You have to be an optimist to plant vines in England. After one of the wettest years on record, we had a long cold winter followed by the coldest March since 1962, and it is currently snowing!
My optimism is certainly being tested, but I read that the jet stream appears to be changing direction and heading north again, which should herald warmer, but perhaps wetter weather from the southwest next week. Let’s hope that this is the spring arriving, at last.
So we initially thought about delaying the vine planting, but in the end we brought it forward by a couple of days and started on 31st March (last Sunday). Volker and his crew drove over from Germany in his Unimog with the planting machine on the back and arrived on Saturday evening ready for an early start on Sunday. Cameron and the vineyard team came in over Easter and off they went. So far they have managed to plant nearly 12,000 vines per day so we hope to be finished by Sunday 7th April.
This year we are planting 85,000 vines – mainly Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier, which will be the principle grapes used as the base wine for the Rathfinny Sparkling. However, we have also planted smaller quantities of Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Auxerrois, which may be used in the blend of our Fizz as they add different fruit characteristics.
Although it is very cold, it was dry and in fact perfect planting conditions, until, it snowed on Wednesday night! However, the team started again at 6am on Thursday and, as I write this blog, they are planting through an inch of snow.
As well as the vine planting, the roof of the Winery was completed this week. We held a ‘topping out’ ceremony, celebrating the fact that the building is now watertight and the grass roof is being laid.
The turf (in the photo above) was only used for show. The real grass arrived in a roll of what looked like felt, pre-seeded with a special mix of South Downs grassland to mirror the grasses and wild flowers of the surrounding countryside. It is going to look spectacular and we have to thank Martin Swatton our designer who came up with whole concept. So despite my vertigo we all climbed up onto the roof and toasted the project with a glass or two of English Fizz.
We are also pressing ahead with the work on the Flint Barns, which are being converted into seasonal workers’ accommodation. We wrote about this recently on the blog and also in the Spring Newsletter which is now available on the website – http://www.rathfinnyestate.com/newsletter/
Scaffolding went up last week to protect the walls whilst the foundations are underpinned or should I say established, as they have no foundations to talk of. We hope to start the main building work in May.
We have also laid a new track to the Flint Barns replacing the rutted track that existed. And whilst planting the vines we set out a small trial block of four different clones of Chardonnay to be used by Plumpton College students.
So yet another busy week at Rathfinny…
Can you believe that this time last year it was 23C and the environment agency imposed a hosepipe ban? Luckily we are delighted to say that we can now walk through the new winery building without being drenched!
Progress has been spectacular lately: the entire roof is now officially on.
As I write, the concrete slabs are being poured on the office and laboratory level, and on the tasting room level the slab is down already.
Casts are visible where the reinforced concrete will be poured around the openings to support the presses.
So as of today, if you walk inside the winery, you can finally see the three different levels and really measure the working spaces available.
We are still on track for completion by mid-August, and by then the tanks, one press, wiring, piping etc should all be in.
On a side note, we visited Italy last week to look at bottling equipment which was very informative, we learned (even) more about bottling lines and even had time to visit the Negro winery in Monteu Roero, and taste both still and sparkling Nebbiolo wines. If you travel in the Piedmont area, do go and meet the Negro family in the Roero hills, feel the warm Italian hospitality and taste some great wines.
Now I suppose we just have to keep praying for a better growing season than last year. I’m looking forward to experiencing that ‘English Summer’.
Jonathan Médard – Winemaker
After over a year of consultation and discussions with the South Downs National Park planning authority and a year of discussions with Wealden District Council before that, late last year (2012) we finally got planning permission to redevelop the old Rathfinny Flint Barns into a 46 bed hostel for seasonal workers.
Whilst Rathfinny has the most stunning location on the South Downs, with beautiful views down the Cuckmere valley, it is rather remote. Whilst the old hop and apple lands of Kent, and the market garden areas of West Sussex and Hampshire have a a willing band of seasonal workers to call on to help out during harvest and winter pruning, we are nearly an hour and a half from these pools of labour. So we realised very early on that we would need to build accomodation to house seasonal workers at Rathfinny, especially as there is very little reasonably priced accomodation near by.
The Flint Barns, whose roof was blown off by the storm of 1987, seemed like the natural solution to our problem and thankfully the SDNP planning authority agreed. We are starting work on Monday to underpin the walls, which have NO foundations, and then in May we hope the main building work will start, creating what will be a fantastic new facility not just for us but within the South Downs.
The new building will have a total of twelve bedrooms, many with bunks, with on-suite shower rooms to accomodate 46 people. In the new extension to the West we are adding a large dining area, cloakrooms, boot rooms, laundry and drying rooms. On the ground floor of the old Barn there will be a large recreational area with a wood burning stove for the winter months, because we will need to house seasonal workers to help us prune the vines during January and February, as well during the harvest in September and October.
When the Flint Barns are notbeing used by Rathfinny staff we will be letting them out to school groups who want to study the geography and history of the local area, as well as to walking and and other special interest groups.
We are also establishing a new trail which will open up the lower part of Cradle Valley and give access to the Flint Barns by foot. We hope to be able to offer walkers cream teas and refreshments and eventually a glass of Rathfinny Fizz.
So here is the deal if you want seasonal work at Rathfinny Wine Estate:
- We will need a minimum of 46 people per day from 2014 onwards to help us at harvest time – late September and October.
- We will house you and feed you.
- We will even pay you!!
- We will need you to commit to a minimum of a week.
- We will ask you to work hard and pick tonnes of grapes.
- But you will have a lot of fun whilst doing it…
So if you know any fit, strong students who want to earn some money before going on a gap year, or you just want to get away from the rat race for a week and go on a paid working holiday, then think about Rathfinny.
Now Cameron (our Vineyard Manager) doesn’t beleive that we can find fifty people a day who will be willing to work hard (and it is hard work picking grapes) however, I’m more optimistic and think we British will prove him wrong!
So pass it on, tell your friends and family that in 2014 there will be work at Rathfinny and you will have a lot of fun whilst doing it!! Guaranteed….
Just prior to Christmas on what was a dark day for All Blacks rugby, Mark and I sat down and estimated how long it would take us to prune the vineyard.
The less said about the rugby the better, but it turned out to be an incredibly accurate estimation of pruning. 5 weeks is what we thought, that’s allowing for plenty of rain days. Well we finished pruning the vineyard in 4 and ½ weeks- not too bad!
Finally I am able to say we’ve actually finished something! It seems we’re always nearly… or about to… or going to…
Since then the vineyard wires have been repositioned ready for this years growth, and the guys have been clearing scrub on our HLS land prior to the end of February cut-off for scrub clearance due to the bird-nesting season. This area of the farm is where the ponies were earlier in the winter and is where we are trying to re-establish chalk grassland from a largely overgrown grass sward interspersed with those lovely thorny plants blackthorn, hawthorn, gorse and brambles- it makes clearing not the most favourite job on site.
We’ve also welcomed a new permanent team member in the vineyard Rick Burrows, who started toward the end of the month. Welcome aboard.
If you are going to all the trouble of collecting your household potato peelings or garden waste to put it in a ‘green waste’ recycling bin, why put plastic in with it? It’s like putting a brown bottle in a white bottle-recycling bin! Putting plastic, even plastic bags, in with your ‘green waste’ makes it completely useless to people like us who could use hundreds of tons of this composted green waste on our vines each year.
We have been trying to source of good quality, plastic free compost to go on the vines from local composting companies. These companies collect and compost down household green waste, but sadly it is proving very difficult to find plastic free compost.
When it is chopped up into a fine ‘soil conditioner’ and filtered the composting company can remove the majority of the plastic. However, by then the compost is so fine, that unless it is dug in, it will either get washed away or just blow around the vineyard.
So here is the deal. Tell your neighbours, tell your friends… Tweet it on.
DON’T PUT PLASTIC IN YOUR GREEN WASTE
Otherwise, we will end up looking like Champagne vineyards that misguidedly used Parisian rubbish in their vineyards in the 1980’s & 90’s and they still have bits of plastic sticking out of the soil now.
If like us you collect food peelings and the like you can buy liners for your food waste bins from most supermarkets or on-line. They are made of cornstarch so they breakdown very easily and compost away. Unlike plastic bags!!!
Thank you – Rant over.
Got the message?
I felt uninspired when I was reminded that I had to post on the blog this week.
My wife kindly told me that I should talk about what I do—or, what I would be doing—if the winery was up and running.
As Mark and I are scheduling a trip to Italy in March to go and visit a bottling-line manufacturing plant, it reminds me of the many stressful days and restless nights I had when I first started bottling over a decade ago. (Yikes, that makes me sound old!)
Bottling is easy, right? After all, a bottling line is just a big piece of equipment that, after proper set up, runs by itself. Well, that’s what it SHOULD be.
I started bottling on older equipment, where each machine was a mechanism that had to be set up independently, and also synchronised with all other machines, so the entire line would be able to run efficiently and smoothly.
Human labour was pretty intense: filling the conveyor with bottles, insuring that machines were always loaded so they would never run out of corks, bidules, crown caps, foils, and labels. Finally, transferring the finished product into cases. Any problem—even so much as a wrinkled label or one improperly-inserted cork—would most likely end up stopping the line, requiring restarting it, which felt like a waste of time. This used to be my nightmare. My reality.
The last bottling line I used was a “monobloc”, where all units are built in a single large unit, already synchronised, and the only adjustments were about shape and size of the bottles. It still required the same amount of human labour, but this was much easier to run, and it did not give me as much trouble, just a bit from time to time.
Bottling season is always a very stressful time for me. From making sure that it is a sterile environment, to making sure that it runs continuously and fast enough, and ensuring constant quality of the delivered product. As bottling is an addition of many different steps, there are lots of parameters to control, and it can get overwhelming at times.
And of course, when one thing goes wrong, it usually creates a chain of reactions on the entire line. Translate: late day.
Bottling is a fast paced process that really needs constant attention.
Bottling still wines is usually done in one session, from filling to packaging.
Bottling sparkling wines is a multi-step process: filling/crown capping the bottles for second fermentation, then disgorging, and finally packaging.
I do remember, in my early years (but after all, wine keeps me young), hearing the bottling line in my sleep, the perpetual clinging of the bottles bumping into each other, and dreaming that the line was having problem after problem… and me trying to fix them.
It takes time to get used to a bottling line, to “master” it. It is funny how eventually in such a noisy environment (earplugs mandatory!) any change in the surrounding noises indicates a problem or a fault, and how you do not even have to look at the line because you already now what the issue is. A simple grinding noise, a vibration, or even a subtle change in bottle-clinking. These are the moments when you know that you finally have it all under control.
Domination over the machine is a very nice feeling indeed.
Jonathan Médard – Winemaker
The week before last I was invited up to Liverpool to talk at a dinner held by a group who call themselves the LADS, the Lancashire Agricultural Discussion Society. I thought they’d want to hear about why I’m transforming Rathfinny from an arable farm into a vineyard, when wheat prices are hitting new highs. In fact many of them wanted to hear about hedge funds and how they work.
My memory of Lancashire when I attended Lancaster University, in the early 80’s, was that it rained everyday and the rain was mostly horizontal! So it came as no surprise to hear that it had been pretty wet up there in 2012. After the dinner several of the guys approached me and we talked about the weather, as you do. One farmer told me how in 2012, he had had 1498mm (59 inches) of rain, another had experienced 1422mm (56 inches). Not wishing to sound like a weather bore, it was very interesting and made me look at our weather data when I got back.
We had 940mm (37 inches) of rain at Rathfinny in 2012, which is about 17.5% above the average for the past sixty years but 50% more the rainfall than we had in 2011! However, according to the Eastbourne weather data it is not a record or even close. In 2000 and 2002 Eastbourne, which is only 6miles away, recorded 1062mm and 1028mm of rain and in 1960 they had 1178mm of rain.
So what about temperatures? This is when it becomes interesting. The average annual temperature at Rathfinny in 2012 was 11.3C which, although lower than the record set in 2011 of 12.3C, was still above the average of 10.8C for the past sixty years. The trouble was that whilst we had a very very hot March, the key growing months of June, July, September and even October were very cool.
So whilst Cameron and his team are carefully pruning the vines and they rest under a blanket of snow, we are left to think ahead to 2013 and hope that we have a more normal weather year, hoepfully following the warming trend set over the last twenty years, and I promise that this year I won’t pray for rain!!
By the way vines survive under snow and frost. It’s only in extremely harsh winters, like those experienced in Canada, that you have to protect them. The picture above is of Champagne.
Weather bores, like me, can consult the Met office website…
Great excitement this week – the glue laminated wooden beams which will form the roof of the Winery arrived this week and despite the snow on the ground they started to put them in place.