Rathfinny Wine Estate

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/

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

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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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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..

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Canes awaiting processing in the Nursery.

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High grafted vines in a German vineyard.

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Finding the Perfect Site for an English Vineyard

We started searching for the perfect site for an English vineyard in late summer 2009.  But what is the perfect land for grapevines? The main considerations are, temperature, soil type – you need reasonably fertile free draining soil, and aspect – a south-facing slope is generally warmer and will help reduce the risk of frost damage. This is very important because vines seldom recover from frost damage, and a slope allows the cool air to roll down the hill and is replaced by warmer air from above. Lastly, altitude, you lose one degree in temperature every 100m you climb! So I wanted a warm, south-facing slope on free draining soil below 120m.

The trouble is that land rarely comes up for sale. Farms are passed on from generation to generation, or the land is sold with a tenant farmer who has a right to tenancy for several generations. However, I thought as I’m starting my course at Plumpton in September 2010. Had I mentioned that? I thought I’d better learn a little bit about vines. So I have some time to find the right piece of land. We found one farm for sale in Hampshire in the spring of 2010. It was almost perfect, we had the soil tested, but it didn’t have any buildings on the site that we could convert into a winery. Sadly we had to walk away.

Then in early August when we were on a sailing holiday in Menorca I received a phone call from our agent. “I think I’ve found the perfect piece of land.” How right he was. Thanks to the wonders of Google earth we were about to look at Rathfinny Farm.

View Rathfinny Estate in a larger map

It is nearly 600 acres of south facing slopes, protected from the prevailing wind by a ridge of the South Downs. It is only 3 from the sea and given its location and aspect the land is almost frost-free in late spring and autumn. In short, it is perfect. A bidding war took place but we eventually got it for less than the not so perfect land in Hampshire.

Did you know that Eastbourne, just 4 miles away to the east of Rathfinny, still holds the record as the sunniest place in England. I believe it set the record in 1911 and The Halifax Quality of Life Survey 2007 named Eastbourne as the sunniest place in Great Britain.

So that makes Rathfinny the sunniest vineyard in England….!!

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