably English, sip with enjoyment and regard the world not as a grumpy wife, but a co-partner of an exciting new venture.

(Do you think that’s enough to be forgiven?)

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Photo: www.davidrose.co.uk

A lovely picture of my Husband taken by David Rose for the Sunday Telegraph.

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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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Viticulture! Marvellous! What is it darling?

The largest vineyard in Europe! That’s where we’re heading now, but this time last year it wasn’t so clear. My husband had just decided with his partner at work that enough was enough in the City – too much stress, too much market volatility and it was time to stop. Aged 45.

My jaw dropped.  Was it the lack of income?  Of security? Of invites to corporate events?  No. (Well, maybe a bit on the events front!) As the words of my mother’s generation floated through my head, ‘for better, for worse, but not for lunch’ as their husbands retired, my friends confirmed my worse fears. He would know what I got up to every day; he would become ‘Chief Sneak’ in my world of women.

I set to work.  He admired a wooden bowl – I sent him on a week’s wood turning course. Carving – 1 day or 3 – I chose the latter. Cooking – we went through a phase of curries and complicated condiments on a regular basis.  Just as I was running out of ideas he came into the kitchen with one of his own.

“I’m thinking of doing a full time, 2 year course in Brighton on Viticulture,” he said. Relief coursed through my body as an encouraging smile formed on my face. “Viticulture.  Marvelous. Brilliant idea!” I said out loud as I focused on the words ‘full time, 2 years,’ and away even in ‘Brighton.’

A pause.  I stopped. “Viticulture. What exactly is that darling?”

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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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