Rathfinny Wine Estate

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.

Read Mark's Article

English Grape Harvest 2011

It was half term last week and we were going to take the kids to Cornwall for a few days but the weather forecast was so dreadful, strong winds and very heavy rain, so we decided to stay at home instead and do some things in London.

We went up to see the Gerhard Richter exhibition at the Tate Modern, which was fantastic, moody, modern paintings, really worth a visit. We also went for a long walk in a very dry and dusty Richmond Park and it reminded me how little rain we have had this year.

I checked the weather station at Rathfinny when I got back and noted that year to date, we have had only 371mm of rain. We normally get an average of 800mm of rain every year. You can see the effects of this everywhere. The oak trees in Richmond Park are all under water stress, there were huge quantities of acorns under every tree. The lake in the middle of the park was very low and the birds where wading not swimming on the top. The Thames is also very low. We live close to Richmond lock, which marks the last non-tidal section of the Thames. At low tide the river beyond is so shallow that you can see birds wading in the middle of the river by Isleworth.

Not only has it been dry this year, it has also been wet at some of the wrong times for grape-growers. Although the warm, dry September and October was welcome, the wet June and July was not good news. This is flowering time for grapevines, which are wind-pollinated plants and the rain caused poor flower set. This coupled with a late frost in May, which hurt many vineyards in South East England, has led to small harvests this year. Some vineyards have recorded yields down more than 50%.

However, it is not all bad news. The very dry, hot spring we experienced meant that most vineyards in England experienced a very early start and, coupled with the hot dry end to the summer, the quality of fruit coming out of English vineyards has been excellent. As part of my course, I have been working in the Plumpton College Winery over the last few months and the grapes that have been coming in have very little botrytis and have very high sugar levels. It is will be a good year for the quality but not for the quantity of English wine.

It just all goes to demonstrate that wine making is an agricultural process and, looking ahead you know that no two years will be the same. As Gerhard Richter said about his landscape paintings, which he considered to be ‘untruthful’ because they glorify nature, ‘nature is always against us’.

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Now that the planning application for the Winery has been submitted and accepted as an agricultural building I promise to talk about it very soon.

Read Mark's Article

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Read Mark's Article

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