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