English Sparkling Wine: Much Ado About Nothing

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Much like Shakespeare’s play, the English wine producers are embroiled in a fuss about appearances. If you paid attention at school, you’ll remember that “Nothing” in Elizabethan English is a synonym of “Noting” with the meaning of “Noticing.”

In March 2015, some English wine producers started lobbying for the creation of an appellation – a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) – for their heartland.

An appellation is a legally defined and protected geographical indication used to identify where the grapes for a wine were grown; other types of food often have appellations as well. Restrictions other than geographical boundaries, such as what grapes may be grown, maximum grape yields, alcohol level, and other quality factors, may also apply before an appellation name may legally appear on a wine bottle label. (Wikipedia, source of all information.)

The chain of chalk and greensand which is so interesting for sparkling wine producers (supposedly the same ridge that stretches through Champagne) spans the counties of Kent, Sussex, Hampshire and Surrey in southern England.

south-downs-national-park

The area known as the South Downs in southern England ,where most of the English vineyards are located.

Both “English Wine” and “English Quality Sparkling Wine” have already PDO status (since 2007.) The recent divisions have formed because “Sussex” (by which, one would assume the two distinct counties of West Sussex and East Sussex are being bundled together) is looking to obtain its own PDO.

“We believe that Sussex will become synonymous with high-quality sparkling and still wine” (Mark Driver of Rathfinney – the main driving – haha – force behind the proposed creation of ‘Sussex.’)

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) signed off on the idea in February 2016 and it now looks set to be accepted by the European Commission within the coming months.

As I see it, there are three major problems with this:

  1.   Surely, if Sussex (which currently represents 25% of England’s total wine production) is given a PDO, the other counties (such as Kent, Hampshire, Surrey, Devon and Cornwall…) will follow suit.

I believe that this dilutes the ‘brand’ of English Sparkling Wine on a international level.

2.  If the PDO is a guarantee of quality for the consumer, then ‘Sussex’ does not go far enough. As I understand it, the potential Sussex PDO could be used for still, as well as sparkling, wines. Obviously, it’s fairly evident to a consumer looking at a shelf of wines to determine which is a bottle of fizz… but what if, a few years down the line, Sussex producers start popping up with pét-nats or wines made by the charmat method (i.e. prosecco) or even sweeter wines?

Maybe England’s next PDO should communicate to the consumer how the wine has been made and therefore what style of bubble they will have in their glass.

3.   Let’s, for just a minute, talk about territories. There are many small producers who have their vineyards in one county and their winery in another. Up until now, this has never been a problem but they stand to lose out big-time should the ‘Sussex’ proposal be accepted. The big names (Nyetimber and Chapel Down are the first two to come to mind) don’t need a PDO. Their very names already speak for themselves. However, there is still a lot of contract winemaking happening, as small producers tend to share winemaking facilities. It is these smaller wineries who would not be eligible for this more prestigious title and yet it is precisely these people who we should be protecting and promoting.

If we need something other than English Sparkling Wine, why not a more inclusive geographical area (South Downs, for example) and far more attention to the way in which the wine is made?

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Beautiful Sussex countryside

I’m not the only person in the wine industry who is yet to be convinced that the Sussex vineyards have a je ne sais quoi over the neighbouring counties.

“100% Sussex wines will not differ in style, type, quality, price, etc from English wines – so what’s the point?” (Steven Skelton MW)

“To say something coming out of Sussex in better than Kent is nonsense,” (Guy Tresnon, Chapel Down – well he would say that… Chapel Down is based in Kent)

For my two pence, I believe that the name of a PDO status should not be decided upon based on political boundaries.

In a strange twist of fate, Pouilly-Fumé is now *technically speaking* part of Burgundy. The French jiggled up their regional borders this past year but nobody is going to claim that the famed vineyards are no longer lying along the Loire river.

I’m not denying that the part of power of a Protected Designation of Origin is its ability to immediately conjure up a particular place in the mind of the consumer. Roquefort and Brie de Meaux are two examples of protected foods which bear the name of their town or village. Yet in the case of English wine, which can’t trace its history back to Roman times (Roquefort can!), we’re trying to invent tradition.

I talked about this with Simon Bladon (during my visit to his Jenkyn Place in 2015.) Incidentally, he’s one of the producers whose vineyards are in Hampshire and his winery is in Sussex. He was in favour of a wider, but no less English, term such as: “Albion.”

I’m sure the sparkling wine producers in Champagne and northern Italy would like that! 😉


Further reading

An appellation for Sussex? (Decanter, March 2015)

Chapel Down rejects Sussex appellation (Decanter, March 2015.)

Protected Status Expected for Sussex Wine (Drinks Business, February 2016)

Technical Specifications for the English Wine PDO (Gov.uk, August 2007)

Industry Facts on the United Kingdom Vineyards Association website

A Walk Through The English Vineyards (April 2016)

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