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

Published:  27 January, 2017

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.