Rathfinny Wine Estate

Bad hare day… a thing of the past.

Being a photographer I tend to work in images rather than words however, something happened this week which has inspired me to add a few words to accompany some of my images. After 18 months of watching and waiting I have finally managed to photograph one of the more shy and elusive creatures who inhabit Cradle Valley at Rathfinny Estate, The Brown Hare (Lepus europaeus)

Hare 1

When I discovered that hares were living on the Rathfinny estate I was naturally enthusiastic about this photographic opportunity and felt the need to photograph them quickly before the vineyard developed, became to busy and perhaps scared them away .   However,  I was later intrigued to discover the  fact that hares are often associated with vineyards across the world to the extent that some vineyards and wines are named after them; these are just a few I discovered after a quick search:

  • Dancing Hare Vineyard, Napa Valley USA ( produces a bottle of red called Mad Hatter)
  • Running Hare Vineyard, Maryland USA (which produces a Jack Rabbit red and a Jack Rabbit white)
  • The Leaping Hare Vineyard Restaurant in Suffolk
  • Wild Hare Vineyard, Kansas

Clearly hares were enjoying life at Rathfinny long before the first vine was planted but interestingly, and despite the fact that hares are on the decline in the UK, their numbers appear to be increasing at Rathfinny.  Maybe they like the shade and the protection against predators that the vines offer and perhaps they just have a fondness for foraging the wild downland grasses that grow on the estate.  Whatever the reason, they appear to be respectful of the vines and are living in harmony with the vineyard.  The Leverets (young hares) even appear to enjoy playing games of dodge with the tractors as they drive up and down the vines.

Hare 2

For those of you who have never seen a hare and are wondering what the difference is between a hare and a rabbit here are a few hare facts:

  • Hares are significantly larger than rabbits, their ears are longer with black tips
  • Due to the length of their back legs their gait can be likened to that of a wallaby or kangaroo – almost a lollop in comparison to the rabbits dainty hopping. This almost clumsy walk/hop gives way to a graceful and spectacular run. And at speeds of up to 45 miles per hour hares are the fastest mammals in the UK.
  • Hares do not give birth to their young below ground in a burrow but above ground in a ‘form’, which is a shallow depression in the grass.
  • Unlike the rabbit, hares are born with their eyes open and covered in hair.
  • Generally nocturnal and shy in nature hares change their behaviour in spring where they can be seen chasing each other and standing on their back legs striking each other with their paws (boxing) which is generally the female fighting off the males unwanted attention. It is this spring frenzy or mating dance which has lead to the English idiom “Mad as a March Hare”.

Capturing an image of this elusive creature soon became a bit of a personal mission for me.  Hours of fruitless waiting and watching has lead to the phrase ‘bad hair day’ taking on a whole new meaning in our household. On one occasion I had been lying still watching in vain for hours, when I decided to call it a day and stood up to go.  A hare sprung and ran from less than 10 feet away from me!  It must have been there all the time.  When feeling threatened, hares will flatten themselves to the earth to avoid being to noticed –  it works!  He was too fast and I too slow, all I managed to capture was a blurry back leg.

Hare 3

My mission is far from over,  there has been a sighting of some leverets playing amongst the vines at present and  I hope to capture some images of the hares boxing in the spring, so keep a look out on the Gallery.

Viv Blakey – Resident Photographer at Rathfinny Wine Estate

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Lessons learnt…

It is almost three years since we bought Rathfinny.

We were on a sailing holiday in Menorca when I received a call from a land agent at Strutt and Parker. “Mr Driver, I think I’ve found the perfect site for your vineyard!”.

vine growth

So three years on what have we learnt?

  • Planting vines is easy. You order and purchase your vines, eighteen months ahead of time from a nursery and hire the help of a friendly German who will machine plant them with GPS accuracy.
  • All consultants seem to have different opinions on your soil, what vines to plant – root stocks and clonal varieties, vine spacing, winery design and what trees to plant for windbreaks.
  • There are a plethora of consultants required for every conceivable bat, badger, archeological feature and historical reference, and when they hear that you are planting a vineyard they seem to double to price.
  • Getting planning permission takes a long time and costs a lot of money.
  • Irrigation – do we really need it in England? We thought we did in 2011 then we had the summer of 2012, this year (2013) we needed it.
  • Wind – is the main enemy of vines, more on this later.
  • How to work with my wife. Oh, and my wife is always right!! But I knew that already.
  • Double time and double money! (My lovely wife told me that as well!)
  • People love wine. Everyone, everywhere asks me “how are the vines Mark?” We have over three hundred acres of wheat and barley but no one asks me how are my cereal crops.

However, the main thing I’ve learnt, apart from the fact that my wife is always right, is that wind is the main enemy of vines.

When I studied at Plumpton College we learnt how winds above 10mph stop photosynthesis in vines. Basically, when the wind picks up the stomata, the little holes on the bottom of the leaves that allow gases, CO2, oxygen and water vapour, to enter or leave the leaf, close and so the plant stops transpiration. They close to stop the vine from drying out but this also stops photosynthesis which, if you remember back to your biology lessons, is the means by which the cells in the leaf convert water and CO2 into sugars which, move around the plant, providing energy for the vine and ends up in the grapes. So before we bought Rathfinny I thought long and hard about wind and I looked at historical weather statistics from the Met office. They seemed to be okay, the average wind speed during the summer growing months was 4.5metres per second, which is less that 10mph, and that is the average for the whole site and the lower part of the slope at Rathfinny gives much greater protection from the south-westerly winds and we could plant wind breaks to slow it down further. How wrong could I be?

Well as it turns out the average is the 24 hour average and the winds tend to be stronger during the afternoon, when the vines are meant to be growing! And the trees we planted as windbreaks are taking a lot longer to grow than I had expected. So we have taken the decision to put up more temporary wind-breaks, made of netting, which will hopefully provide the wind protection needed until the trees grow.

Shot Berries

I am still confident of a small crop this year but it will be very small as the vines we planted last year had to cope with the wet cold summer of 2012 and the vines we planted this year are too immature. The good news is that they are putting on enough growth this year to lay down a small cane so hopefully next year we will get a decent crop.

Young vines

Lastly, as an eternal optimist, I have to mention on the positive side at least we rarely get hail storms in East Sussex. A recent hail storm in Champagne wiped out 300 hectares of vines in 2 hours!

Enjoy the rest of the summer….

Mark Driver

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More Progress

There was much excitement at Rathfinny this week as the first three fermentation tanks arrived from France.

Tank on the lorry

The rest of the tanks were inspected in France by Jonathan last week and are due for delivery on the 16th July.

tanks in France

I keep being told that the winery will be ready on the 16th August and fully tested and ready for operation by the end of August, but there still seems to be a lot to do. However, it was nice to see the first three of twenty-four tanks arrive this week and they are currently housed in our grain barns waiting to be set up in the winery in mid-July.

The floor of the fermentation hall has been prepared; drainage channels put in, the floor levelled and covered in epoxy non-slip coating. So we are ready to go. The offices and tasting room are taking shape as well, the ceilings are going in and the under-floor heating is in and the cladding is going up on the outside.

vine growth

Meanwhile the vineyard is looking very tidy. The vines are still a bit behind and we are still trying to tame the wind, which has been unusually strong again this year. However, we have a few inflorescence (flower clusters) on some of the vines and as we expect to have some better/hotter weather they should be flowering in the next two weeks. So I am still hopeful of getting a very small crop this year, enough to play with the new equipment in the winery. Ever the optimist…

Meanwhile the new vineyard is taking shape. The vineyard team have been working very hard putting in the trellising posts and recently we have had some students in trimming vines and putting clips on the stakes to hold them to the fruiting wires.

young vine growth

So lots of progress, including the work on the Gun Room which will serve as our tasting room on the Tye, in Alfriston that we hope to open in November this year.

Enjoy the warmer weather, we are….

Mark Driver

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Alfriston is undergoing essential mains water replacement and there is no through access from 3rd January – 30th May. Click below for alternative routes: