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A sense of place: Sussex wine

Categories: Product stories

A small but ambitious band of English winemakers are attempting to protect Sussex wine with the same status enjoyed by the likes of champagne and cognac. But could it be a double-edged sword?

Words: Daniel Tapper

I’m going to lay my cards on the table right now; as a brewer and beer writer, I strongly believe that beer can be every bit as elegant, diverse and expressive as the world’s best wine, not to mention infinitely more complex. But—and this may ruffle some feathers within the beer-making fraternity—I also believe that wine is more often than not a truer expression of place.

Why? Because while beer is often made from an international hotchpotch of hops, malt and municipal water, wine is largely wrought from a single fruit, grown under specific climatic and geological conditions. Sorry about that beer-heads.

Wine’s astonishing capacity to express terroir has captured the imagination of a small but ambitious band of Sussex wine producers, who are pushing to have their products bestowed with the same PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status as champagne, bordeaux and cognac. Definitely no pie in the sky, the proposal has so far been approved by Defra, meaning it is just one step away from European Commission sign-off, which could happen as early as summer 2016. If it gets the go-ahead, all bottles boasting the ‘Sussex wine’ label would have to be produced using county-grown grapes, processed in Sussex wineries.

Unique microclimate
“Thanks to its unique microclimate and excellent soil, Sussex produces some of the best wine in the country,” says Sam Linter, head winemaker at Sussex’s award-winning Bolney Estate. “So it makes total sense for the wine to have its own PDO status. It would also be a guarantee to consumers that the wine they are buying is not only made with exceptional grapes but also made to the highest standards. We are not saying that wine in Sussex in necessarily better than wine from other regions in England but we are saying that it boasts a unique flavour and is very high quality.”

So what exactly is this ‘unique flavour’ and where does it hail from?

In 2010, another prestigious Sussex winery, Ridgeview, beat off stiff competition from more than 700 proseccos, champagnes and New World wines when its Grosvenor Blanc de Blancs 2006 was crowned best sparkling wine in the world at the Decanter World Wine Awards—never before given to a producer outside France. At the time, judges praised the wine with a litany of adjectives that have since come to define this county’s exceptional wines, including ‘lemony’, ‘floral’, ‘discreet’, ‘biscuity’ and ‘youthful’, with ‘lemon rind flavour’, ‘vivacious acidity’ and ‘minerality’.

These traits are thought to be a direct product of the county’s geographical position. Barely 85 miles from Champagne, Sussex shares the French region’s same chalky soils and cool climate, resulting in famously fresh, bright, acidic grapes that lend themselves perfectly to blended sparkling wines. With conditions like this it’s no wonder Sussex has more vineyards than any other county and is responsible for creating an impressive 25 per cent of England’s wine.

Jumping the gun?
If Sussex wine is indeed granted PDO status later this summer, it could well open the gates for other regions to create and protect their own speciality wines—an exciting proposition for a country with an ever-warming climate. But could England’s fledgling wine industry be jumping the gun? Tamara Roberts, general manager of Ridgeview, warns that PDO status should be approached with caution.

“I think we need to be very careful,” she says. “While I’m definitely in favour of celebrating all the wonderful wines from this region, it is important to remember that a PDO could be restrictive. For example, it would most probably mean that any wine baring the name ‘Sussex wine’ would not only have to be made with Sussex grapes but also be processed in a Sussex-based winery.

“This would exclude a number of exceptional brands, such as Nyetimber, Hattingley Valley, Gusbourne Estate and Chapel Down, which despite making use of Sussex grapes are actually based in other counties. Over the last 20 years we’ve worked really hard to make English wine an internationally respected brand, perhaps it’s too soon to be splitting the country into specific regions.”

THREE OF THE BEST: SUSSEX SPARKLING WINES FROM BOROUGH MARKET’S WINE PANTRY

The Bolney Estate, Bolney Blanc de Blancs 2010
A 100 per cent chardonnay vintage sparkler made in the traditional method with two and a half years lees ageing for added toastiness. Smooth and full-bodied with flavours of creamy lemon curd, this wine has delicious yeasty undertones complemented by fresh citrus notes. Great as an aperitif—its effervescence stimulates the palate—as well as being an ideal partner with potted shrimp and strong cheeses.

Ridgeview, Rosé de Noirs 2013
Ridgeview’s Rosé de Noirs is a delicate rose petal colour with an abundance of fine bubbles and a beautifully creamy mousse. It has a fruitful, complex nose dominated by summer fruits with hints of honey and toast. The pinots in this sparkling bring subtle red berry flavours to the palate with satisfying fullness and length. Serve as a refreshing aperitif or it will pair beautifully with smoked salmon or tarte tatin.

Stopham Estate, Brut Prestige 2011
“Made with precision and passion in Sussex” is the apt motto of Simon Woodhead’s exciting new project, based near Pulborough in West Sussex. Stopham’s First Sparkling release is a chardonnay-based sparkling with finesse, aromas of candied lemon peel, leading onto a dry palate with a high but well balanced acidity complemented with honeyed brioche, creamy citrus and a toasty finish.