Rathfinny Wine Estate

“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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