Rathfinny Wine Estate

Things Environmental

Lots of things happening up at Rathfinny, hence the slow blogging. Much to report on the planning and building front but I will leave that to Mark- I’m not diplomatic enough…in a nutshell we are making headway, but, in the words of our farm agent Andy Samuels, what starts off as a journey  turns into a crusade when dealing with planning. I just can’t understand why anyone would want to make a project as exciting, beautiful and sustainable as ours difficult. I think I’d better stop there before I start ranting- or worse, put my un-politically correct foot in it.

A lot of my time has been spent on things environmental. We have now started the restoration on the headland  and brought the farm into Entry Level Stewardship (ELS) with Natural England with the Higher Level (HLS) to follow.

Any watchers of Country File this Sunday would have heard about some of the ways an arable farm can increase it’s biodiversity without compromising the viability of the farm. We are doing simple things like not trimming hedgerows and mowing the field margins every year thus allowing wildlife to be left undisturbed and food sources for them to grow. As well as that we are leaving the field stubble in the ground till spring instead of ploughing it back into the earth. This provides shelter and peace for ground nesting birds over winter .

I have talked  about the bank before it is the 12 hectares that we will leave unfarmed but managed in a way so that the chalk grassland regenerates. The South Downs National Park Rangers and volunteers have been busy clearing the scrub so that the sun can get to the grass – it’s a big job – I would be tempted to just put a bulldozer through it but that compromises the wild life so it’s not a goer and it is going to be done by hand!

Staying on the subject of things environmental I have had my last dealings with the bees until next spring **audible sigh of relief **– they have been treated for Veroa Mite, which involved me putting an ‘eke’ in the hive – that’s a spacer for the uninitiated and a tablet of something to kill the Veroa – they’re a nasty mini bug that lives on Bees. I’m also on the look out for killer hornets- that’s an unwanted French contribution to our eco-system. Though good luck to anything which has a go at invading that hive- it’s already successfully fended off Cameron, the dog and me on more than one occasion.


Tough work!

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Vines in the Nursery

Cameron and I spent the week before last travelling across Europe looking at vines in nurseries for planting in 2013. The first stop was the Kimmig-Schwarz Nursery nears Worms in Germany, where with some trepidation, we went to look at the vines we had ordered in November 2010 for planting in April 2012.

We had ordered 72,000 vines, a mixture of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier, Riesling and Pinot Gris. All grafted onto Fercal rootstock, which is very resistant to high calcium levels, which are prevalent in the chalky soils of the Southdown’s. They are tall stemmed or high grafted vines and they look fantastic.


Vines In the Nursery.

Although the nursery was affected by the late frost in early May 2011 our vines were not and they are looking so healthy. However, the real bonus for us was to see how well high-grafted vines do, both in the nursery and in the early years. I really feel that these high stemmed vines will not only be able to keep the buds away from rabbits, but because the vine will reach the fruiting wire on the trellis in year one, we will get a crop in year two.


One year old Vines – Planted March 2011

We visited one nearby vineyard to see their two-year-old vines. They had recently been machine harvested and appeared to have had 10-12 bunches per vine. This could be 1.5-2kg of fruit per vine.


Two year old Vines – Planted March 2010

We then headed off to visit two further nurseries in France. Unfortunately, we had written down the wrong address for the second nursery, so eleven hours later we arrived in Vix, near La Rochelle. However, it was worth the trip, we had a very interesting day meeting the head of research at Mercier and looking at high grafted vines in their nurserys. We have decided to try a few new clones for our second year planting.

On the way back we dropped in to visit the Laurent Perrier winery in Epernay. They had already harvested but it was really good to look at the vineyard equipment and the vineyards. We were also shown evidence of Esca in some of the vineyards in Champagne. This is a vine disease which is becoming more prevalent in different parts of Europe, particularly France and Spain and is a concern for English Vineyards at the moment.


Esca in a Vineyard in Champagne

We also found some very good equipment in Germany that we will be buying for the vineyard, more on that later.

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Tales From a Bad Bee-keeper

Autumn is definitely here at Rathfinny. The harvesters and balers have been busy and the farm is cropped and planted out for winter. It is fascinating to watch the combined harvester swallow up the crops and spit out a torrent of grain and bale after bale of straw. It’s like hoovering for famers except the hoover  has an eight foot ladder to get inside it and is the size of a small yellow building. Only one field remains un-cropped and that is our mustard field which is the nitrogen fixing crop planted where our vines are going to be  next year- that will be turned back into the soil.  Crops are now planted for the winter and spring over the rest of the farm so things are relatively quiet for a change.


But bees are rarely quiet and I have now officially become a bee-keeper and I have to confess I haven’t exactly got off to the best start. I was of course thrilled when Bob Hamblyn (also an avid bee-keeper) who I met at a South East Viticulturalist Association function, put me in touch with Tony Rose. He sold me, what is know in the bee trade as a …5 framed Nuke.. Basically five frames of comb and thousands of bees get transferred from his hive to mine..in a box in the boot of the car.  Bob and his wife  Pat very kindly came over to check I was set up correctly for their arrival and walk their dog. Suffice to say 5 hours, 3 dog walks and 2 trips to B&Q later and I was. Kits are complicated at the best of times but bee hive kits are beyond the comprehension of the average engineering student so I thought 5 hours of rebuilding wasn’t that bad really.

Long story short we did manage to get the hive set up in the far corner of Cameron and Nikki’s garden and, for a while, all went well ….until I actually had to do something to the hive. On my first attempt to check the frames and feed the bees silly old me dropped the lid and out flew some very, very angry bees, which would not have mattered if Cam hadn’t been mowing the lawn. They looked like a squadron out of The Battle of Britain as they headed for him…I now know exactly where the expression Bee line comes from. Of course being a kiwi bloke he said he was ‘right’, only a flesh wound, but I think he got stung quite a few times. Second and third inspection went incident free so I got a bit complacent and I hate to admit what I did next. As I was walking my adorable, spoilt puppy Georgie (can you see where this heading??) I thought I’d just quickly check the feed, not thinking for one minute the puppy would venture any where near it, yes you’ve guessed it , it did, in fact it sniffed the entrance. Well that squadron must have had their goggles on as out they flew chasing my dear little puppy and stinging her a few more times than they stung Cameron. Before anyone rings the RSPCA I googled what to do and gave her half a teaspoon of Benadryl and covered her in Bicarb of Soda and she made a complete recovery, though I am still an emotional wreck!!


Bob and Pat in their very cool car with Bramble on the back seat.

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English Sparkling Wine

I think Peter Hall of our neighboring vineyard Breaky Bottom summed it up very nicely in Decanter magazine:

“What’s wrong (with the name) English Sparkling Wine?” as he goes on to say. “Lets call it what it is. In English. They are beautiful words. ‘Wine’ may be a common noun, but it has a long, reverberate historical trajectory: the polyvalent adjective ‘English’ has been yoked to it, with increasing success, for half a century of more; and ‘Sparkling’ is an exuberant and lustrous adjective in its own right, evoking not just celebratory wines but much else, including gemstones, witty conversation and the fine weather which follows rain.  To regard them as plain merely because they are not French is what the Australians call a ‘cultural cringe’.  We don’t need it.”

As Andrew Jefford the author of the piece also notes “the better English Sparkling Wine gets the more authoritative ‘English Sparkling Wine’ will begin to sound.”

My problem with “Britagne” as proposed by Coates and Seely is that it is a French name and as one of my friends said “it sounds like Brittany”, and the only good thing to come out Brittany are cauliflowers!

If we are to replace the name English Sparkling Wine, we need to find a name, which is better and English. Sadly the Australians have been trying to find a new name for their Sparkling wine for over twenty years and still not managed it.

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Puppies and Ponies

I know that sounds like a title for a cute Christmas calendar but it also nicely sums up the two weeks I have had since returning from holiday in New Zealand. On a more salutary note visiting Christchurch where my oldest son lives was not remotely cute. It was how I imagine a war zone would look. The central business district is cordoned off and looks like someone has heavily bombed it , some of the suburbs are uninhabitable with every second house painted with a red cross and the roads twisted and ruptured- it was harrowing.

On to cheerier subjects …I returned to the warm English sunshine at Rathfinny to find our mustard fields have turned a rich deep amber and our shelter belts have defied the winds and the drought and we have three rows of leafy flourishing trees. I can’t wait to be saying that about our vines next year.

One of the projects that we are involved in at the vineyard is to bring the farm into the ELS and HLS. Without boring the pants off you; basically these are 2 schemes, entry level and higher level environmental stewardship (still awake??). Administered by Natural England it means that we manage the land in a certain way to increase the biodiversity and sustainability of the farm- and this is where  the ponies come in. Rathfinny is bordered by a large headland that is not farmed and if managed properly can become chalk meadow which is rich in insects and fauna. The present condition of the headland is not good- it is covered in scrub and small trees which provide a canopy that blocks light to the meadow below. Volunteer groups organised by our SDNP ranger Richard James will knock the scrub back and wild Exmoor ponies are used to graze it down and trample the unwanted foliage so the meadow can regenerate. So, all being well, under the supervision of Monty Larkin and Mike Squires from the Sussex Pony Grazing & Conservation Trust the ponies will arrive this winter. Monty and Mike came to the farm earlier this week and we worked out the best way to fence off a big chunk of the headland. This was done with great care and attention as the ponies are well known for scarpering across the downs bucking and squealing and, as wild animals, VERY hard to catch!

Now for the puppies, well one in particular…Georgie, a Welsh border Collie puppy has become Rathfinny’s latest inhabitant  and the object of much unhealthy adoration – Caesar Milan would not approve but I can’t help myself.


Cameron and Nikki’s daughter Bella with Georgie,  the mustard field and headland in the background. Super cute huh? The child and puppy- not the mustard

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We have the spent the last two weeks in Spain, sailing between Ibiza and Menorca. The weather has been wonderful and so has the wine and Sarah and I are convincing ourselves as we open yet another bottle, that we’re doing so in the interests of research.

We have been drinking a lot of mainly Spanish Rosé, which I must admit I rather like. But some of the wines are too sweet and they are also very high in alcohol. The Spanish have clearly identified a market as they seem very popular but the wine makers are adding too much sugar. It is not that they taste flabby, but they lack a crispness that a Grenache rosé from Provence would have. Taste them next to Aix, a very popular wine in the chiringuitos (beach bars) in Ibiza, this relative newcomer from Provence which has been taking the wine world by storm since winning it’s Gold medal in Paris in 2009, and many of the Spanish wines just taste too sweet. However, I would recommend Clan by Charcoal Las Animas, which is a great Spanish Rosé.

I’m sure most people have tasted Rioja, many of which I find too alcoholic and have over powering oaky flavours from spending too long in the barrel. If you are going to drink Rioja try the Crianza’s which are aged for a little less time than the Reserva and Grand Reserva and spend less time in oak.

One thing that many people don’t realise is that the Spanish make very good white wine. Verdejo is a very underrated grape used in the Rueda region just north of Madrid. They produce a wonderful crisp dry white wine with bags of apricot fruit flavours. I particularly liked the Pie Franco a Blanco Nieva, which is a great example of a Verdejo. The other wine I have fallen for is Albarino.

The history of this Albarino grape is rather uncertain. It is now grown extensively in Galicia, north west Spain, the bit above Portugal. Alba-Rinõ, which supposedly means white grapes from the Rhine (although none of my Spanish friends knew this(!), perhaps it’s a Galician word?), would indicate that the grape is possibly a derivative of a Riesling, and it certainly has the fruit to match a Riesling. It is believed that the grapes where brought to the area by monks from the Alsace region of now France.

Albarino is a wonderful wine. It is dry and crisp, with lovely apricot fruit flavours and great stone fruit aromas. It is subtle, not overpowering and I have found two that I highly recommend.Terras Gauda – is lots of apricots and subtle apple, it is crisp and dry and has great length, perfect with fish. The other Albarino I’d recommend is Grånbazån – this is my personal favourite, it has just has the most wonderful length. It goes on and on.

Both of these wines are relatively inexpensive costing less than €10 a bottle.

Now don’t let me put you off the Martin Codaz Albarino that you will find in Majestic or even Waitrose, but I get the feeling that the Spanish are leaving some of their best wines at home.

I’m off to supper now and I am looking forward to the “boquerones”, tiny fresh anchovies in oil and vinegar, just great with a glass of Albarino!

At Rathfinny, we are busy with planning applications for the new facilities needed to run the vineyard. We have submitted plans for an office as we are currently using Liz’s breakfast/dining room. We have also submitted plans to remodel one of the estate houses to accommodate Cameron and his family. We are finalising our plans for the winery and workers accommodation and later this year will submit plans for a house for us.

Read Mark's Article