Rathfinny Wine Estate

It’s just grape farming……

As the end of my first full season in a vineyard in England comes to a close I wonder what next year will bring for us?

News of some producers not harvesting due to the poor quality of their fruit and others not even having any fruit to make that decision, leaves the rest waiting for a break in the weather to harvest.

Difficult growing conditions have plagued the 2012 harvests across Europe, with reports of a significant drop in vineyard yield’s from Champagne to Bordeaux, even in Spain and Italy. This year’s UK harvest compounds a series of challenging weather events for farmers – including the worst drought in 50 years in the US and a heat wave in Russia which have led to warnings of rises in food prices globally. In the UK, the cool and wet weather over flowering in June and July both reduced and delayed the fruit set leading to smaller crops and delayed ripening in UK vineyards.

What the general public tend to forget is that a vineyard is just another form of farming (our tractor’s are just smaller). Like any weather dependent industries we are just as liable to good and bad years, which is part of the beauty of wine, it gives us the challenge of trying to make the best from what’s thrown at us, and looking forward to the years when it all goes as it should. It also means we have no two years the same. So here’s looking forward to next year!



The vineyard team has been working in all conditions this summer, with winter yet to come. They’ve done a great job of getting all the posts and wire in to support the vines – a mammoth task. They’ve just got a bit of general maintenance to do before we start to prepare next year’s planting, removal of fences and adding fertilizer adjustments.  As well as our normal tasks we now have to work around our contractors for the next 12 months while they build the winery (although they are great and flying along at a terrific rate) and it doesn’t make it easy having to work around diggers, dumpers and trucks to-ing and fro-ing. Soon they’ll be into the pruning, which granted won’t be for a couple of months until the vines are fully hardened off and dormant but as with everything it will be upon us before we know it.

Cameron Roucher – Vineyard Manager

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Champagne’s Harvest 2012…

This is the first year since I started in the wine industry that I am not harvesting at this time of year – I said “not harvesting”, not “not working”, I figured I should take advantage of it and take the time to go to Champagne to see how harvest is going.

Despite fears earlier during the growing season that quality might be compromised, with a lot of pressure from both oidium (powdery mildew) and mildiou (downy mildew), August turned out very nice and the vineyards in Champagne were able to catch up, with much improved quality.

Some plots will not yield much, by Champagne standards that is, with less than the authorised 11,000kg per hectare.

Unfortunately, it is predicted that the overall harvest will be about 30% less than last year.

Every year, pickers can be seen all around Epernay, but this year more than usual some are just sitting, waiting for a contractor to call them in. Sadly, for a lot of them it looks like it will just not happen.

That being said, the day I was driving down the Montagne de Reims heading to Epernay, vineyards looked crowded with pickers.

A friend of mine told me, as I was walking through his vineyard: “Look, last year, this block cropped over 10,000kg, this year I think I’ll get 5,000 to 6,000kg at best. I do not need many pickers, really”.

I was also lucky to attend the testing of a new piece of equipment at a cooperative, a robotized crate dumper. The picking crates are transferred from a pallet to a conveyor (this is also robotized), and the crates are conveyed to the opening of the press where they are automatically tipped / emptied, before being conveyed to a crate washer.

At another cooperative, it takes 2 workers about half an hour, to load an 8ton capacity press by hand. The bins are quite heavy, each is about 40kg, and so it is a very physical job.

I sometimes wonder to what extent the industry in France will automatize and try to rely less on human labour.

Some tasks will always be done by humans, because it requires the experience and anticipation that a machine does not have, but some tasks will surely be done by machines, because machines are fast, efficient and do not get tired, or grumpy, or go on strike.

Could one conceive that one-day Champagne might just even think about mechanized harvest?

Jonathan Médard – Winemaker at Rathfinny Wine Estate

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Work on the Winery starts!

After two years of planning we have finally broken ground today on England’s largest purpose built winery at Rathfinny.

Now I have to admit it has been a hard slog. Eighteen months ago we needed Queens Council legal opinion to convince the planning authority that a winery is an agricultural building. We adapted and lowered the building’s height to meet planning objections. We have surveyed for every possible creature you could imagine living on the farm; bats, badgers and reptiles, you name it we have the survey. We have reports on the archeology, ecology and the history of the buildings and £5,000 later we have now relocated two common lizards. However, today we are finally starting to dig out the foundations for the new winery at Rathfinny.

This first phase of the winery will house the grape presses and fermentation tanks and will be capable of producing over 800,000 litres of wine. The building will house a laboratory for the winery, offices and work rest areas for winery staff, as well as a tasting room for larger groups, which extends out onto a balcony with views over the vineyard.

The winery has been sunk into an existing silage clamp enabling the presses to be suspended 6 metres above ground level.  The pressed juice can therefore run into settling tanks with minimal pumping. When settled, the juice will then be pumped to fermentation tanks. We have an area, which will be used as a barrel store as we intend to barrel age a portion of our base wine.

In the first few years we will store all our sparkling wine bottles in the same building. However, by 2016 our production will have expanded and we will then build phase two of the winery, which will include; a dedicated bottling line and barrel store and further ‘on-lees’ wine storage for over 4 million bottles.

Our belief is that the best sparkling wine needs to be bottle aged for a minimum of three years. So we will be patient and leave our sparkling wine on the yeast lees to extract those lovely yeasty flavours until it is perfect to drink.

The winery has been designed to blend into the beautiful environment of the South Downs. The grass roof will be seeded with Southdown’s grassland and is crafted to complement the surrounding landscape. The building features locally sourced oak and flint. A bank of photovoltaic solar panels will be discreetly hidden behind the winery, so that the winery is energy self-sufficient. All water used by the winery will come from our own borehole and we are also building a water treatment plant hidden behind the existing grain barns to treat all wastewater generated, so we will be self-sufficient in water as well.

Martin Swatton designed our winery. He had never designed a winery before, but has worked tirelessly to produce not only a beautiful, sustainable built building, but also an extremely functional work area. He has worked with various consultants on the winery design including David Cowderoy and more recently Gerard deVilliers, from South Africa, who has incidentally designed the internal specifications of most of the wineries around Cape Town.

I’d like to thank all those who have helped us get to this stage, including: Parker Dann, our planning consultants and Buro 4 our project managers. And of course Liz, ‘run ragged,’ my assistant who has chased and hassled to get us to this stage.

I can’t wait for the first bottle – can you?

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2012 Harvest – yields down but prices very firm

Two years ago Russia announced an export ban on wheat and the price went soaring upwards. In 2011 their harvest recovered and exports where resumed. This year droughts have affected North America, Australia and Russia pushing wheat prices up towards new all time highs, and although the UK, on a global scale, is not a major producer and a net importer, overall our yields here have been poor this year as well.

We played the weather lottery again this summer at Rathfinny, and after the warm dry spring we thought we’d have the same problem as last year, a drought that severely affected our yields of wheat, barley and rapeseed. Instead of the feared for drought, the UK had the wettest, coldest, April to June period on record. Similar to grapevines, wheat and barley don’t like the cold, or too much rain, and several farms in the southeast got flooded.

However, despite a broken combine-harvester, all the harvesting has now been completed on the wheat, barley and rapeseed we have growing on the other 400 acres at Rathfinny not under vines. So how did we get on?

Rapeseed yields were similar to last year, a low 1.3-1.5 tons per acre. It looked really good in flower in May and June but, largely due to the cold June weather, the berry size is small hence the low yield.

Barley yields were low, slightly better than last year’s but still a poor 2.2 tons per acre, and better on the upper slopes than lower ones.

Wheat yields were generally good, 3.7-4.2 tons per acre compared to 2.2 tons last year. Bizarrely, the poorer soils yielded better results?

So how are grain prices this year? Well despite Russia’s poor harvest they still plan to export 35-40million tons but, strong global demand and poor yields elsewhere has pushed the wheat price towards new all time highs and it seems likely that, despite the US Department of Agriculture’s attempts to reassure the market that they have sufficient stocks and we shouldn’t panic, prices seem set to reach new highs.

Now this is unlikely to affect the consumer in the UK where, the price of bread is so little to do with the wheat price and more to do with packaging, distribution costs, marketing, and retail margins. However, the big bread producers have already warned that prices will have to rise.

The biggest impact will be felt in the emerging world, where grain is an increasingly important part of the diet. This sort of increase in price will be immediately passed onto a consumer who is already struggling with higher energy prices.

So some good news for farmers struggling with low wheat yields, poor news for the consumer.

On a brighter note we are about the start work on the winery building. Pictures to follow soon.


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New Rathfinny Estate Website launched… check it out

I’m currently sitting in Cornwall in a howling gale with horizontal rain and we have had to turn the heating on. However, I can report that recently the weather at Rathfinny has been glorious and the vines are coming on very well.

A couple of panoramic pictures showing the area we planted under vines this year. The area to the left (the west) currently under mustard will be planted next year.

However, the main point of this blog is to launch our new website. It now has a few more bells and whistles under ‘Vision’ showing the location, soils, climate and vineyard planting map.

It has all the old stuff like a link to the latest ‘Newsletter’ and we still carry all the latest ‘News’ about Rathfinny and the English wine industry and a link to the latest weather at Rathfinny under ‘Contacts’.

Check it out….  http://www.rathfinnyestate.com/

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A poor year for English grapes?

We are all putting on brave faces this year but we have to admit that so far it has been a horrible year for English grapes.

Just to recap – After a very warm, dry March (the third warmest on record), we had the coldest (for 23 years) and wettest April on record. May was cold then very warm so was average overall, but better in the north than the south. June turned out to be the wettest dullest month on record. June is a key month for grape growers, the vines normally flower in June but with 145mm of rain, which is twice the normal average, any flowers would have been washed off and it was cold and windy as well. So April – June 2012 turned out to be the wettest period since records began in 1910.

Hosepipe bans were abandoned as reservoirs were replenished and July wasn’t much better. As temperatures dipped and the heating was turned on people were asking whether we would ever have a summer. Luckily, the end of July and early August has turned out to be a little warmer.

So this year has not followed the trend of recent years for hotter and hotter English summers. However, as my kids always point out ‘it’s not global warming but climate change, Dad.’ And the statistics back that up.

Did you know that in June 2012 the average surface temperatures in the northern hemisphere hit an all-time high, 1.3°C above average!

What’s more globally the average land surface temperature for June 2012 was also the all-time highest on record, at 1.07°C above average. The global average surface temperature for January–June 2012 was the 11th warmest on record, at 0.52°C above the 20th century average.

The trouble is that whilst Austria basked in record 37.7°C heat and experienced its warmest June since records began 250 years ago, the average UK temperature was 0.3°C (0.5°F) below the 1971–2000 average, making this the coolest June since 1991.

You won’t have to tell the Americans this. July 2012 was the hottest July in north America since their records began. And the Greenland ice sheet melted at such an alarming pace that scientists couldn’t believe the data.

According to the NOAA what they call an ‘anomaly’ has not just affected Great Britain but the whole of northern Europe. Norway had one of the coldest Junes on record and northern France was also suffered.


At Rathfinny the biggest problem has been the wind. You normally get the odd summer storm, which whistles up the English Channel. Remember the Fastnet yacht races, which were devastated in 1979 and 2007? This year we had several storms and the winds seem to have been unrelenting. This is not great news for young vines, which stop growing when the wind picks-up. We planted trees as wind breaks in 2010 but they are still too immature to have any effect.

So our vines are still growing and are doing okay but should be a lot bigger. However, I feel sorry for other more established English vineyards that are likely to have very poor year and low crop yields. Of course we could all be saved by a scorching August and September. But the message is to look to the long term, the UK is still a beneficiary of ‘climate change’ and it is likely that next year will follow the trend of the last twenty years and be another scorcher.

In the meantime with a lot of hard work led by Cameron, David, Felix and Ian the trellising work is now nearly complete. We have a vineyard…

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