Rathfinny Wine Estate

Am I the only one praying for rain?

Last year my eldest son worked as a court coverer at Wimbledon. You know the guys, and they are mainly guys, who drag the covers over the courts at the slightest speck of rain. He has managed to wangle himself back again this year and because the Olympic tennis tournament is being held at Wimbledon he will be working for the whole of June, July and most of August. The court coverers would pray for the threat of rain, they would be on alert and would have to sit at the back of the court just in case their services were needed. It’s a tough job watching tennis! When no rain was forecast his job was less glamorous. They were on clean up duty or he would have to hold an umbrella to provide shade for the tennis players during breaks in play. Wouldn’t you pray for rain, or at least the threat of it?

I feel like a court coverer at Wimbledon. We have completed all our preparation for our first vine planting at Rathfinny. We have carefully prepared the soil, adding fertilisers and turning in the mustard cover crop that we planted to raise the humus levels. We have planted over 2500 trees as wind breaks. We have bought all our vineyard equipment, tractors and trailers, post bashers and wire dispensers. We have even taken delivery of 18,000 trellising posts and the 27,000km of wire we will need to layout after planting, enough to take us half way round the world.

The vines arrive tomorrow. The planting machine will be here on Sunday 25th March ready to start planting on the Monday. The sense of excitement is building. All the preparation has been done. It all starts for real in just three days time. Except for one thing. One crucial thing is missing. Water. We need rain and ideally 10mm per week for the next 40 weeks!

I’m not a religious person, my Catholic mother did enough praying to last us all a lifetime. However, perhaps I should be. Or at least I should learn a rain dance, because if we don’t get rain this spring and early summer those vines, which have been given such a wonderful start and opportunity in life, will really struggle.

Over the last 20 years we have averaged nearly 800mm of rain a year at Rathfinny. However, last year we had only 600mm and 150mm of that fell in December! Overall it was a very dry autumn and winter. So we are facing a drought in southeast England and hosepipe bans.

One thing you learn when investing is that when a story is on the front page it is already “old” news, and the issue has peaked. I am hoping that the stories in the papers two weeks ago threatening hosepipe bans are a good sign. I am hoping Cameron (our vineyard manager) is right and we will get 10mm per week for the rest of the year. I just hope April showers turn into a normal English summer -warm and wet.

So am I worried? I’ve cracked and I’m learning a rain dance….

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A view of the first area at Rathfinny to be planted next week.

Just for the record in 2011:

Eastbourne Weather data – (just 6 miles from Rathfinny)

Eastbourne recorded an average temperature of 12.3°C in 2011 (compared to the long term average of 10.5°C), which is thought to be the highest annual average on record. The previous highest in recent years was 12.2°C in 2006 and 12.1 in 2002 and 1990.

Apart from April when temperatures were unusually warm (average temperature 13.2°C compared with the long term average of 8.7°C) the year was not exceptionally warm however average maximum and minimum temperatures were slightly above average in May, June, October, November and December which probably accounts for the high overall average temperature.

Up until the end of November, the total rainfall was exceptionally low (436mm) however above average rainfall in December brought the annual total to 630.3mm which is nevertheless still low compared to the long term average of 795mm. Despite this, there were higher than average rain-days, 175 compared with long term average of 161.

The total annual sunshine was 1950 hours compared to a long term average of 1828 hours and April had 273.9 hours compared with a long term average of 181 hours; this was just short of the all time record of 274.3 hours in 1893.

Eastbourne remained the sunniest place in the UK in 2011.

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A closer view of the area to be planted next week.

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Countdown to planting – 1 week to go

“I drink champagne when I’m happy and when I’m sad.  Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory.  I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it – unless I’m thirsty.

Madame Bollinger, quoted in the Daily Telegraph.

Here’s a scary thought.  Although most Champagne houses were established by mad men, they end up being run by their spouses!  Bollinger, Verve Clicquot and Pommery to name but a few.  Watch out!

I am sneaking in a quick blog before next week’s planting and all the experts take over with talk about vines and temperatures and GPS planting – watch this space!

In anticipation of this great event, we have had our pictures taken.  This involved Liz and I waking at 6am to decide whether we were going ‘country’ or ‘executive’ – suffice it to say, we look neither!  A lovely photographer, Ben (female) arrived to be toId by me that “I hate my photo being taken and I’m really un-photogenic.”  Everyone says that, she answered with a laugh.  An hour or so later, she was trying to remain enthusiastic.  “Would you like to borrow my lipstick?” she asked.  “Really? That bad?”  She grimaced.  “Don’t you do make up?” she enquired, to which I informed her that, for me, I had so much make-up on that Mark had looked slightly twitchy when I appeared first thing in the morning.  Anyway, Ben has promised that I will look gorgeous and about 23, so I’m feeling very relaxed about the results – not!

It has been a succession of contracts and quotes over the past few weeks, with our main quote to all our consultants reiterating that we will not be earning anything until at least 2016 and so can they take the pain with us.  Not a desperately compelling argument, but one which most (I am happy to say) seem to accept, mainly it seems because of the sheer excitement and enthusiasm wine seems to evoke.  (At this point, I thank them all from the bottom of my heart, if not my purse, and promise that when we are seeing the profits of our work, they too, will see them flow their way.)

Promised a trip to South Africa, shallow as I am, the thought of a holiday in the sun with a book by a pool, ensured that I immediately became suddenly keen on the whole wine business.  It was not to be that quiet, relaxing trip of self indulgence.  I have to say though, I had the most fantastic time, despite inspecting 15 different wineries and I mean, really inspecting down to the drainage system, the benefits of different types of tanks and I can even tell you what the different stages of treating waste water are.  I have our charming and ever patient consultant, Gerard De Villiers (don’t even think of building a winery without asking this man!) to thank.

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Mark and Gerard inspecting waste water treatment at Hidden Valley

We were completely bowled over by the generosity of the wine people over there.  In particular, Louis Strydom, winemaker from Ernie Els (my favourite tasting experience), Cathy Grier Brewer from Villiera who supply M&S, Morne Very the wine maker at the exquisite Delaire Graff Estate and Pieter Ferreira at Graham Beck who graciously gave us two hours of his time after a sleepless night on a busy, picking day. Thank you all.

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The view from Ernie Els Winery

Wine – How Hard Can It Be?

I have decided to do a simple section every so often on my learning experience.  As the TV says, for those of you who know even a bit about wine, turn away from the screen now.  I am a complete beginner, so this will not be for you and will only be humiliating for me!

Here’s what I’ve learnt so far from my first experience of tasting wine, in South Africa.

  • There are many different grapes which give wines their different tastes. (I told you I knew nothing!)
  • Often, these different grapes are mixed together in different amounts – blended.
  • Chardonnay – I like this and learnt to recognise that it has a ‘smoky’ flavour, brought about by being aged (stored) in barrels of oak.
  • Oak – US oak gives vanilla flavours, French oak gives a different flavour, but I can’t remember what!  (I heard someone say this, but Mark says it’s completely wrong!  He says American oak grows more quickly and therefore the grain gives a more pronounced flavour, whilst French oak tends to have ‘tighter’ grains and is therefore more subtle. Confused?!
  • Sauvignon Blanc – I didn’t like it, describing it rather proudly as having a ‘vinegar taste,’ – which didn’t go down terribly well with the lady serving it!

Right.  Time to stop.  I’m feeling incredibly excited but also nervous about the next few weeks. Having vines growing in the ground will make this project so much more real and will be a daily reminder of the changes we have undertaken in our lives.

Sarah

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Our winemaker has arrived….

I am delighted to announce that our winemaker, Jonathan Médard has arrived with his wife Lisa and lovely dog Brix.

Hailing from Epernay in the heart of Champagne, Winemaker Jonathan Médard brings a wealth of international experience to Rathfinny Estate. Upon receiving a degree in biochemistry and a master’s in Oenology (Université de Reims), he trained in wineries of the likes of Chateau Mouton Rothschild, Champagne Louis Roederer, Moët & Chandon, and Champagne Boizel prior to honing his expertise in California and Virginia at Newton Vineyard and Kluge Estate, respectively. An alum of the University of California at Davis’ Wine Executive program and fluent in three languages, Jonathan was most recently Vice President of Winemaking for up and coming Central Coast California winery, Conway Family Wines. He is excited to return to his sparkling roots with Rathfinny.

Jonathan will oversee the building of the winery and be choosing the equipment needed to make our sparkling wine.

With planting just four weeks away everything is getting very exciting at Rathfinny.

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Jonathan & Lisa Médard and Brix

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A Wine Bore – After Only One Week!

Picture the scene.  I am guiltily leaving a school ‘do’ early, hurrying through the melting snow to meet Fran (my oldest friend) in a pub.  Behind I have left other ‘better’ parents mingling and discussing their child’s progress as I clutch my phone and ring ahead to get an order in.

“What do you want?” says Fran.

“Mmm, can’t decide … wine or perhaps a G&T?”

“We’re drinking white,” she says.

“Mmm,” and it’s here I start to lose it.  “What grape?” I ask.

“What what???” comes the bewildered reply.  Fran and I have been friends for over 40 years.  That means we’ve been friends since primary school.  We grew up together.  We drank our way through our teens – white wine, red wine, Dubonnet lemonade (remember that?), Kahlua, home-made egg nog (don’t ask!), rum and coke (who drinks that anymore?), San Miguel beer (we grew up in Hong Kong) but never, and I mean never, have we asked “what grape?”

“It says Cote du Rhone on the bottle,” she says trying to be helpful.  That throws me.

“I haven’t heard of that grape,” I say.  (You will now get a sense of how much I have to learn!)  By this time I am at the pub and can sample the wine on offer.

I sip, breathe air in slightly (proud that I can now do this without choking or spitting everywhere), dip the tip of my tongue behind my teeth, dribble a bit and declare, “I don’t like it.”  Fran is looking incredulous.  Is it the dribble or the fact that I don’t like what’s on offer?  I ask for red, swirl it around and declare it has ‘legs’.

“What?” she says and I detect a hint of grumpiness.

“Yes” I say with an air of confidence – “if you swirl a glass and see dribbly lines on the inside, that’s ‘legs’ and it means the alcohol content is high.  13.5% in fact.”  Now she looks a tad impressed so I don’t let on I’ve read the label.

By the time I start discussing the ‘tannins’ Fran has had enough.  She casts a teenager stare across the table.  “G.O.Y” she says and I detect a sneer.  But, ever the optimist, I interpret this as “Good On You” for my efforts.

“Get Over Yourself” she hurls, filling her glass and I’m sure she’s mixed the wines. Worryingly as the evening progresses, I dip back to the white wine and with each successive sip I declare I like it more and more.  I’m not sure that’s the way this wine appreciation business is supposed to work.  By the end of the evening all the red and white has gone and Fran is asking for a glass more.

“More of the same?” ventures the waitress who has insisted on clean glasses for each colour of wine.

“Oh no,” says Fran.  “A glass of house will do us.”

We are back on familiar territory!

I have clearly spent too much time with my husband (wine bore!) in South Africa.

To be continued …..

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Sarah & Fran at Glastonbury 2010

PS. Many thanks to all my close friends who have read my blog and pushed my ‘hits’ way above my husband’s!  Who says I’m not competitive?

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A quick trip to Cape Town, South Africa…

It’s reading week at Plumpton College and I persuaded Sarah that now we have the planning permission to build our winery at Rathfinny, we should really go and spend a few days looking at wineries in South Africa.  She was keen!

However, when I explained that I principally wanted to go and look at wastewater treatment plants, tank spacing, pressing floors, floor drainage and cooling systems, you can imagine the response! She told me flatly that I was welcome to do that she on the other hand wanted to look at the tasting rooms and would be happy sipping fizz and reading a book in the sun.

Harvest had just started in Stellenbosch when we arrived last week. So it was a fantastic week to be touring wineries.

We were lucky enough to be shown around by Gerard de Villiers.  Gerard, as well as owning his own vineyard Kleinood, where he produces a very good wine in the Côte-Rôtie style calledTamboerskloof, a co-fermented blend of Syrah and Viognier, (really worth hunting out) has also had a hand in designing many of the wineries in the western cape, as well as in California and more recently the UK. This meant he could get us back stage to meet and chat to many of the wine makers.

Whilst Sarah took pictures of the soft furnishings in the exquisite tasting rooms and sumptuous restaurants, I inspected the charcoal filters in the water purification systems and pressing floor coverings of some of Western Cape’s best-known wineries.

We also tasted some of the most wonderful wine and some very disappointing stuff as well.

On the positive side, I really recommend the Ernie Els wines, he has a fantastic piece of land, beautiful north facing slopes and the best tasting room set-up out of the fifteen that we visited. His ‘Proprietors Blend’ is delicious as is his Syrah. The Delaire Graff Estate is a relative newcomer to Stellenbosch but the winery is beautifully designed, Morne Vrey the winemaker, uses an inert air press for his Sauvignon Blanc and you can really taste the difference. We really liked the ‘Coastal Cuvee’, which is a blend of Sauvignon Blanc with a little oak aged Semillon.  Rust En Verde is a beautiful place, they produce a really nice simple winemakers lunch, a steak/chips and salad and the wine is good to.

A lot of the South African fizz can be a bit plump and smell a little like old apple pie. However, we visited several very good Methode Cap Classique (MCC -South African Sparkling Wine) producers. The Villiera, Monro Brut 2006 was lovely, a complex fizz with lots of yeasty, toasty notes, fruity but dry.  A really well made wine.

We also drove over to Robertson and visited the Graham Beck winery. Pieter Ferreira makes their Fizz and was very generous with his time, especially as they were mid-harvest and their cooling system had broken so he had been up most of the night. Their vintage wines are really very good and the non-vintage is crisp, dry and fruity.

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We got back to England in the grip of an arctic winter. Our mustard is looking very sad, I hope it recovers. Our winemaker arrives this week to help oversee the building of the Winery. More on that soon….

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