Rathfinny Wine Estate

Our first award!

It’s been another lovely week at Rathfinny with the sun shining high in the sky. We are thrilled to have been awarded our first award, the Sussex Heritage Award – design for the future, respect for the past – for our Gun Room. Congratulations are especially due to Martin Swatton and Anthony Sherwin who worked collaboratively to create the fine building we now have on the Tye. Do come along as see what we have to offer in the shop, where we’re now doing delicious take away coffees, and what is on show upstairs in the Heritage Centre.


On another note, (literally!) Emily and I have been planning our programme for next year’s concerts with London Conchord Ensemble. Make a note in your diaries now of the date – June 12th – 14th 2015 – as tickets will go fast. Every session will be completely different from the opening night on the Friday through to the Gala evening on the Saturday, interspersed with a morning coffee concert, an educational session, a piano recital and much, much more. Watch this space!


Talking of events you can now book our Estate Tours online. Here’s an extract from a satisfied customer who went on one of our Tea Tours,


            “thank you for the brilliant time we had at Rathfinny’s last Saturday. The whole experience was uplifting, informative and motivational. We enjoyed the first class tea and thank you for sharing Mr and Mrs Drivers awe inspiring vision/reality with us.”


Thank you for those kind words.


Finally, I was given a card the other day with the words that I have seen before, but which always make me smile! I shall have to start working on my quote for our Sussex Sparkling!


“I drink champagne when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with if if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it – unless I’m thirsty.” Lily Bollinger


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It’s flowering time in the Rathfinny vineyard

As Wimbledon fortnight is about to start I have finally found something in common with my 23-year-old son. We both want nice hot dry sunny weather. He wants it because he’s working as a court coverer on number one court, lucky chap, and as long as it’s dry he gets to sit around and watch the tennis all day, and get paid – who calls that work? I want it because our young vines are about to flower and rain would mean poor flowering and what’s called fruit set.


Some of our young vines have some decent inflorescence (a cluster of flowers on the cane) and as long as the weather holds the flowers will be out over the next week or so. Vines flowers are wind pollinated so rely on a gentle breeze to move the pollen from stamen to stigma (remember your biology lessons). If it rains the pollen gets washed away and we end up less of the flowers in the cluster being pollenated, ie ‘poor fruit set’ and then we get less grapes.


So let’s hope that Wimbledon fortnight is nice and dry and warm. Then we might have a good crop this year.

Court coverer

Oh and the court coverers can watch the tennis (that’s him in the middle).

Mark Driver

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Classical concerts in a Winery?

When we designed the Winery we hadn’t thought that it might host a classical concert, but last Wednesday the London Conchord Ensemble, a world-renowned chamber orchestra who played at the Proms last year, entertained a packed house with the most fantastic programme of music including a surprise piece, written by Frank Bridge who for a time lived in Friston, just across the Cuckmere.


I have to say that it was a brilliant evening – the acoustics are really very good, clear, crisp, some might say lively, but even at the back of the winery you could hear every note. They played a fantastic programme, which included works by Pierné, Elgar, Beethoven’s variations on Là Ci Darem La Mano from Mozart’s Opera ‘Don Giovanni’ and ended with Schubert’s ‘The Trout’.


The audience, who enjoyed a glass of Sussex Sparkling during the interval, were asked to guess the mystery piece and although several surmised that it might be Frank Bridge no one guessed the exact name of the composition, “Cradle Song”. We wonder if he wrote it about Cradle Valley where Rathfinny is based?

Anyway a date for the diary – we are hosting a classical music festival at Rathfinny on 12-14th June 2015.

Don’t miss it.

Mark Driver – still humming.

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My secret is out!

Just a very quick blog in what is already shaping up to be a busy week.  I’ll say nothing about Mark reaching his 50th birthday – but suffice it to say that I shall be happy when he finally joins me in the same decade of age!

Sarah in the vines

We are really excited about our concert on Wednesday when the London Conchord Ensemble play at Rathfinny [ http://www.rathfinnyestate.com/events/ ].  We still have a few tickets left but they are selling fast. Booking taken at the Gun Room!

London Conchord at radio3Here is a picture of them playing at Radio 3 yesterday.

If you missed it, you can catch it on iPlayer  http://bbc.in/1p5nJNN and hear what they had to say and play. Described as an Ensemble “Supergroup” because of the distinction of each and every one of the players, they discussed their new association with the Rathfinny Wine Estate.

Unfortunately when asked about whose idea it had been to team up, Emily Pailthorpe of the oboe had to confess how it came about.  Emily and I have a ‘guilty secret’ that goes back more than 10 years.  We love quilting and met years ago at a local quilting group where we lowered the average age to about 75!  The peace of sewing was complimented by the wonderful older ladies who shared their wisdom of the world and somehow put the stresses of being young mums into context.  Emily and I have continued to quilt, snatching stolen hours when we can, just to pause and reflect and enjoy each other’s company.

Emily has watched Rathfinny develop as I have watched the London Conchord Ensemble grow in stature over the years, culminating in their performance at the Proms last year.  When I talked about Rathfinny being more than just a vineyard, where culture, music and art have space and where we share our journey with others, especially children, Emily knew what I meant.  The Ensemble had been looking for somewhere to call their home and so, what started as a gentle friendship, has developed into a really exciting partnership.

I do hope you will be able to join us on Wednesday, but if not, put the weekend date in your diary for next year – 12th – 14th June 2015.

Sarah Driver – Secret Quilter

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Disgorging Sparkling Wine

Jonathan Médard and I spent a couple of days this week in Champagne looking at disgorging equipment at various wineries.

Neck Freezer

When sparkling wine is made in the ‘traditional method’ or Champagne style, the secondary fermentation, to put the bubbles in the wine, takes place in the bottle. So the wine is ‘bottle fermented’ as opposed to Prosecco where the secondary fermentation takes place in a large tank and then bottles are filled with the fizzy wine from the tank (the Charmat method), like Coca-Cola.

To get the bubbles in the wine you need to add a little yeast and a bit of sugar to the wine which then ferments in the bottle creating CO2 (fizz) and a little more alcohol.

You may ask what are the benefits of making ‘bottle fermented’ sparkling wine? The main one is that the bubbles are finer and so they last longer in the glass. You also get wonderful flavours from the yeast when it’s in contact with the wine in the bottle. This process is called ‘autolysis’ and the longer you leave the wine in contact with the ‘yeast lees’ the better, up to a point.  Prosecco, in large vats, doesn’t have the same yeast contact and therefore does not have the depth and complexity of flavour that bottle fermented wine has.

However, after the secondary fermentation you are left with ‘yeast lees’ in the bottle, which you need to remove. Historically this was done by an army of men, ‘Les Remueurs’, who laboured in dark cellars turning the bottles a small amount everyday until they got the yeast into the neck of the bottle.

cloudy wine            le Remuer

Thankfully it is not done like that any longer. We now have machines that ‘riddle’ about five hundred bottles at time over a week.

Riddling machines

But once the yeast is in the neck of the bottle you need to remove it.

robots 1

That is done by freezing the neck of the bottle and allowing that frozen yeast plug out of the bottle and this is called disgorging or in French, dégorgement.


As we move towards making out first bottles of Sussex Sparkling we need to start making decisions about how we store our wine and what sort of disgorging equipment we need.  Hence the trip to Champagne.

storage 1

Storage is going to be our biggest challenge as we are keen to store our wine in the bottle ‘on lees’ for a minimum of three years. So eventually we need storage capacity for approximately four million bottles! Do we use simple cages or riddling cages which can go straight into the riddling machine but cost more and take up more room? We are yet to decide but we found that most cellars are now using robotic arms to load and unload cages and whilst this automation is efficient and doesn’t tire or need a coffee break, it doesn’t come cheap! Don’t tell Sarah.

Robotics 2

I have to say that the Champenoise were so welcoming and happy to impart knowledge of what worked or didn’t work for them when disgorging wine. It is truly amazing how open and friendly everyone in Champagne has been to us.

Now we need to work out the design for the storage, bottling, disgorgement and labeling operation that we will need in three years time.

Roll on summer….

Mark Driver

PS  Sadly Mark decided to share 300 photos of his ‘exciting’ trip to Champagne – just how many metal cages can one girl look at and sound interested (?) – but not the fact of the vast expense involved!  Sarah

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Harvest Labour

Labour will always be an issue in vineyards, it’s not limited to the UK but a worldwide problem.

By their inherent nature, vineyards are labour intensive. Sure there are ways to mechanise certain aspects of the vineyard year, however a lot of the work still needs to be done by hand.  Remember, for sparkling wine, all our grapes will be hand picked!


It is a worldwide phenomenon that the manual vineyard work is done by a migrant workforce. Mexican’s cross the border to work in the US and Canada, Pacific Islanders, Asians, and Indians in Australia and New Zealand, and Southern Europe’s vineyards are full of people from the North African nations.

The UK has traditionally been similar to other Northern European wine producing nations in using predominantly Eastern European migrants. While not all vineyards have a migrant workforce, many and in particular the larger scale operations have relied heavily on the available labour pool from Romania, Poland, Lithuania, etc.

There is a reason for this ……..

An example from a labour provider in the horticultural sector is a perfect way of explaining the phenomenon:

In 2013 they (Horticulture staff agency) advertised 43 roles on the Job Centre Plus website between March and June

  • 1000 click throughs and 90 expressions of interest
  • 11 applications and 11 interviews
  • 4 no shows, 6 jobs offered and appointed, 1 not prepared to ‘commute’
  • Of the 6 appointed: 1 dismissed, 2 left the job, 3 still in posts

That’s a total of 3 people in work out of 1,000 that looked at the job, for 43 roles!

People often wonder why there are immigrants coming into the country “taking” all the jobs.  It’s because the local population of unemployed are generally unwilling to do this work, as it’s very seasonal manual work.

This is not the only issue; high areas of agricultural/horticultural/and viticultural work correspond with low Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) claimant counts. For us, the number of people on JSA in both Eastbourne and Brighton are dropping, and are both well below the national average, which means there just aren’t the number of people out there that will do this work.

So we need to search further afield for our seasonal labour force.

Harvest for vineyards is late September/early October, dependent on the season and lasts for four to six weeks.

So what we are looking for is good people willing to put in some graft over the harvest, in all weather conditions. Yes it will be hard, yes it will be long days, but it is rewarding, both financially and morally. We even have accommodation for 46 people and can pick you up from the local station!

Please get in touch with us if you are interested.  We really do want to try and employ a UK workforce if we can.

If you’re interested, send your details to – info@rathfinnyestate.com

Cameron Roucher – Vineyard Manager

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Bubbles and Ballast

Since my last blog it has been a hugely eventful time for Rathfinny Wine Estate. Mark has already described the opening of the Winery by Dr Vincent Cable and I don’t think that could have gone any better.  Mark really pulled in some favours to ensure the sun shone and the wind subsided so all our guests could utilise the veranda and marvel at the expanse of vines!


Soil all removed and ready for stone

Those bubbles were swiftly put to one side as I was soon requested to meet with our contractors constructing our new access road. Geological percolation and compaction tests aren’t new to me, but the peculiarities of C30 or C35 concrete, ACO drains and bonded expansion joints have been a wonderful learning curve.

Stepping back a bit, I think it is important to state that this new road was put forward for planning permission due to the unsafe nature of our current track. Not merely the steepness of the current track but more importantly, how it meets the main B-road between Seaford and Alfriston. Working in close partnership with the South Downs National Park Authority, who are our planning authority, we were able to design a scheme which suited our needs and fitted into the undulating and sinuous landscape.

Trees had to be protected, archaeologists were required to excavate the entire area, a new landscaping scheme was approved, concrete samples assessed and health and safety protocols were duly adhered to. And only then, could Woollards commence the actual construction.


So the Romans were here! A small section of pot but no gold coins

The concreting has gathered a pace and should be finished in the next week or so (weather dependent) and then we can start with the sympathetic landscaping. This will entail some ‘gapping up’ of the current wooded area with some native saplings and then some larger native specimen trees to semi line the road. These trees will not form a full avenue as the main attraction as you enter the new road will be the vines. At the moment the field is sown with mustard, which is our break crop and natural compost provider, but early next year the vines will be planted.


A rare species on the Downs – JCB doublediggerus


Concrete – nice.

This week I dispensed with my steel toe caps to take on the role of ‘wing man’ with Georgia, as we hosted our first delegate day. An eclectic international mix of delegates had a tour and tasting on their first day and then returned the following day for a full agenda of board meetings.   They did manage to stop proceedings for some fresh fruit mid-morning and chef’s delicious locally sourced lunch menu and even a wee cheeky cake in the afternoon. I may be biased, but what a wonderful location to hold a board meeting or seminar.



Richard James

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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: