Rathfinny Wine Estate

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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How Snow Globes changed my life!

For those of you who regularly read this blog, you will note that I have not featured on it since my early blogs when it started, just over a year ago.

As the long suffering wife of Mark, I thought I had deftly sorted the problem of having a ‘retired’ husband aged 46 hanging around at home all day.  To the cries from my friends of ‘we’ll have a snitch among us, relaying our every move to our husbands’ – I came up with a cunning plan. Enthusiastically support his bizarre idea to go back to college full time to study ‘viticulture’ (what’s that?) for 2 years and to buy a farm and plant a vineyard.  Problem solved.

However, what that’s they say about the best-laid plans?  At first it seemed quite amusing – 5am discussions about the number of snail species on the South Downs – did you know or care that there are over a 100?  No, well neither did I.  Then there were the hours of shouting at the computer to contend with as he tackled wine posters and modern technology, combined with proof reading essays on vine moths (I live in a household of dyslexics) and long (one sided) conversations on the intricacies of malolactic fermentation (don’t ask!)

All of this I could just about cope with along with 4 children (don’t believe anyone when they say they get easier with age,) an MA of my own and a part time job devising an education programme for dyslexic children but then there was the vineyard to contend with.  In an earlier life I was a city solicitor for my sins and whilst I was whispering ‘are we insured,’ ‘have you asked a lawyer?’ and ‘where’s the contract?’ I started to find things creeping onto my desk. CV’s, employment contracts, planning papers (what do they say in Harry Potter – he who must not be named!), trade mark applications – the list went on and on.  Pillow talk took on a new meaning as every issue to do with the vineyard passed over it.

It came to a head in December as Mark waved yet another pile of ‘can you just’ jobs at me as I was dishing up dinner.  Admittedly I had had a day pretty much to myself, which meant I’d fitted in a yoga class and had a quick sandwich with some mates but I was reaching the end of my tether.  As we were dishing out jobs, I pointed out that not one Christmas present had been bought by him to say nothing of the million and one jobs in the house that had somehow made the way to the bottom of his never ending list.

That’s when I brought out my piece de resistance!  I had purchased some particularly tacky snow globes for each of our 4 children.  All I needed was for a delightful picture of us happily together to be found, printed off and put in each one.  Once that was done – I would happily look at the waving pile of paperwork.

Suffice it to say, it was a particularly difficult negotiation which saw the usual cycle of husband:wife arguments – shouting, silence, sulking, more shouting, apology (he’s good at that), compromise and peace.

The upshot is – I am now ‘in’ having agreed to devote 2 full days a week to developing our vineyard, dedicated time to concentrate on all the issues and to be appreciated and acknowledged for having done so.

Oh – did I say that he promised me a fabulous trip to South Africa to tour vineyards?!  More on this in my next blog!

PS.  Actually, the snow globes job never was completed.

PPS. Maybe we just didn’t have a happy picture of us as a couple to go in the snowglobes?? You’d think we would – we’ve been married 25 years this July!!

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Rathfinny Winery planning application approved

It has been a long and at times arduous process but we have finally got our planning application for the Winery at Rathfinny approved!!!

We have spent most of the last year, using consultants from all over the world, designing the Winery and the plans have finally been approved.  What is significant is that it was approved as an agricultural building. Agricultural determination was very important not only to us but for the future of the English Wine Industry, as it now sets the precedent for all future Wineries in England.

Wineries need to be built as close to the Vineyard as possible to reduce damage to the grapes. If our Winery had been classified as an industrial building I am not sure we would have got the permission, especially as we are in a National Park.

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However, they have not only granted permission for the Winery they have also approved the building of a small solar site behind the Winery to help reduce our carbon footprint and the establishment of a waste water treatment plant located behind the grain barns. This will enable Rathfinny to get closer to our goal of being sustainable on energy and water usage.

The first vines arrive in just seven weeks time so the clock is ticking and we need to get the Winery built by the summer of 2013 so we are ready for our first harvest

I wish to thank all those who have given their support, both written and verbal, to these plans especially those in our local community of Alfriston, who have not only been so welcoming, but enthusiastic about the project.

Thank you.

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English Sparkling Wine outsells Champagne at top London Restaurant

We heard some really encouraging news over the Christmas period.

According to the Guardian newspaper, Marcus Waring’s recently opened London restaurant, Sir Gilbert Scott, is now selling more glasses of English sparking wine than Moët et Chandon, theChampagne region’s biggest global brand.

“When I first put English sparkling wine on my wine lists five years ago, people were scared,” said Mark Cesareo, head sommelier at the Sir Gilbert Scott, which stocks three English sparklers. “The people who were most averse were the English themselves while tourists and even French people wanted to try it.

“Now I stock three English wines by the glass, Gusbourne, Ridgeview and Nyetimber. If I sell 10 cases of Moët a week, I will do six of Gusbourne, five of Ridgeview and three of Nyetimber.”

According to a recent Wine Intelligence consumer report published in Decanter magazine, 15 million out of 25 million people in the UK who consume sparkling wine more than once a year have tried English Sparkling Wine and “English sparkling wine growth has been phenomenal (in 2011), and the product appears to be familiar to a much wider group than we had previously thought.”

Berry Brothers and Rudd have reported a 50% growth in English Sparkling Wine sales and Waitrose reported that sales of English Sparkling Wine grew by almost a third in 2011. In the three months to Christmas sparkling wine sales at Waitrose grew by 26% compared to the same period in 2010.

Coupled with this is the news that Ridgeview is now selling 20% of its production overseas into the US, Finland, Japan and Hong Kong.

Remember that we still import over 35 million bottles of Champagne and we only produce 2-3 million bottles of English sparkling wine per annum.

It was a good Christmas and New Year for English wine producers and given the quality and value to be had in English Sparkling Wine it has a very bright future as well.

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Since when was a Winery not an agricultural building?

We have just submitted our planning application for the Winery at Rathfinny.

I have to admit that it has been a very frustrating and tortuous process and despite considerable local support for the whole project, it was touch and go as to whether we would be allowed to build a Winery on the site at all.

The problem was not the design or because of local objections but because we hit a brick wall with the planning authorities. They refused to accept that a Winery is an agricultural building, despite legal precedent (Millington v Sec. of State 1999 – a case that went all the way to the Court of Appeal) and our own expensive legal opinion stating that it is.  The local district council and the South Downs National Park Planning Authority were insisting that we apply for planning permission for the Winery as an industrial building.

How could a Winery not be an agricultural building? If we grew apples we could process those apples in an agricultural building. If we had cows we could milk them in an agricultural building. We store and dry our grain in an agricultural building. Our vineyard will produce grapes to make wine, so the building that processes those grapes, the Winery, must be an agricultural building. Yet the planning authorities were insisting that a Winery is like a chip factory.  But the analogy is completely wrong. If you grow potatoes, the end product is a potato, so making chips or crisps from those potatoes may be considered an industrial process. We aren’t making chips we aim to produce top quality sparkling wine, which is the end product from the grapes that will grow in our vineyard.

However, we have finally met a planning officer at the South Downs National Park who recognises that a Winery is an agricultural building and has confirmed that we can apply for the Winery on that basis.

And what a beautiful building it will be. The first phase will be largely sunk into an old silage clamp allowing us to use gravity to drop our grapes into the presses and move juice into the fermentation tanks. The grass roof has the same profile as the land behind and will be planted with South Downland grasses so the whole building will blend into the landscape.

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The Winery will be built next to the existing grain stores, which we intend to re-clad with locally sourced oak and then re-use as wine stores for bottle aging our sparkling wine. The cattle barn beyond will be replaced in 2016 with the second phase of the winery, which will house a barrel room, wine store and vineyard equipment store. Eventually we will replace the old grain dryer to provide further bottle storage in 2018 by which time we will have planted out over 400 acres.

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We are really pleased that the planning authorities are now considering the application as an agricultural building.  Our fear was that we would have to go all the way to the High Court to get this planning application through, which would have certainly delayed and could have stopped the whole project and potentially affected the growth of the English wine industry in its tracks.

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It does seem to be absurd that, particularly in the current economic climate, that we have to jump through so many hurdles to get planning permission for an agricultural building that, together with the other buildings at Rathfinny will provide full time jobs for 30 skilled people and seasonal work for nearly 200, to say nothing of the ‘knock on’ jobs created in the area. Personally I think the English wine industry will see significant growth over the next ten years and could provide much needed employment on the South Downs, with the benefits to the local and wider economy. Just as an aside, the Champagne region which has over 32,500 hectares under vines and produces over 400 million bottles of sparkling wine per annum provides full time employment for over 5000 people and seasonal employment for a further 100,000 people.

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So we are pleased that the South Downs National Park is sticking to its stated goal of seeking “to foster the economic and social well-being of the local communities within the National Park”.

We have just ordered more vines for planting in 2013 and we will be publishing a newsletter shortly.

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