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The Arrival of a Sussex Sparkling Appellation: A Sad Day for English Wine

I don’t normally comment on current news in my blog – but the announcement of a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) for wines from Sussex in southern England [] merits a comment, as a retrograde step for English and Welsh sparkling wine production.  The mistake is a nuanced one – but it’s very significant, and shows a failure of cultural understanding, which is where I become interested.

PDOs in Europe are broadly about the ecosystem of the vine – what might be called terroir.  They may be vast (Champagne, or AC Cotes du Rhone) or small (Pauillac or Le Montrachet) but they are about what gives a wine their style.  The same is true of Chianti, Rioja, and the Pfalz.  A large PDO like Champagne cuts across four departements (French counties) and two very distinct regions.  Le Montrachet is a vineyard split between two villages and Rioja includes three administrative regions of Spain.  Yet they share common climatic (and often geological) features, use the same grape varieties and have a common culture of production – of what they are trying to make and how they are in fact making it.

The Sussex PDO is not like that.  Its boundaries are East and West Sussex – not rooted in environment per se but stretching back to tribal identity in Anglo-Saxon England and then medieval local organisation.  Yet the assumption is that because this is where local authorities are based, this is where wine will have a common character.

This is not just an Old World worry (even if it may be a first world problem!).  The Carneros AVA at the north of San Francisco Bay traverses two counties – Napa and Sonoma – because both parts of those counties share a specific climatic effect.  Margaret River was established across two often competing shires because from Karridale to Dunsborough there are broadly similar environmental characteristics.  Gimblett Gravels in New Zealand is small part of Hawkes Bay (about 800 hectares) with its own legal protection because of a specific alluvial soil.  Sussex PDO has none of this: does Tinwood (to the west and fairly coastal) really have more in common with Oastbrook, (90 kilometres to the east, right in the middle of the Weald and inland) than with Hambledon in Hampshire (like Tinwood, on the edge of the South Downs National Park)?  And surely Oastbrook shares much more with the Kent vineyards around the Weald such as Harbourne.  A Sussex PDO merely tries to fit the subtleties of regional wine styles into a politician’s or administrator’s worldview which is a recipe neither for accuracy nor success.  (Think about how Italian politicians and bureaucrats meddling in DOC and DOCG provisions has created a history of oenological failure).

There is, however, a bigger reason why this matters, and that is ‘the’ consumer.  Consumers are just getting used to sparkling wine from Great Britain.  They don’t have the means yet – nor even more the desire – to explore regional differences.  Only 25 years on from the first success for Nyetimber the key task for the English and Welsh wine industry is to establish, in the minds of consumers, their sparkling wine as the great wine which it can be.  That goal is well underway but it is nowhere near finished – especially given the pricing of the wines.  This aim is fundamental, and anything which confuses the issue just detracts from that key marketing goal.

Finding out what differentiates wine from different places takes time.  Margaret River was first planted in 1967 and only now are wine producers beginning to see the sub-regional differences in wine styles.  In Burgundy it took hundreds of years to see to those variations clearly (and it is still being worked on).  English and Welsh wine producers are beginning to understand some of these differences slowly but to impose a PDO at this stage (particularly one based on administrative boundaries) is just a distraction from the bigger question

Klinker Brick Old Ghost Zinfandel 2018

Anyone who knows me will be astonished that I include this wine in my record of ‘interesting wines’.  A rich, sweet-fruited touching 16% abv monster from a warm part of California?  Steve, you’re going gaga in your old age.  However, remember this is about interesting wines – not wines I necessarily like.  Having said that – this does have a certain appeal to me.

What’s interesting about this is that it’s a wine made by a producer in a less trendy region, trying to make wines which fit there, which characterise their place of origin, and which – within those limits – are honest and well-made.  And the story is good.  Why the ‘Old Ghost’?  Because the owner, Steve Felten, went out into the vineyard one foggy morning with his head trained vines barely visible; they peered as apparitions through the mist and it seemed as if a ghostly farmer had been working them.  The label is a pretty good representation of this.  The wine region is Lodi, in the Central Valley of California, the hot, irrigated centre of cheap wine production in the state (although having said that I remember Robert Mondavi saying that Lodi sits directly in line to a break in the hills leading out to San Francisco bay – so it benefits from some the cooling Pacific breezes swirling through the gap).  The point is that here is a producer who acknowledges that what they do best is hot climate, bold, dynamic wines, and within that context wants to make a balanced, representative wine.  They are committed to old vines, and it seems that these zinfandel grapes come from stock which is over 100 years old.  They are, to their credit, also trying to create some momentum for this approach and for regional identity in their part of California – a cooperative commitment which I admire.  They have the standing to do this: the family are fifth generation, having grown grapes since the end of the 19th century. 

So, what of the wine?  It fits expectations.  Quite deep – though not opaque – appearance, which is typical of zinfandel.  Very intense brambly red and black fruit aromas, a touch of dusty oak and a bit herbal.  Very sweet oak on the palate, only moderate tannins but extremely full bodied with a very warm finish but great length and a hint of bitterness.  Powerful and bold are overused wine adjectives – but they are correct for this.

Having said all this, let’s have a disclaimer.  The wine is represented by (amongst others) one of my former students, Jacylyn Stokes, who comes from Lodi and is passionate about developing the reputation of the region including her own family’s business.  You can use this to dismiss what I say as biased if you want.

Volcanic Slopes Vineyards Pure 2018

We hear a lot about the role of complexity in good wine.  For me, along with balance, power and interest it is one of the four key factors in determining how good a wine is.  Yet I think complexity has a twin which is not identical.  Complexity has substance and intellect – it challenges you, may even threaten you, it teases you as you try to puzzle it out, and laughs at you when you get it wrong but it can draw you in with its argument and win you round, so you see what it was like all the time.  Its sibling is different – quieter yet immediately striking.  Quite simply the twin is just stunning – that’s all that matters.  No challenge, no threat, no bluster, merely quiet, welcoming beauty.  Its name is purity.  There are wines which seduce not by their complexity, but just because they are so pure that you need nothing else.  I sometimes see them as the vinous equivalent of water – not tasteless but crystalline, innocent, wholesome yet very, very sexy (and if you think that overrates water then just imagine a full-on thirst).  The twins aren’t mutually exclusive.  You can find some wines which have both purity (the immediately striking sibling) but then complexity, which pushes its way to the front subsequently and demands attention – though usually, as a friendly sibling it tries to complement rather than compete.  Riesling is a classic variety where purity shines (in the greatest cases with complexity alongside it) but there are others and recently I’ve realised that assyrtiko is often one of these too.  One thing which tends to mask the purity of a wine (whilst giving complexity) is oak – particularly new oak.  One reason, therefore, why riesling typically often expresses purity.  Having said that older oak may be less of an impediment – I’m thinking here of chablis which has had a few months in older (and perhaps larger) barrels to fill it out slightly but which can remain mouth-wateringly pure.

Pure – VSV

This wine is produced under the label Volcanic Slopes Vineyards – but it is a ‘boutique’ wine production from the much better known Estate Argyros on Santorini and the label doesn’t focus on the VSV company – rather on the name of the wine.  Argyros consistently make some of the best assyrtikos from the island (which means best from the world).  There are a range of styles, all well done, but this caught my attention when I tasted it at Prowein recently.  The wine is made comes from the Episkopi (bishop’s) hillside near there main winery, but with separate production in an old canava – (traditional Santorini small wine production building).  This is the only wine currently made under the VSV label.  We often hear producers liking to boast about their old vines (one recent winemaker told me that his old vine wine was from 25 year old vines!)  This is from 150 year old vines (not an unusual feature of Santorini vineyard) and it has been fermented in cement (an old-fashioned though returning material for fermentation tanks), which I think has contributed a bit to the purity of the fruit.

It has some floral notes yet nothing dominates; the flavours are finely integrated.  It’s a lighter, more delicate style than some of their other wines but the purity shines through.  Lovely acid balance, great length and the wine will age well.  Santorini wines are becoming more and more expensive, but this is worth whatever they want to charge (and will still be a lot less than grand cru burgundy).

Maybe I saw purity in this wine because of a not-so-subtle prompt from the name, which overtook my tasting objectivity.  However, I think not; in this case it called ‘pure’ because that is exactly what it is.

Karam Touriga Nacional 2019

One of the interesting facets of the world of wine is the choice grape varieties have had to be travellers or homelovers – a mirror of the recent, nonsensical, socio-political ‘somewhere’ versus ‘anywhere’ argument that apparently underpinned brexit in the UK.  The former are happy being in many, exciting parts of the world, the latter are rooted in a specific, secure place.  So it is with grapes.

Semillon and chenin blanc were probably in South Africa before 1700 and in Australia soon after 1800; merlot arrived in Italy probably 200 years ago and in Chile 150 years ago.  These vines come from the west coast of France – so of course they were shipped around the world, but German riesling also travelled far, to Australia and even to eastern Europe and Russia and zinfandel got to California by 1849.  And, of course, cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay now bestride the world like a pair of colossi.  Yet on the other hand, even within Italy the great nebbiolo has remained limited to the north west (essentially Piemonte) and corvina to the area around Verona.

Slowly, of course, this is changing.  Nebbiolo is in the Adelaide Hills, gruner veltliner in New Zealand and albarino near Lodi in California.  I have to say, however, that when I’m exploring a traditional wine producing country, I’m not that interested in what they do with international grapes.  Chardonnay in Hungary, Merlot in Greece and Cabernet in Georgia don’t really do it for me.  So being presented with a touriga nacional from Jezzine in Lebanon was another of those ‘really?’ moments – they have great ‘adopted’ varieties from the 19th century and indigenous ones from way back in the medieval past which are much more interesting and fun.  Touriga, from the Douro Valley in Portugal, and traditionally used to make port, is another of the grapes that has only just begun to venture out of its homeland – and I was surprised to find it wash up in the hills south of Beirut.

It’s a dense purple wine; and a very intense nose with black fruit: blueberry and plum.  The palate has a very aromatic attack, rose petals and almost Turkish delight – also very spicy.  The alcohol is quite high, but the weight of fruit sustains that easily.  It has great length.  Probably not easy to find – it’s not even listed on their website yet.  But when you are next in Jezzine…

Tokaj Classic Szamorodni 2013.

I first came across the Tokaj Classic wines over 10 years ago, and bought some of their 2005 and 2003 aszu wines.  The wines were stunning, and I still have a few left in my cellar.  I’d never met the Hungarian founder of the company before, and when he contacted me in advance of Prowein it seemed like a good chance to find out more, and renew my acquaintance with the wines.  András Bruhács is an interesting man.  He was a cellist for most of his life (mainly playing at the Wiesbaden opera) but he only settled in Germany when he left Hungary in 1968 as a political refugee.  His father had had a small vineyard in the south of the country, and András helped him out.  However, after he fled the country his main focus on wines was as consuming rather than producing it.  After the fall of the Iron Curtain Hungary opened up slowly, but András had rather lost touch with the country’s wines – if I understood correctly dry red Bordeaux was his focus, and he drunk good chateaux.  In 1993 his wife saw a cover of the magazine Newsweek headlining T]tokaj as ‘the uncut diamond of Hungary’; this prompted him to return to his home country and buy a few hectares of vineyard.  He was helped early on by one of the great figures in the post-communist revival of tokaj, István Szepsy.  His first vintage – in 1994 – was only a few hundred bottles but one the first ever Hungarian Gold Medal at the International Wine and Spirits Competition – and successive wines continued to repeat this feat.

I asked András who his favourite composer is.  A difficult question – but he said in the end Mahler.  That makes sense, for the wines I have in my cellar are bold, intense and very complex wines with great length (though not quite the persistence of a Mahler symphony); perhaps as a winemaker he mirrors the composer – although he said he is now looking for elegance rather than intensity in his wines.

His 2013 szamorodni certainly has elegance.  Although not an aszu wine it’s still sweeter than most sauternes, but with beautiful, beautiful acidity providing great balance.  There’s lovely aromatic botrytis, and typical apricot jam and marmalade on the palate.  Great value, as the price of Tokaj’s more prestigious aszu wines is rising more and more.

Interesting Wines – An Update

The return in mid-May of Prowein in Dusseldorf – the largest wine fair in the world – allowed me to taste lots of new wines, and meet some new producers.  As a result I’ll be posting a notes about a number of wines over the next few weeks.  Remember though, that this is about wines which have a back story, not necessarily lovely wines (although some of them are).  For this blog it’s the background that is important, rather than aesthetic quality.

Wine and Culture – the Book

This is a rather different post from normal – it’s about something very personal, rather than an exploration of a specific aspect of wine and culture around the world.  You could say that it is a merely promotional comment, but it’s also designed to give a rather broader insight into my work.  So…

After almost three years hard work, with six brilliant co-editors, today sees the release of the Routledge Handbook of Wine and Culture. We examine the cultural context of wine consumption and production from a range of disciplines in the Humanities, Social Sciences and Business with 45 great contributions from 57 of the leading authors in the field – and you can get to see how culture shapes wine in myriad ways and places: China, Champagne and Texas, label typefaces and backyard production, religion and fashion theory – then many others. It’s an academic book and not really designed as bedtime reading but I think it really does move on our understanding of wine – and the fact that it is not limited to a single discipline is very important to me. Too many people only engage with wine philosophically, or politically, or anthropologically, without learning about the other ways to explore the drink.

This is the project that has engrossed me professionally whilst I’ve been writing this blog.  When I was contacted by Routledge and asked to edit a book on wine and culture I immediately declined.  I’d just come out of editing two other books and – more significantly – I knew instantly that such a project would have so wide a disciplinary context that it would be beyond my experience and knowledge.  ‘Culture’ in this sense has to bring in expertise from history and geography, sociology and anthropology, cultural studies and text, economics and business – and I only have limited knowledge of most of these.

Twenty-four hours later I rang back and said that I had changed my mind, on condition that I could assemble a team of editors from different backgrounds and experience who would complement what I had to offer and enable us to create a truly interdisciplinary text.  This has allowed me to work with a number of colleagues with whom I had already researched and whom I was confident would strive to create a wide-ranging and genuinely useful book.  The process has been difficult at times (how do engaged researchers from seven different fields even agree on a definition of culture?) but it has been collegial and creative, as well as intellectually challenging and enriching. 

Why wine and culture?  Each of us editors is fascinated by this relationship, and each of us has a different story to tell about what piqued our interest in it.  Before I became an academic I spent a few years selling wines in liquor stores in Sydney.  The wine was interesting – but equally so were the people.  There was the lady who, every few days, would come in for the ‘cheapest red wine that you have’; when after some months of this I asked her why it was always the cheapest she answered that she didn’t like the taste – but had been told that it was good for her health to have a glass each evening.  The businessman, a self-confessed connoisseur, who insisted on ‘a man’s drink – full bodied red’ and refused the suggestion of pinot noir as you only have to look at it to see it is weak and a wine for women. The elderly couple I encountered outside a professional tasting of French wines who were interested in what was happening but then, when I explained it to them, retorted ‘why do that? We have perfectly good wines here in Australia and don’t need any of that French stuff’.  The wine store owners who insisted that they weren’t running a business but were ‘living a lifestyle’.  The office worker who didn’t drink wine often but when she did enjoyed it because it took her back to her youth in Croatia when she would be sent by her father to the corner shop with a plastic bottle to fill with wine from their barrel; ‘it would last us about two days’.  The winemaker who claimed that idea of terroir was just a French excuse for badly made wine.  All these stories and myriad others were as intriguing as the wines themselves, and an interest in what sparked such various views of the drink led me a decade later to write a book about its cultural and social context.

Finally, we note in the Conclusion to this volume that one of the negative aspects of wine is the vast amount of water consumed in its production.  We, the editors, enjoy wine immensely.  In part reparation for the environmental problems caused by our passion we have decided to donate the royalties from this book to the charity WaterAid –

DO Baragioeu – Another Unexpected Italian Wine

(Thanks to Nicole Mascioli for help with this post).

Anyone who has followed my blog recently will be aware of my obsession with northern Italian wines made from no longer legal grape varieties (see my last two posts).  This prompted one of my Italian students in Dijon, Nicole, to talk to me about her experience with similar types of wine in the town she grew up in.  This is Cuggiono, about 30 kms from Milan and in the Ticino valley at the border of Lombardy and Piedmont.  It’s a place where there used to be many vineyards until phylloxera yet, as happened in much of Europe (even where I live in Burgundy) most of them reverted to waste land and forest or other agricultural use after the insect plague.  Cuggiono is the only town locally to maintain this viticultural heritage.  It is on the Ticino which carves out a national park in the area, and it is where Nicole’s parents and grandfather were raised as well.  She generously spent some time doing local research on this heritage for me.

The vines all disappeared from the 1920s onwards, but in 1982 the local historical museum in the town decided to recreate the old wines which were made there, and which formed part of the village’s cultural history.  There was a conscious effort to replicate the former styles of wine, but 60 years on many of the people who promoted the idea knew nothing of viticulture; however, a local professional agronomist was part of the team and advised them.  This, then, was a group of older people who were proud of their identity (and they still are) and wanted to remember it before it was completely forgotten.

By the 1980s the use of American grape varieties was banned in Italy for making wine except for personal use.  Many people, including Nicole’s grandmother, had been persuaded the banning of these grapes was due to the health danger they posed, so she pulled up her grapes, incorrectly thinking they were harmful (even though she was no longer making wine with them and it was only a small plot).  This was the same year, however, that some locals, based around the town’s historical museum, decided to recreate the wine so that the tradition did not die.  The found some local vines and used them to plant a vineyard in the public gardens of the town and, subsequently began to make wine.  Children do the foot pressing in a plastic vat; they used to do this in the past as their pressing was softer than adults (weight) and more could get in the tub at once.  Meanwhile, the adults harvest and manage the fermentation and bottling.  Nicole helped with the vintage at times when she was younger.

Initially the blend was Clinton and Fragolino with some other traditional local varieties.  However, the latter didn’t work soe well, and now it includes some freisa (an indigenous piemontese variety with rather bitter tannins but attractive soft red fruit aromas) plus cabernet France (as it resists mildew well) as well as the fragolino (which comes from the Veneto), and clinton.  The wine is not to be recommended for those searching for elegance and complexity; however, for its creators it is not about crafting a good wine – but shaping ‘their’ wine.  This is about maintaining a fading collective memory or the reinvention of a tradition ‘rooted in our way of being’.  Typically the wine is drunk with pan tramvai, a local dried fruit bread.  So not just the production, but the consumption also seeks to maintain the heritage.

By 2020 they were bottling 500 bottles.  The wine has an has an invented label – it is entitled ‘Baragioeu DO’ (not ‘DOC’ – the standard Italian PDO designation, which would be illegal).  Baragioeu is a dialect word for ‘wine.  The label also records that this bottle is from the is the ‘38th anniversary’.  My bottle is numbered 358/500.  Because it is an illegal wine it can’t be sold so the museum kindly gave me a bottle.

Clinton II

This is a follow-up to my previous post about clinton – the almost unknown grape of North American origin which has found a new home in parts of northern Italy. My colleague in Dijon, Lara Agnoli, who hails from one of the villages where the grape was historically grown, very kindly used her contacts (i.e. her mother-in-law!) to talk to some of the older locals who traditionally used clinton to make wine.  She recorded the discussions which give a lot more insight into how the residents felt about the variety and the wines they make from it.  Most of the information comes from two brothers who have independently made wines.

In fact, they mainly make a wine which they call ‘clinto’.  I think this is probably clinton – but they use that name (spelt clintòn) for a grape which they distinguish as being more tannic and bitter; this, I suspect, is just another clone of the same variety – and given how tannic and bitter the clinto is then the wine from the clintòn variant must be completely undrinkable. They say that the grape is often blended with another variety which they call seipe.  I wonder if this is a synonym for isabella – with a sweet, jellyish aroma – but my friend Lara says that it isn’t.  I’ve not been able to trace any reference to it in and searches I’ve made.  Isabella is also called fragola in northern Italy.  It produces high levels of methanol (very toxic alcohol) rather than the less-toxic ethanol which is more common in most wine (made from vitis vinifera).  The planting of isabella was banned in France in the 1930s because of this toxicity and it was grubbed up compulsorily in the 1950s because it was perceived to be so dangerous, but it still exists in this part of Italy.

The brothers said that their father planted these grapes in the early 1920s – that will have been immediately after the crisis caused by phylloxera in the villages.  They imply that he was given the variety to propagate because locals could not afford to buy new vines and it was also planted in other parts of the Veneto like Padua and Vicenza.  As I noted in the last post on this subject, clinto/clintòn resisted phylloxera due to its American roots.  The locals quickly took to it.  The vines were reproduced by layering (they noted that nearly everyone grew clinton at the time) and probably the fact that it was not one of the grapes used by rich local landowners and the large wine businesses around Verona made it attractive as a symbol of their independence.  Historians talk of ‘the invention of tradition’ – the creation of a story with what seems to be an ancient origin (perhaps reflecting vaguely what may have happened in the past but more often an idealised dream of what it should have been).  Clinto/clintòn quickly became one of these invented traditions.  The fact that you could reproduce it by layering offered more continuity with previous centuries of wine-making than the fact that it was American contradicted that continuity.  The tradition was cheap wine made on the farm rather than an ancient heritage of indigenous Veronese grapes.  The brothers also note that they tried ‘French’ grapes at some stage; however, whilst they were good to eat they made poor wine – as did merlot (seen to be Italian rather than French as it has grown there for at least 170 years).  The rich soils of the plain here may have promoted excess vine growth and overcropping.

Around Verona, we were told, the wines made from these grapes were in contrast to the ‘worked’ wines made by the large companies.  They were artisanal, fermented in large vats then stored in glass demijohns.  They sold the wines to relatives and a few friends.  ‘They were fighting to get it’ we were told!  Maybe that was due to the price; it was sold for 500 lire a litre (about 25 eurocents). 

There is a festival in early October in one local village to celebrate the wines made from the grape.  This, however, will be completely different from most wine festivals around the world.  Those tend to be inclusive, welcoming visitors (if only because they have a marketing and promotional dimension).  This will be about reinforcing community identity, maintaining ties to the communal past and educating local residents about social ties, loyalty and the need for solidarity.  It will specifically not want external participants because it is the threat of the outside and a world which is changing that will be the focus of the celebration.  So, it makes me want to go there, to see how it operates! However, the ‘worked’ wines from the large companies slowly became more affordable (as the population became wealthier) and fewer locals wanted to buy the villagers’ hand-made, ‘authentic’, offerings.  Meanwhile the family needed to buy treatments for the vines to deal with mildew and that became more and more expensive.  The brothers’ father went on making the wines until about 1984 /85.  They stopped as it was too hard to sell anymore.  Yet they kept one vine to remember their father by, as it was his wine, and they reproduce it by layering canes in the soil and letting them root.  However, even this vine is harder and harder to keep alive; it doesn’t like the erratic weather that has come with climate change; the humidity and heat is causing the layering to fail.  Thus we have an invented tradition – one which has only existed about 100 years but which probably reinforces thousands of years of peasant rebellion against authority alongside communality and rural cohesion – yet which is fading to a close.

Unbranded Clinton, 2020

The wine was given to me in an old prosecco bottle, stoppered with a crown seal. Pale raspberry colour. A ‘striking’ nose (my partner’s description, attempting not to be too rude.) Strawberry jelly served up in old leathery boots down in a cellar. Spritzy (perhaps malolactic fermentation in the bottle). The tannins are not high but are dusty and unpleasant on the finish without being overwhelming. The acid is unpleasantly high (and I write as one who likes nebbiolo). Strawberry jam fruit, again leather and very bitter; acid also dominates on the finish. A horrible wine. Without question the worst that I have drunk since the beginning of Covid. However, the cultural context of this wine, as a symbol of peasant culture, a counter to the elite (and expensive) local wines, a challenge to the Italian viticultural establishment, and a means of crystallising the work and heritage of past generations, makes it a fascinating marker of rural identity. For more on this see here.