Rathfinny Wine Estate

Run Ragged – My turn already??

Gosh how time flies, over two weeks have passed since that dreadful day. The catastrophic events in Japan have brought the anxiety flooding back. My day always starts with a nervous look at Geonet NZ which records the country’s seismic activity, it’s not very comforting, Christchurch is still shaking like a jelly, tremors every couple of hours. I phone, text and E mail and generally pester the life out my boys on a more or less daily basis, but they assure me their lives are regaining some sort of normality – they have power and water on…and being boys have no problem with the portaloo…They are ‘cool’ they tell me, I just wish I was!

So, as the official reporter of the day to day goings on at Rathfinny I suppose it’s about time I stopped mucking about and got down to business. The fields are all ploughed and planted and look immaculate and the large farm machinery is parked up for the time being. It’s so neat that I am wondering if the farmer’s sock drawer and kitchen sink cupboard are equally tidy

The thing that ‘goes on’ the most at the moment is wildlife, birds in particular. That goes on a lot! We have pigeons, crows, rooks, gulls, ravens, magpies all hanging around gangster style, in healthy sized flocks furtively looking for a pick of seed.

We have, to use the collective noun, a nye of pheasants, actually I think we could technically describe Rathfinny as having a mega-nye as we have them in their multitude. The pheasants are refugees from the neighbouring estates which run commercial shoots. They are hand reared which makes them incredibly stupid, but not so stupid as to venture back from whence they were bred and risk being shot at by a chap in plus-fours and a flat cap (yes, I know the season is over, but they have not figured that out, like I said, they are really stupid). We are worried that they have a fondness for grapes so I’m guessing their future at Camp Rathfinny might need to come to an end before our precious vines arrive. I suppose the Red Cross will have to process them on from here.

Below is a photo I took of a few of the hens in the queue for rations, how many can you spot? Answers on a postcard please, first correct entry to receive a brace of live pheasants (pick up only and you have to catch them yourself).



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Wine tasting and more

Sarah, better known as ‘Crushed Grape,’ here – I know I am completely rubbish at this.  Last week, tired at the end of a long day, we went out for a drink and I ordered my favourite tipple. Mark leans towards me, I lean back, and he says, “What does it taste like?”  “That’s easy,” I think replying, “English sparkling wine” – actually, that’s a lie, I still say Champagne, but I’m learning!  He tries again patiently, “break it down,” he adds to which I churlishly reply, “I don’t want to, I just want to enjoy it!”

This is not the first time I have had this experience.  I am the one at a wine tasting who drinks most of the first glass in one go, pulls a face and is about to say something horrid only to look around and see smiles and joy as others talk of “the sensation of mousse” – salmon or chocolate I wonder?  While others talk of hints of honey and shortbread, I wander into thoughts along the lines of …. I haven’t had shortbread since I made a burnt batch at school, and didn’t we make rock cakes too then as well?  Who makes either of them anymore?  I then get completely absorbed in remembering things like cheese straws, which I loved and pineapple upside down cake which I didn’t, only to find I’ve now drunk 3 glasses and am none the wiser. I’ve said it before, I like what I like and I quickly know what I don’t.

Things I have learnt – to be skipped over by those in the know and that will hopefully redeem me in my husband’s eyes.

  • France has Champagne, which it jealously guards as a name and has protected status
  • Italy has Prosecco
  • Spain has Cava
  • What does England have?  English sparkling wine!

To be honest, I never knew the difference, thinking Champagne was the real thing and everything else was somehow inferior.  But, as we know with Ridgeview winning the prized Decanter award, taking it from the Champagne region for the first time, as well as multiple other awards being won in England, that is not the case.

Forgive me for keeping this simple – it’s how I think.

Champagne and English Sparkling Wine is made using the traditional method.  What this means is that the wine is fermented once in a steel tank and then again, when yeast and sugar are added in the bottle, which provides the fizz.   This gives a more ‘complex’ flavour than say Prosecco which is fermented in tanks in a shorter space of time, with more sugar. (I don’t follow much more than this as Mark talks of ‘yeast’ and I think of Marmite.)

Experiment  – this I can recommend as it involves having to drink a bottle of both Prosecco and English Sparkling wine while pretending to be carrying out research!  “Look at the bubbles in Prosecco,” says Mark, “they are larger, more uneven and don’t last as long as compared to those in the English Sparkling wine/Champagne glass” He looks up to see if I am following.  “It’s true!  I can see it,” pleased with my success.  The only problem is, the glass never stays full enough for long enough to be more exact than that.

Feeling quite pleased with my new found knowledge – more soon!

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Windbreaks and Grape Quality

We were all a bit shocked by events in Christchurch, though luckily Liz’s family are all safe.  Liz has been saying for months that they were expecting another big earthquake, but I am not sure that they expected it to be right under the city centre.

I wanted tell you about the trees we have planted because, as any walker knows, wind has a material effect on temperature.  I was reading this week that winds as low at 11-14km/h can significantly affect the temperature in a vineyard.  As I have been explaining in previous blogs, Rathfinny benefits from have a ridge of the South Downs, just to the south of us, which will shield us from the worst of the prevailing SW winds.  However, the fields are still exposed to winds blowing up and down the Rathfinny valley and up the Cuckmere valley.  So we decided we needed to plant three windbreaks on the first parcel of land destined for grapes, set 270 metres apart.  It’s a tricky business to decide where and how many to plant.  The theory is that you get a 60% reduction in wind speed at distances of up to 10 times the height of the tree.  So assuming these trees grow to 15 metres then we will get a 60% reduction in wind speeds 150 metres away.  However, you still get 10% reduction some 300m away.  And then the next line of trees has the effect of lifting the wind again over the next windbreak.

The fact is that some wind in the vineyard is good news.  Wind helps dry out the leaves and fruit after rain and so reducing humidity and disease risk.  However, wind also lowers temperatures and can close the stomata on the bottom of the leaves, which reduces photosynthesis and respiration.  It’s a balancing act.  Disturb the wind but don’t reduce it so much that we increase the risk of disease.

The Met office data we have shows that although we may experience average winds over the site of 13.6 km/h during whole the year, during the growing season, April – October, we only experience average wind speeds of 12 km/h.  The critical times are flowering in May/June and the ripening period called Veraison, from the end of July onwards.

We thought it was important to plant native trees, so we’ve gone for a mix of broadleaf species that grow well in chalky soil and exposed sites: Ash, Beech, Field Maple and Hawthorn. We resisted planting some of the faster growing varieties like Italian Alder and Eucalyptus principally because they are not native and because they don’t like chalk. Hopefully these windbreaks will help break-up the wind and increase the average temperature in the vineyard so increasing fruit quality.

We have also set up a weather station on the land and we are now collecting weather data from six different monitors at Rathfinny. If you are interested you can see the Rathfinny weather station on line at http://www.weatherlink.com/user/rathfinny/


Dylan Inspecting the windbreak. Bless him he carried that log all over the farm!


A windbreak running North-South, showing the slope in front of the land that protects us form the worst of the prevailing SW winds and the Cuckmere Valley to the left.

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Not Quite How I Planned it…

My next blog was going to be hilariously funny and clever but recent events have changed all that. There is nothing funny about what I am going to write about. My lovely boys, Shaun, Philip and Robert as well as many, many friends live in Christchurch New Zealand. It was also my home until last year.

It all started for me when my Blackberry started to flash away at 3 in the morning,  I’m still not quite sure why but I groggily opened an E mail from Cameron’s (our new vineyard manger’s) wife, Nikki. “Are your family all safe after the recent earthquake? many causalities!” it reads. Absolute panic! Two hours and many futile, frantic attempts to reach them later, my brother in Wellington miraculously tracks them down, thankfully all safe. It was the longest two hours of my life.

The morning drags on and I am transfixed to the news channel and I watch scenes of agony, anguish and destruction play out again and again, in a place I know and love so well. I’m getting more desperate to talk to my children, I keep trying and finally a lucky strike on one of my children’s mobiles means I catch them as they are evacuating the city and heading north, reassuringly they are laughing as they are in a queue to buy fish and chips but Phil’s story makes me shudder. He was alone in his father’s house, perched precariously on a spur overlooking the city and only 2 km from the epicentre. The earthquake makes it impossible for him to get out of the house which is coming down around him, water spurting everywhere as pipes rupture, he finally makes it to the driveway and then notices the blood pouring out of a gash on his foot. Luckily a couple of builders nearby have a first aid kit and stick him back together. He still has not been able to get any stitches put in it due to the bedlam at all the medical facilities.

But our story is a happy one, everyone is well and safe, and they have been offered somewhere to stay with power and water. But for thousands of brave Cantabrians this is not the case, they are sitting in makeshift shelters, many grieving for lost ones.

Now I promise I won’t make a habit of this but I’m going to beg….If you are touched by the plight of these people can you please, please make a donation to the Canterbury Earthquake Appeal through www.redcross.org.nz or www.salvationarmy.org.nz

And I also promise to cheer up and write a funny one next time if you do!!

Liz O’Neill (Mark’s gifted and talented PA)

The lucky ones!


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We have ordered 72,000 vines!

We have just finalised the first vine order for Rathfinny.  We’ve ordered 72,000 vines for delivery in 2012 and we are planting a mixture of five different varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Riesling and Pinot Gris.

As our intention is to specialise in top quality sparkling wine, we are planting the classic varieties of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier. The most difficult decision was choosing the clones especially for Pinot Noir.

In Europe, all vines are planted on rootstocks.  This is to prevent the resurgence of phylloxera, a horrible insect that eats vine roots and leaves and decimated the vineyards of Europe in the late 19th century.  Choosing the rootstock was a relatively easy decision; we need a rootstock that not only has phylloxera resistance but could also cope with the high pH and chalky soils. We have chosen Fercal, which is widely planted in the Champagne region.  It promotes early ripening and has a very high resistance to lime-induced chlorosis, which causes the leaves to turn yellow.  Onto this rootstock the nursery will graft our selected clones.  We spent many months researching the best clones to use and we have chosen a selection of what are referred to as ‘Dijon’ and ‘Champagne’ clones, as they are suited to still and sparkling wine production.  The main criterion was to select clones that produce the best quality wines but are suited to our climate.  So we needed clones, which develop open clusters that reduce disease risk.  We have chosen each clone variety to give us a balance of flavours and yield to help blend top quality wine.

We have also chosen to plant out some Riesling and Pinot Gris to provide us with some still wine. The reason for this is that apart from providing us with some wine that we can sell earlier(!), the sparkling won’t be available until 2017 and the still wine will become available in 2014, it will also show the provenance of the land. We believe we have found not only one of the most beautiful pieces of land in England but one of the best-suited sites for grapes.

Riesling is one of my favourite grape varieties and it is a very versatile grape that produces wine that has wonderful fruit and acidity and can be aged to produce fantastically complex wine.  However, very few people have had any success with the grape in England. We believe we have the right site to ripen Riesling. Our local farmer always tells us that Rathfinny is the first farm that he harvests every year. We are also very confident that the Pinot Gris will ripen well at Rathfinny and produce a wonderful fresh dry white wine.

After many months of research we have chosen a nursery in Germany to propagate our vines. Quality is the guiding principle at Rathfinny and they supply the best quality plants that we have seen in England. Also, they specialise in high grafted vines. They are a little more expensive but you get what you pay for. We are planting high grafted vines, basically tall vines where the graft is at 90cm instead of 30cm. The reason for this is that they not only give the vines a years head start, because they get to the fruiting wire a year earlier, they also will provide some protection against rabbits – more about those at a later date.

We have also just planted out our Shelter Belts, more about that on the next Blog..


Canes awaiting processing in the Nursery.


High grafted vines in a German vineyard.

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