'Sussex Fizz' latest in regional approach shaping English and Welsh wine industry

The emergence of the Sussex PDO and the forthcoming ‘Vineyards of Hampshire’ tasting in London in February, highlight a growing regional focus in the English and Wine Industry, as it continues the search for collective national names for both sparkling and still wines.

The term Sussex Fizz has already been adopted by some of the on-trade establishments in Brighton and Hove and just as Irouleguy in the Basque Country may mean much more to producers and consumers than the generic term ‘South West’ France, Sussex, Hampshire and Kent are can be more alluring terms of wine nomenclature than any bland, blanket use of ‘South East’ England.

These European wine regions with their different climates can produce identities for wine and commercially it is well established in the wine industry, that the association of product with place can give wine producers a competitive edge.

With its qualitative assessment scheme and more stringent winemaking rules than the English wine PDO scheme, the Sussex PDO has already directly prompted the United Kingdom Vineyards Association (UKVA) to tighten up existing English wine PDO rules.

‘We are working on strengthening the wine schemes to make it more of a badge of honour to pass, we are in the process of making improvements to the way the tasting panel works,” admits, Sam Lindo, the former UKVA Chairman.

Meanwhile, ‘Vineyards of Hampshire’ has progressed from being a local customer event into an annual trade event, which shows producers are benefiting commercially from the regional approach that can enhance the individual efforts of brands. It features wines from independent producers who make wine from grapes grown in Hampshire and who pool the costs of the marketing of their wines.

Under the rules of the Sussex PDO, which has provisional status until the EU officially registers the initiative, wines have to be made from grapes grown in Sussex. Wine producers outside of Sussex who make wine from Sussex grapes can continue to reference that fact, however, they cannot mislead the consumer and call the wine a ‘Sussex Wine’ unless it has passed the Sussex PDO.

The EU is meanwhile expected, according to an industry source, to register the single vineyard Darnibole Bacchus PDO for Camel Valley next month. Darnibole Bacchus is a Cornish wine made from grapes grown in a unique and delineated area known as Darnibole.

For the production of its other wines, Camel Valley and producers such as Chapel Down have demonstrated that they can make world-class wines, even if not all their grapes are grown in the same area where their wine is made. UK wine producers who buy in grapes from outside their regions or counties, say it gives them production options, especially if locally, they have a harvest which produces low yields.

However, Chris Foss, Head of Wine at Plumpton College, points outs that wine made from grapes grown in the Sussex (or Hampshire or Kent) can lead to the development of regional characteristics and identities in wine.

“The most important thing when developing characteristics is climate and we do in Sussex have a different climate than the climates of Surrey, Kent and Hampshire,” Foss says.

“Regions can express identities; it is early days, but there could be a Sussex style of wine in the future. The Sussex PDO should be about putting minds and techniques together; a community of people which could generate unique characteristics and ways of making Sussex wines stand out,” he says. “With the Sussex PDO initiative, there should be a conscious aim, to produce regional characteristics of wine, to explore terroir,” Foss says.

Mark Driver, owner of Rathfinny, says the Sussex PDO, which he calls brand Sussex, is about quality, provenance, providing protection for consumers and producers. He says it does not stifle innovation. And it is not an obligatory scheme for producers in Sussex. “The Sussex PDO a quality benchmark for producers that consumers can easily understand and identify with” says Driver.

Like Champagne, sparkling Sussex wines have to be aged for at least 15 months (12 months on lees). Under the English PDO scheme sparkling wines have to be aged like Cremant, for a minimum of nine months on the lees. Under the Sussex PDO scheme, there are more stringent rules on sulphur dioxide and volatile acidity levels.

Rules on quality controls matter to the growing reputation of the English Wine and Welsh Industry: Richard Balfour-Lynn, owner of Hush Heath in Kent, says the biggest threat to English wine is the prospect of fall in retail prices caused by the production of low quality English wine.

“Amateurs jumping into market can pose a threat to quality; cutting corners on quality could cause a subsequent fall in price,” he says. The UKVA says there is also a legal loophole, which allows wines made from grapes grown outside the UK, that are not part of a PDO or PGI scheme to be labelled ‘Product of England’.

Sussex may share similar soils to Champagne, Hampshire and Kent, but Driver says the delimited geographical region of Sussex is in terms of climate, one of the driest, sunniest parts of the UK. In discussions with Brussels, Driver was asked to focus on the human factors of Sussex; it has Plumpton College and the region formed of East and West Sussex has the largest number of vineyards in Britain. Driver says the process of EU registration of the Sussex PDO will continue during the Brexit negotiations. Meanwhile once Britain leaves the EU, it is expected, as mentioned in a recent parliamentary debate on English wine, to have access to European wine quality schemes as a third country. In order for this to happen, the government has to establish a new ‘national wine scheme’ which the UKVA and the English Wine Producers body, EWP says should incorporate all the English PDO/PGI schemes and as well as those pending registration such as the Sussex PDO and Darnibole Bacchus PDO.

The ‘Vineyards of Hampshire’ collective, says the development of a Hampshire PDO has not been officially discussed and it does have its concerns of what could be restrictive practices of the regional approach: for now, it says it will watch Sussex with a close eye.

Readers' comments (5)

  • How difficult and long the journey has been (and continues to be) for the likes of Australia, Chile, South Africa & New Zealand to gain any sense of regional identity with consumers. So why on earth is England wasting time & energy in coming up with (currently) pointless region names & appellations? Please, let's use this creativity in finding ways of getting English / Welsh wines on the map first, and in sufficient quantities, before quibbling over what it should be called.

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  • How anyone can seriously suggest that there are shared characteristics in terroir or climate between wines made in Sussex is laughable. Sussex is a vast county that covers a nearly a fifth of South East England (3,783km2 whilst the entire Champagne region covers around 336km2) and the vineyards within it are spread over large distances. Near Rye in East Sussex for example there is the Oxney Estate and over 100km away near Chichester in West Sussex is the Tinwood Estate. Oxney is planted on Wadhurst Clay of the Wealden Group and Tinwood on Lewes Nodular Chalk from the White Chalk Group.
    As far as I am aware the application for the Sussex PDO was spearheaded by the Rathfinny Estate – very soon to be one of England’s largest sparkling wine producers. They have two main competitors in sparkling wine production in Sussex - Nyetimber & Ridgeview – both well established producers with long histories of medals and trophies at both national and international competitions. Nyetimber uses 100% estate grown grapes whereas Ridgeview purchases in a large quantity of grapes from other growers - seeing as they have both won English Wine Producer of the Year a number of times both approaches seem to work well.
    The problem they face with the Sussex PDO is that Nyetimber has vineyard sites outside of Sussex and Ridgeview purchases grapes from other counties to make its sparkling wines. As such neither of them would qualify for the PDO making Rathfinny the largest producer of ‘Sussex’ sparkling wine.

    Whilst I firmly believe it is important for English wine producers to develop terms for their products rather than the blanket ‘English Sparkling Wine’ or god forbid ‘British Fizz’ the Sussex PDO is not the right way for the industry to head in my opinion. My suggestion would be to develop distinct geographical wine regions such as the North Downs, South Downs, the Weald, and the Hampshire Downs etc.

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  • Regional names on bottles of English Sparkling Wine are and in my opinion always will be meaningless to the general public who will probably still keep referring to it as English Sparkling Wine or even English Fizz. To claim that Sussex has a unique climate or that their soils are somehow special is of course nonsense and the whole Sussex PDO attempt is a great PR exercise but improving quality? Forget it. Sparkling wine is a branded business and the UK sparkling wine producers - big and small - have made a great start. I am amazed when I speak to people all over the world about ESW how much brand recognition there is and we are an industry still in viticultural nappies. The next few decades are going to be fascinating but I suspect that regional PDOs will not be part of the scene.

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  • Totally agree with the above comments. In particular I do not think that regions should be created in fledgling areas, particularly by people who haven't even released any sparkling wine yet. Secondly wine areas should not be based on political counties but on actual areas which consistently deliver certain unique characteristics.

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  • Edwin Allen is absolutely bang on with his comment about the Sussex PDO. It's all very well for Rathfinny and Plumpton to claim that "Sussex" is some homogenous climatic zone, but they're both very near the East / West Sussex border, and consequently have little overlap what's going on on the Kent / Hampshire / Surrey borders.

    It's particularly inappropriate that Rathfinny would be behind such a PDO when they are only at the beginning of their production. Similarities across English wine styles at the moment occur more because of contract winemaking at the likes of Ridgeview, Hattingley or Wiston than because of site. Informed consumers already recognise the names of producers, and don't need the Sussex PDO, whilst novices are faced with struggling to differentiate different PDOs. Rathfinny are in danger of plugging an idea which will undermine the sterling efforts they've made for their own identity by confusing their product with that of other producers.

    The British sparkling moniker is more worthwhile, though. Protection of the term from being used by people outside the English and Welsh wine industries is very wise. Given that our friends in the New World often fail to understand the different regions of the UK, it makes sense to have a legal term that they can use correctly if they must.

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