Rathfinny Wine Estate

New Year activity at Rathfinny

It has been a busy start to the year at Rathfinny. The steel has just arrived which will form the frame of the winery and it is being erected as I write this, I’ll post some pictures later in the week.

Also, Cameron and I have been off to Lyon (France) to visit one of the nurserys we are using to grow the vines we will be planting in March this year. We ordered these vines in 2011 so we wanted to take a look before we place a further order for vines needed in 2014!

It’s a long process making vines:

Firstly, suitable rootstock cane (in our case Fercal which is good for our chalky soil and used extensively in Champagne) is collected from plots in the nursery.

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This is then sorted and graded..

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The canes are then cut into the correct length ready for grafting – We have chosen to plant 90cm ‘high-grafted’ vines, which means the graft union is closer to the fruiting wire (the bottom wire of the trellis set at 110cm that will hold the grapes), this will save the vines from rabbit damage as the buds are off the ground and will mean we will hopefully gain a year before we get fruit.

The selected grape variety, in our case mainly Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, is then grafted on the top of these rootstock canes and the vines are planted out in the nursery for a year.

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They are then dug up, trimmed, cleaned, packed and stored over the winter months in a cool room before they are dispatched to us for planting at the end of March this year. Notice that some of the vines in this patch of the nursery are low-graft and others high.

We have chosen the high-grafted vines but the above pictures show some smaller vines which have been cleaned ready to be sent to Canada. The tops are covered in wax to save the graft union from drying out. They look good don’t they?

So we are now finalising our order for a further 80,000 vines for planting in 2014.

Happy New Year to you all…

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Bubbles for every occasion!

Plowing_Dec_12.jpg.scaled1000As a year ends and another one is about to start – well, that’s hoping that we actually survive the apocalypse scheduled for December 21st – lots of us are gearing up for celebrating the New Year with sparkling wine.

Champagne has had for decades a dominant role in the end of year celebrations around the world. I had never really looked into the origin of this trend. It appears that prior to 1789, royals drank Champagne as a tradition to celebrate events,  because – being both a novelty and an expensive one – it was a status symbol.

Historians say that Champagne, after the French Revolution, became used in secular celebrations, replacing religious rituals.

The wine became traditionally opened at various religious celebrations, such as baptisms and weddings.

I remember the excitement when Champagne would gush at the podium of the Formula One Grand Prix. I begged my dad, who at the time was working for Moët & Chandon, to take me with him to one of these races, unfortunately this never happened! On the plus side, he would never fail when sabering a large bottle (chopping its neck off with a large sword)  at various events.

Sparkling wine is a lively and festive wine, traditionally consumed all around the world. Symbolically, it overflows in abundance and joy. I have always been a proponent of sparkling wine as an aperitif but also as a wine to accompany the whole meal.

If you are into wine pairing, look into it. There are a broad variety of sparkling wines, from the light and delicate to the full bodied and rich. There are so many different types of sparkling produced all around the world, no doubt you’ll find a gem somewhere.

Try to start with, say, a Chardonnay-based sparkling. Fine effervescence, delicate flavors and aromas to open your appetite. Then, when pairing with food, it can be quite simple, don’t be scared.

With rich foods, try a Pinot Noir-based wine, for it will have the body to stand up to their richness.

For seafood and/or a salty course, pretty much any sparkling will work, as long as it is not too sweet, i.e. avoid sec, demi-sec and look for brut or dry.

Rosé wines will work with smoked fish and chocolate.

With meat, have you ever tried a sparkling Syrah? Or Bolney’s sparkling Cuvee Noir?

Keep the sweet sparkling like sec, demi-sec for dessert or try with spicy recipes.

Try to be adventurous, and you’ll surely be rewarded.

Don’t tell, but I am taking English sparkling to Champagne for Christmas!

Jonathan Médard – Winemaker at Rathfinny Wine Estate

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Lots of progress on the Winery and planning consent for the Flint Barns!!

Work started on the Winery in September and already the foundations have been poured and the ground floor walls went up this week.

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It took over 40 cement trucks to deliver the 350 tonnes of concrete that were poured over 60 tonnes of steel reinforcement rods to form the foundations of our Winery. It’s not going anywhere!I it didn’t stop there. The steel frame will arrive in two weeks time and hopefully they will start putting that up just before or soon after Christmas.

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Jonathan Médard, our winemaker, and I have just returned from Bordeaux where we attended the Vinitech, a trade show for vineyard and winery equipement. We have finalised some of our choices for the grape processing area, including a red-grape sorting bench, de-stemmer and crusher. We also found a very good supplier of lab equipement, based in the UK but supplying the wine trade the world over.

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Meanwhile the boys have been collecting flints from the vineyard to use when restoring the Flint Barns because, DRUM ROLL PLEASE!!! – After two years of consultation and endless revision, we have finally been given planning permission to redevelop our Flint Barns into a 44-bed hostel for both seasonal workers, as well as educational and other organised special interest groups. It was a long painful process but we finally got there! Thank you SDNPA.

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Lastly, we have just published our Winter 2012 Newsletter so look out for the link on our Website and if you haven’t done so already, why not subscribe?

 

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Without Soil Where Would We Be?

Wine writer Hugh Johnson once called vineyard soil “the unseen dankness where the vine roots suck.” It is an often forgotten part of our process.  I recently attended a seminar on the subject of soil, which got me to thinking about the many different facets of soil and why it is so fascinating.

Ok, so not everyone finds soil interesting, but consider this:

  • To the farmer, soil is where crops grow.
  • To the engineer, soil is a foundation on which to build.
  • To the ecologist, soil supports and connects the ecosystems.
  • To the archaeologist, soil holds clues to past cultures.
  • to crafts people, like potters, soil provides clay to make things.
  • Soil is all of these and more. Soil has been called “the skin of the earth” because it is the thin outermost layer of the Earth’s crust.
  • Like our own skin, we can’t live without soil.
  • Soil is the basis for all life on earth, not only delivering 90% of the food produced it most importantly delivers ALL the wine.

And through the complexities of soil we get different characteristics in our wine.

Soil (or more specifically vineyard site) is part of the trilogy of what makes a great wine, the other two pieces of the puzzle being grape variety and human input.

In a vineyard site there will always be a troublesome patch that under performs or an area that consistently produces a higher quality than those around it.

Given that if the varieties and clones are the same, this will most likely be down to soil.

While we say that here at Rathfinny we have between 15 and 30cm of topsoil over a chalk base, the truth of the matter is there is variation through the fields. Not just physically but biologically, and chemically. We are trying to work around this variation by setting up our blocks with the help of surveying the soil prior to planting.

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The guys from Soilquest have just been on-site to EC map our upcoming planting. What this does is build up an accurate field map of soil variation and nutrient status by measuring electrical conductivity to two depths; we then analyze representative soil samples from each soil type zone.

This enables us to pinpoint areas of similar soil type when we set out our blocks and in turn maintain a more even and easier to manage block.

A true farmer doesn’t just grow crops, but farms the soil.

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By Cameron Roucher

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Buying British…

I had a myriad of thoughts late at night during a recent trip home to Hong Kong for my niece’s wedding.

Long on my mind has been the issue of employment and sourcing – both of which we want to do from England.  We want to build a seasonal workforce made up of local people, who gain skills and come back to us year on year for both picking in September and pruning in the New Year.  We want to buy British wherever we can and, as I venture out to source products to sell in our tasting room (which we hope to open next summer,) and to stock in our winery and flint barns my continual refrain is “does it come from Britain?”

 

The issues are not straightforward.  Take employment.  We can have a team of pickers, many of them from Eastern Europe, who are honest and reliable. They arrive early, work hard and we only have to make one payment to their manager.  Incidentally, it gets more subtle, many of them have lived here for years, so aren’t strictly migrant workers.  Employing local workers raises practical issues – what do they do for the rest of the year?  Or are local workers simply ‘teams’ who go from harvest to harvest around the country – and how then are they different from the other teams?

See, it’s not that easy.  Everyone tells me, it can’t be done: that we won’t find local people who want to come and pick, who are reliable and hard working.  Well, I’d like to prove them wrong. It is our intention to try, so if you’re reading this and fancy vineyard work when the time comes, drop us a line and we’ll contact you later on next year.

Sourcing.  Again, this is not an easy issue.  We are looking at glasses for tasting and for our winery and the flint barns as well as to sell. What I’m learning is that England makes great crystal, but not everyday, good quality glasses.  For that we need to go to Eastern Europe or the States.  Willow baskets – yes, we can get them made here, but the costs are very high, whereas if we went to China ….

Whilst in Hong Kong we visited Shenzhen over the border where the employment and sheer energy is overwhelming.  This is a city that has grown from 10,000 people in 1978 to more than 14 million today.  The number of people eager to do business is extraordinary.  The number of fake English labels like Burberry, Mulberry and Cath Kidston reiterates the fact that I learnt at a British Council event – English brands have a great reputation all over the world and people want them.

With all these thoughts in mind, I’ve been reading ‘Time to Start Thinking: America in Descent’ by Ed Luce (which I highly recommend) that questions America’s role in the world.  It got me thinking that in the same way that we seem to follow what happens over the pond, Britain too will be heading this way unless we change our outlook.

I don’t know the answer to our employment and sourcing issues but suspect we’ll have to compromise on our desire to ‘buy British’ in every way.

Tired and confused, worried about the state of the world, I suddenly questioned whether we should be making sparkling wine, a high end and relatively frivolous product at all.  Horrified, I turned to Mark only to find my ramblings had long since bored him and he was fast asleep!

So I had to work it out myself.  Yes – we should be making English Sparkling Wine because we are making something.  In the tradition of this country, we aim to make a quality, unique British product that will not only sell here but abroad and in so doing, will create jobs and opportunities for people in this country.

At that I was, (and you probably are too!) exhausted!

PS.  The photos above are some of Viv’s great photos of the winery development.  The second half of the slab was poured today – 200 tons of concrete has been poured over the last 10 days!

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A votre santé, Professor Renaud

Prof. Serge Renaud was a French scientist who pioneered research into the prevention of cardiovascular disease, among other health issues. He participated in broadening research into the role of wine, alcohol, fatty acids and other components in preserving health and preventing disease.

His medical career took him notably to Montréal, Canada, Boston, Massachusetts, and Lyon, France.

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Professor Renaud died at the end of October of 2012, not too far away from Bordeaux, leaving behind so many contributions to science, that he was decorated in 2005 with the “Légion d’Honneur”, the highest French distinction.

Professor Renaud appeared on the TV program 60 Minutes, in 1991, explaining what people still refer to as the “French Paradox”. He challenged people to see the benefits of wine rather than its potential risks.

The United States of America, where 60 years before then alcohol consumption was illegal due to prohibition, saw red wine sales go up 40 per cent within days, like a revolution.

Over several decades Professor Renaud studied the effects of how food and diet relate to health and how some nutrients can promote health: Mediterranean diet, anyone?

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He said one day: “If I hadn’t lived with my grandparents and great-grandparents on a vineyard near Bordeaux, perhaps this idea wouldn’t have occurred to me.  When you see people reach the age of 80 or 90 years, who have been drinking small amounts of wine every day, you don’t believe wine in low doses is harmful.”

Nearly a century earlier, Louis Pasteur said “Wine is the most healthy and most hygienic of beverages”.

Even though some of the wine components’ effects, like Resveratrol, a natural phenol, are still being studied, it is now pretty widely accepted that a glass of wine can be good company to a balanced meal. Alcohol is not the devil it used to be anymore, as long as consumed in moderation.

Professor Renaud’s legacy is without doubt a whole new broader vision of the effects of diet on general health.

My take on this, and I do not expect it will get me the Légion d’Honneur, is that your meal will be even better when started with a glass of English sparkling wine.

Jonathan Médard – Winemaker at Rathfinny 

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Fly Fishing in Montana

I was reminded whilst waiting in vain to cross the road in Columbia, South Carolina, that contrary to Dunkin Donuts assertion that ‘America runs on Dunkin’, America runs on gasoline, the car is king and the pedestrian a second class citizen.

Everything is big in America, the cars, the houses, the portions and the fish were no exception. I had never been fly-fishing before and everyone warned me how difficult it was and how I should get some lessons before I went. It seems a little crazy to fly all the way to Helena, Montana to go fishing but that is what I did two weeks and I would thoroughly recommend it. I travelled out via New York to visit friends and back via Columbia, South Carolina to see my eldest son who is studying at USC for a year, you forget how big America is until you try to fly form the northwest to the southeast!

He has started a blog which is hilarious: http://diggersatusc.tumblr.com/

The fishing was fantastic. We fished the Missouri River for two days and then Wolf Creek for a day on a boat. The Missouri river, which starts in Montana and ends up joining the Mississippi, is split by several hydro dams in Montana and the area we fished was below Holter dam. On our first day we lost count of how many large 18-24″ rainbow trout we caught. As our fantastic guide and teacher Nate Stevan said, “each one would have been a ‘day-maker’ on any other river”.

What an introduction to fly-fishing. Of course I have been completely spoilt as day three demonstrated as we fished Wolf Creek. We caught several fish including a decent sized brown trout but nothing as large as the fish in the Missouri.

I have to say that overall I was disappointed with a lot of the wines we found in the US. I tried a lot of Oregon Pinot Noir, which is made in the Burgundian style, light colour and body, but they seemed to lack the depth of the French wines and the prices where astronomic. However, one little gem was the Wild Hogg 2008 Pinot Noir from Russian River Valley in Sonoma, this is a great example of Pinot from that cooler area of the Sonoma Valley, California.

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If you fancy trying fly-fishing I recommend Nate Stevane as a guide, he runs a small outfitters called Trout on the fly Montana (www.montanatroutonthefly.com).

Back in England now to see how the building work is getting along. The foundations of the winery are going in and hopefully we can move into our new office in the next two weeks then we can get organised.

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It’s just grape farming……

As the end of my first full season in a vineyard in England comes to a close I wonder what next year will bring for us?

News of some producers not harvesting due to the poor quality of their fruit and others not even having any fruit to make that decision, leaves the rest waiting for a break in the weather to harvest.

Difficult growing conditions have plagued the 2012 harvests across Europe, with reports of a significant drop in vineyard yield’s from Champagne to Bordeaux, even in Spain and Italy. This year’s UK harvest compounds a series of challenging weather events for farmers – including the worst drought in 50 years in the US and a heat wave in Russia which have led to warnings of rises in food prices globally. In the UK, the cool and wet weather over flowering in June and July both reduced and delayed the fruit set leading to smaller crops and delayed ripening in UK vineyards.

What the general public tend to forget is that a vineyard is just another form of farming (our tractor’s are just smaller). Like any weather dependent industries we are just as liable to good and bad years, which is part of the beauty of wine, it gives us the challenge of trying to make the best from what’s thrown at us, and looking forward to the years when it all goes as it should. It also means we have no two years the same. So here’s looking forward to next year!

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The vineyard team has been working in all conditions this summer, with winter yet to come. They’ve done a great job of getting all the posts and wire in to support the vines – a mammoth task. They’ve just got a bit of general maintenance to do before we start to prepare next year’s planting, removal of fences and adding fertilizer adjustments.  As well as our normal tasks we now have to work around our contractors for the next 12 months while they build the winery (although they are great and flying along at a terrific rate) and it doesn’t make it easy having to work around diggers, dumpers and trucks to-ing and fro-ing. Soon they’ll be into the pruning, which granted won’t be for a couple of months until the vines are fully hardened off and dormant but as with everything it will be upon us before we know it.

Cameron Roucher – Vineyard Manager

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Champagne’s Harvest 2012…

This is the first year since I started in the wine industry that I am not harvesting at this time of year – I said “not harvesting”, not “not working”, I figured I should take advantage of it and take the time to go to Champagne to see how harvest is going.

Despite fears earlier during the growing season that quality might be compromised, with a lot of pressure from both oidium (powdery mildew) and mildiou (downy mildew), August turned out very nice and the vineyards in Champagne were able to catch up, with much improved quality.

Some plots will not yield much, by Champagne standards that is, with less than the authorised 11,000kg per hectare.

Unfortunately, it is predicted that the overall harvest will be about 30% less than last year.

Every year, pickers can be seen all around Epernay, but this year more than usual some are just sitting, waiting for a contractor to call them in. Sadly, for a lot of them it looks like it will just not happen.

That being said, the day I was driving down the Montagne de Reims heading to Epernay, vineyards looked crowded with pickers.

A friend of mine told me, as I was walking through his vineyard: “Look, last year, this block cropped over 10,000kg, this year I think I’ll get 5,000 to 6,000kg at best. I do not need many pickers, really”.

I was also lucky to attend the testing of a new piece of equipment at a cooperative, a robotized crate dumper. The picking crates are transferred from a pallet to a conveyor (this is also robotized), and the crates are conveyed to the opening of the press where they are automatically tipped / emptied, before being conveyed to a crate washer.

At another cooperative, it takes 2 workers about half an hour, to load an 8ton capacity press by hand. The bins are quite heavy, each is about 40kg, and so it is a very physical job.

I sometimes wonder to what extent the industry in France will automatize and try to rely less on human labour.

Some tasks will always be done by humans, because it requires the experience and anticipation that a machine does not have, but some tasks will surely be done by machines, because machines are fast, efficient and do not get tired, or grumpy, or go on strike.

Could one conceive that one-day Champagne might just even think about mechanized harvest?

Jonathan Médard – Winemaker at Rathfinny Wine Estate

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Work on the Winery starts!

After two years of planning we have finally broken ground today on England’s largest purpose built winery at Rathfinny.

Now I have to admit it has been a hard slog. Eighteen months ago we needed Queens Council legal opinion to convince the planning authority that a winery is an agricultural building. We adapted and lowered the building’s height to meet planning objections. We have surveyed for every possible creature you could imagine living on the farm; bats, badgers and reptiles, you name it we have the survey. We have reports on the archeology, ecology and the history of the buildings and £5,000 later we have now relocated two common lizards. However, today we are finally starting to dig out the foundations for the new winery at Rathfinny.

This first phase of the winery will house the grape presses and fermentation tanks and will be capable of producing over 800,000 litres of wine. The building will house a laboratory for the winery, offices and work rest areas for winery staff, as well as a tasting room for larger groups, which extends out onto a balcony with views over the vineyard.

The winery has been sunk into an existing silage clamp enabling the presses to be suspended 6 metres above ground level.  The pressed juice can therefore run into settling tanks with minimal pumping. When settled, the juice will then be pumped to fermentation tanks. We have an area, which will be used as a barrel store as we intend to barrel age a portion of our base wine.

In the first few years we will store all our sparkling wine bottles in the same building. However, by 2016 our production will have expanded and we will then build phase two of the winery, which will include; a dedicated bottling line and barrel store and further ‘on-lees’ wine storage for over 4 million bottles.

Our belief is that the best sparkling wine needs to be bottle aged for a minimum of three years. So we will be patient and leave our sparkling wine on the yeast lees to extract those lovely yeasty flavours until it is perfect to drink.

The winery has been designed to blend into the beautiful environment of the South Downs. The grass roof will be seeded with Southdown’s grassland and is crafted to complement the surrounding landscape. The building features locally sourced oak and flint. A bank of photovoltaic solar panels will be discreetly hidden behind the winery, so that the winery is energy self-sufficient. All water used by the winery will come from our own borehole and we are also building a water treatment plant hidden behind the existing grain barns to treat all wastewater generated, so we will be self-sufficient in water as well.

Martin Swatton designed our winery. He had never designed a winery before, but has worked tirelessly to produce not only a beautiful, sustainable built building, but also an extremely functional work area. He has worked with various consultants on the winery design including David Cowderoy and more recently Gerard deVilliers, from South Africa, who has incidentally designed the internal specifications of most of the wineries around Cape Town.

I’d like to thank all those who have helped us get to this stage, including: Parker Dann, our planning consultants and Buro 4 our project managers. And of course Liz, ‘run ragged,’ my assistant who has chased and hassled to get us to this stage.

I can’t wait for the first bottle – can you?

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2012 Harvest – yields down but prices very firm

Two years ago Russia announced an export ban on wheat and the price went soaring upwards. In 2011 their harvest recovered and exports where resumed. This year droughts have affected North America, Australia and Russia pushing wheat prices up towards new all time highs, and although the UK, on a global scale, is not a major producer and a net importer, overall our yields here have been poor this year as well.

We played the weather lottery again this summer at Rathfinny, and after the warm dry spring we thought we’d have the same problem as last year, a drought that severely affected our yields of wheat, barley and rapeseed. Instead of the feared for drought, the UK had the wettest, coldest, April to June period on record. Similar to grapevines, wheat and barley don’t like the cold, or too much rain, and several farms in the southeast got flooded.

However, despite a broken combine-harvester, all the harvesting has now been completed on the wheat, barley and rapeseed we have growing on the other 400 acres at Rathfinny not under vines. So how did we get on?

Rapeseed yields were similar to last year, a low 1.3-1.5 tons per acre. It looked really good in flower in May and June but, largely due to the cold June weather, the berry size is small hence the low yield.

Barley yields were low, slightly better than last year’s but still a poor 2.2 tons per acre, and better on the upper slopes than lower ones.

Wheat yields were generally good, 3.7-4.2 tons per acre compared to 2.2 tons last year. Bizarrely, the poorer soils yielded better results?

So how are grain prices this year? Well despite Russia’s poor harvest they still plan to export 35-40million tons but, strong global demand and poor yields elsewhere has pushed the wheat price towards new all time highs and it seems likely that, despite the US Department of Agriculture’s attempts to reassure the market that they have sufficient stocks and we shouldn’t panic, prices seem set to reach new highs.

Now this is unlikely to affect the consumer in the UK where, the price of bread is so little to do with the wheat price and more to do with packaging, distribution costs, marketing, and retail margins. However, the big bread producers have already warned that prices will have to rise.

The biggest impact will be felt in the emerging world, where grain is an increasingly important part of the diet. This sort of increase in price will be immediately passed onto a consumer who is already struggling with higher energy prices.

So some good news for farmers struggling with low wheat yields, poor news for the consumer.

On a brighter note we are about the start work on the winery building. Pictures to follow soon.

 

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New Rathfinny Estate Website launched… check it out

I’m currently sitting in Cornwall in a howling gale with horizontal rain and we have had to turn the heating on. However, I can report that recently the weather at Rathfinny has been glorious and the vines are coming on very well.

A couple of panoramic pictures showing the area we planted under vines this year. The area to the left (the west) currently under mustard will be planted next year.

However, the main point of this blog is to launch our new website. It now has a few more bells and whistles under ‘Vision’ showing the location, soils, climate and vineyard planting map.

It has all the old stuff like a link to the latest ‘Newsletter’ and we still carry all the latest ‘News’ about Rathfinny and the English wine industry and a link to the latest weather at Rathfinny under ‘Contacts’.

Check it out….  http://www.rathfinnyestate.com/

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A poor year for English grapes?

We are all putting on brave faces this year but we have to admit that so far it has been a horrible year for English grapes.

Just to recap – After a very warm, dry March (the third warmest on record), we had the coldest (for 23 years) and wettest April on record. May was cold then very warm so was average overall, but better in the north than the south. June turned out to be the wettest dullest month on record. June is a key month for grape growers, the vines normally flower in June but with 145mm of rain, which is twice the normal average, any flowers would have been washed off and it was cold and windy as well. So April – June 2012 turned out to be the wettest period since records began in 1910.

Hosepipe bans were abandoned as reservoirs were replenished and July wasn’t much better. As temperatures dipped and the heating was turned on people were asking whether we would ever have a summer. Luckily, the end of July and early August has turned out to be a little warmer.

So this year has not followed the trend of recent years for hotter and hotter English summers. However, as my kids always point out ‘it’s not global warming but climate change, Dad.’ And the statistics back that up.

Did you know that in June 2012 the average surface temperatures in the northern hemisphere hit an all-time high, 1.3°C above average!

What’s more globally the average land surface temperature for June 2012 was also the all-time highest on record, at 1.07°C above average. The global average surface temperature for January–June 2012 was the 11th warmest on record, at 0.52°C above the 20th century average.

The trouble is that whilst Austria basked in record 37.7°C heat and experienced its warmest June since records began 250 years ago, the average UK temperature was 0.3°C (0.5°F) below the 1971–2000 average, making this the coolest June since 1991.

You won’t have to tell the Americans this. July 2012 was the hottest July in north America since their records began. And the Greenland ice sheet melted at such an alarming pace that scientists couldn’t believe the data.

According to the NOAA what they call an ‘anomaly’ has not just affected Great Britain but the whole of northern Europe. Norway had one of the coldest Junes on record and northern France was also suffered.

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At Rathfinny the biggest problem has been the wind. You normally get the odd summer storm, which whistles up the English Channel. Remember the Fastnet yacht races, which were devastated in 1979 and 2007? This year we had several storms and the winds seem to have been unrelenting. This is not great news for young vines, which stop growing when the wind picks-up. We planted trees as wind breaks in 2010 but they are still too immature to have any effect.

So our vines are still growing and are doing okay but should be a lot bigger. However, I feel sorry for other more established English vineyards that are likely to have very poor year and low crop yields. Of course we could all be saved by a scorching August and September. But the message is to look to the long term, the UK is still a beneficiary of ‘climate change’ and it is likely that next year will follow the trend of the last twenty years and be another scorcher.

In the meantime with a lot of hard work led by Cameron, David, Felix and Ian the trellising work is now nearly complete. We have a vineyard…

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Crystals in your wine sir? – Cold stabilisation and electrodialysis.

I first came across this problem in the mid 1990’s when someone gave me a bottle of Slovenian white wine which must have spent a few days on a frozen lorry travelling across Europe to get to the UK. Tiny crystals of Potassium bitartrate had formed in the bottom of the bottle. It didn’t affect the taste it just made the last drop a bit crunchy!

Don’t be offended if you find crystals in a still white or rose wine, it is not a fault per se, and it might even show that the wine was made in a more “natural” way.  Crystals also do not impact on the organoleptic qualities of the wine: they are just tartrates.

However, at Rathfinny we are talking about sparkling wine. The presence of crystals in a bottle of sparkling wine is pretty much a disaster.

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Combine dissolved CO2 and tartrate crystals and you have a gushing wine fountain, not as spectacular as what one can see at the Formula 1 podium, but sometimes such bottles can lose half of their contents.

[My wife, Sarah, says unless you’re a chemistry bore – stop reading now!]

Tartaric acid is naturally present in grapes. So is Potassium. Both can combine, and while the resulting salt is soluble in grape juice or ‘must’, it becomes insoluble when alcohol is present, and crystals will form at lower temperatures.

What the winemaker will normally do to protect the wine is called “cold stabilization”: different techniques can be used that ensure these crystals will not develop in the wine after it is in the bottle.

The most normal method adopted is to cool the wine down to -4Celcius for a number of days or weeks in order for the crystals to form and drop out of the wine. The wine can then be bottled and is deemed to be “cold stabile”.  However, this requires huge amounts of electricity to reduce the temperature of the tanks of wine to the required temperature and keep it at that temperature for the required length of time. Another method, which we are considering is ‘electrodialysis’.

Sounds high tech? A little bit: Electrodialysis is a technique of separation through membranes of positively charged elements (cations) and negatively charged elements (anions) under electric current. Membranes will let through either cations or anions. It will remove principally tartaric acid, charged negatively, and Potassium, charged positively.

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The whole process is automatic; there is a simple test that has to be done for each wine to determine how the unit is going to run, since each batch of wine is different and unique in its composition.

Why would one choose electrodialysis over more classic cold stabilization techniques?

Well, each technique has pros and cons. For example, the technique using cold temperatures to bring the wine below freezing temperature, will initiate crystallisation in a tank. The crystals will be sticking to the wall and to the bottom of the tank, then the wine will be gently transferred into another tank, without crystals. Cream of tartar (basically, crystals of potassium bitartrate) can be added to the wine to enhance and speed up crystallisation. And as stated earlier this technique is highly demanding in energy and requires lots of cleaning of tanks!

On the other hand Electrodialysis can run continuously, does not require a lot of energy, is safe, precise, does not affect the wine’s qualities, does not require additives of any sort… it requires some chemicals, and some water. All effluents will go directly into our wastewater treatment plant.

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We are still investigating if this is something we want, but it looks like it might be a pretty good option for us down the line.

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