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.

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