Rathfinny Wine Estate

Sunday was my Bee-Day

One of the things we plan to have at Rathfinny are bees, of the honey variety. This has been my mini-project and, like every other new thing I try to turn my hand to, it has not exactly been plain sailing. To get going I was obviously going to need a hive so, as ever, my starting point was the internet, thinking with my usual naivety that in a couple of clicks I would be bottling honey. No chance, as first I had to choose a hive, and the materials it was made of and 3 hours later I was immersed in a world of WBC frames, supers and National Hives, modified or unmodified?? As you can imagine it was all Greek to me. I finally decide to go with a National Hive kit which included all the extras, the gloves, the hat, the smoker, the tools…the works. I could smell the honey already.

It arrives 10 days later, flat packed with no less than 100 bits of wood and a single A4 page of instructions  (why oh why did I not pay the extra £40 to have it ready assembled)? It was time to call in a few favours. So I bribed my son Phil and his mate Sam Smith with pints of lager and pointed them towards the garage armed with a screw driver, a hammer and the 100 bits of wood. A week and many pints of lager later  they emerged triumphant and the box is not in quite so mant bits and has a slight resemblance to bee hive, see below.


I was quite pleased with the finished product ( though I am a little concerned about the 20 or so left-over bits of wood)…undeterred I go off in search of bees feeling like a veritable expert having by now read at least 4 how to be a bee-keeper manuals- I can almost taste the honey at this point. I am a mine of bee facts, did you know that the queen bee goes of to a special spot with her drones and mates with 20 of them a day and the act of mating kills the bees!!

The first thing and probably most sensible thing I do is join the Eastbourne Beekeepers Association as I am told by a neighbour that you get your first bee colony from another member when he or she has a swarm. So, last Sunday,dressed in my gleaming Sunday best bee suit, I go along to one of their very interesting training days hoping to come home with a box of bees. No chance again, I am politely informed that I will have to get in the queue ….it’s TWO YEARS LONG!!!!!!! Any one got any bees? I’m just not that patient!


Beeless Liz in her Suday best bee suit

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Cover crops

About four weeks ago our local farmer, Duncan Ellis, planted out a cover crop on the fields we will be planting with vines in 2012.

I spent many weeks in the Plumpton College library reading books about cover crops and got very confused.

Essentially you plant a cover crop to protect the soil from erosion, to prevent weed growth and as a green crop to improve soil fertility, adding nutrients and improving soil structure by raising the humus level in the soil. This last point is very important to us as the soil samples we have taken indicate that, although the soil is fine for arable crops, the potassium, phosphate and magnesium levels are below the levels ideal for vines. So prior to planting our vines in spring 2012 we are trying to raise the levels of essential nutrients in the soil by direct addition of fertiliser, green waste (the council recycled stuff) and cover cropping.

I had initially planned to plant out red clover as our cover crop, however, as the soil at Rathfinny is so well draining I was advised that clover doesn’t take very well.  So I then looked common vetch, Austrian peas, rye and mustard. All cover crops that have been used in organic vineyards in California.

We have settled on mustard, principally because it will take well on the soil at Rathfinny, and despite the lack of rain since planting, it has already come up well in most areas. I was advised that peas could be susceptible to some forms of nematodes and also sclerotinia crown rot. Sclerotinia is a fungal infection, which can also affect grapevine roots. In order to lessen the risk of this infection in the peas, the advice was to plant two pea crops in succession. Which is a shame because from my research peas look to be the best returner of nitrogen, and the best biomass provider. Some of the vineyards in California have had problems with common vetch, which is also a good nitrogen and biomass producer, but it became too invasive and difficult to control. So in the end, after consulting experts from Plumpton College and Ohio State University, thank you Patti, we decided on mustard. Which, when mowed and turned into the soil in early 2012, will provide a good deal of biomass, some nitrogen and will probably reseed itself after the vines are planted out.

We may plant out some crimson clover and rye grass latter this year to add further biomass. This can be turned in prior to planting in spring 2012.

Mustard, as well as being pretty good for the soil it also looks good in a vineyard.

 A great blog about the use of mustard.


Our mustard is taking well… so are the nettles!


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Location, Location, Location

Our lecturers at Plumpton College drone on about site selection as being the most important element to consider for any vineyard site. That was highlighted last week when on the night of the 3rd/4th May, we experienced a late frost in many parts of southern England.

Late frosts are really bad news for vineyards and vines. It is like putting salad leaves into the freezer. The cold freezes the water in the plant cells killing them and leaving then shrivelled and brown. To mitigate this risk you need to choose a site on a slope, which will encourage the frost to drain away down the slope, avoid low lying areas where frost will settle, and try and get close to a river, or even a road, which helps move the frost away. Being close to the sea can help, as the sea raises the temperature of the surroundings. If you don’t have any of those then you will need to deploy “counter measures”. In New Zealand they use helicopters to force warmer air down onto the vines to disperse the frost. This sounds expensive, dangerous and could cause more damage to the vines with the down draft. Many people use small heaters which help raise the temperature, whilst other blast hot air into the vineyard from large gas fired fan heaters, or they use wind turbines to more the air around. In Martinborough in New Zealand they use water sprays to prevent frost damage.  However, the cheapest way to avoid frost damage is to select your site very carefully. Like any property purchase it’s location, location, location.

We were working at Rock Lodge vineyard last week and there was some damage to younger vines on the lower slopes but most of the vineyard was okay. I hear that some vineyards in Kent and Sussex experienced some damage but hopefully they will recover.

In Germany temperatures dipped to -5oC on the same night and according to the German Wine Institute some vineyards experienced the worst frost damage for 30 years, since back in 1981 when 90% of vines in Germany experienced frost damage.

Late frost in May is not that unusual. I remember we had a very hard frost in May 2009. Luckily Rathfinny didn’t seem to suffer from the late frost this year. The minimum temperature recorded on our weather station on the night of the 3rd / 4th was 6oC.

All we need now is a bit more rain, because the wheat is really struggling, along with the mustard we planted a few weeks ago as a cover crop, more on that later.

Frost damaged vine


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Hail Cameron!

The bunting came out a bit earlier than the 29th of April here, for the arrival of the Roucher family from New Zealand. I think I am right in saying no one was quite as excited to see them as me!

It was a very happy scene when the Roucher family, Cam, Nikki and their three beautiful children, Mat, Isobella and baby Boston walked through the arrivals hall at Heathrow. Nikki’s first words were, understandably ‘never again in one go!!!’ apparently the teething Boston had branded them as the family that no one wants to sit next to. Once we headed down to Rathfinny in the sunshine things started to improve and they are now happily ensconced in the lodge on the farm. Their furniture arrived on a container this week, it was a bit reminisce of the water tanker delivery, the delivery crew had only brought one small trolley, no off loading ramps etc and an entire household was in a container  over a meter off the ground- but they got there in the end and the house looks wonderful.

They have had nothing but warm sunshine so naturally they think they have moved to a tropical paradise and have told all their Kiwi friends and relatives how wonderful the weather is in England. I haven’t the heart to tell them the truth-we have just had the driest April for 40 years and the warmest on record.

So…this is why I am jumping for joy…Cameron has rescued me from watering 377 trees 3 times a week for starters- and without burning out the clutch on the truck in the process (sorry Mark!) As I write he is dealing with a water engineer thus saving me the embarrassment of pretending to understand what a compressor is and why it needs to have its own generator and what horse power the pump needs……honestly I have not got a clue, all I ever did was nod and try not to look puzzled.  He is also in the process of collecting the run off water from the farm buildings into tanks, I would have ordered the wrong size of everything and had them installed in the wrong place. Cameron on the other hand can talk the talk and walk the walk!

My new hero


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Prager Smargagd Achleiten Riesling

It happens rarely, but sometimes you try a new wine and you are completely and utterly bowled over by the complexity of flavours and taste. I remember this happening to me in the mid-90s, when we had a wine tasting at work and I was first introduced to Cuvée Frédéric Emile by Trimbach. I thought I was tasting an old Chardonnay or Burgundy, but it turned out to be a Riesling. The same thing happened a couple of weeks ago when we were out for dinner with an ex-colleague, and his lovely wife, at Maze in London.

We asked the sommelier to bring us something different. We gave him a budget and left him to it. He came back with a bottle of Prager Smargagd Achleiten Reisling 2006, from Wachau, Austria.

I am going to be a complete wine bore and tell you that words cannot do justice to the complexity of the flavours that bombard you when you taste this wine. It has a fantastic mineral base, lovely fruit from the Riesling grape, but it’s dry, with great length. Even Mrs Driver liked it and she doesn’t normally like Riesling, she prefers sparkling wine. It was a simply stunning wine.

I looked it up when I got home, as the sommelier was a little uncertain as to what the labeling meant. The Wachau region is the westernmost wine growing area in Austria, up towards the Czech border. It is also one of the smallest regions. Most of the vineyards are on the northern banks of the Danube and apparently the region experiences some of the widest fluctuations in temperature of any area in Austria, which might help with the development the flavour and aroma. Unlike the rest of Austria which tends to follow the German system of wine labeling, Kabinett, Spatlese etc, in the Wachau they have created their own quality rating system. We drank a Smaragd, which is the name of a emerald coloured lizard common in the area, and this rating indicates that the wine needs time to mature; they tend to be the most concentrated and alcoholic wines. Just for the record: Steinfeder, which apparently means grass on rocks, is the rating given to the lightest wines grown in the region. Federspiel, a devise to lure back a hawk in falconry, is the rating given to a wine requiring a year or two before consumption.

The owner and winemaker, Anton ‘Toni’ Bodenstein has a saying that ‘the wine must reflect the terrior”. Well all I can say is that he certainly achieved it.

As you may know we are planting out 7 acres of Riesling vines next year at Rathfinny. If I can produce a wine from our Riesling half as good as this I will be a proud and happy man.

Look out for Prager. It is truly stunning and I now see why we should be trying to make a Riesling similar in style to the Austrians at Rathfinny. If you are interested, I found it for sale at Berry Brothers at £34 a bottle (and no I’m not on commission!), not cheap but worth every penny.

Wachau Wine website http://www.vinea-wachau.at/home/en/home.php

Achlieten is the name of the vineyard were the grapes were harvested from.


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