Declaration of independence

How soon is too soon for producers to start declaring an appellation? Richard Woodard looks at a dispute over plans to introduce a separate PDO for English sparkling wines.

Mark Driver, Rathfinny Estate
Mark Driver, Rathfinny Estate

Plans to introduce a separate appellation for sparkling and still wines from Sussex are threatening to divide the fast-developing English wine industry. The move, which would give Sussex similar Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status to that enjoyed by Champagne, would involve stricter production rules than those for the existing English PDO. 

Local wineries, led by Rathfinny Estate, are currently discussing the idea, with a view to drafting an application to the EU for PDO status. Proposed regulations would include a requirement for at least 15 months’ lees aging and a higher minimum alcohol content than that permitted for the English PDO.

“The main thing about this is a drive for quality, if you look at PDO regulations and the definition of what a PDO is all about,” says Mark Driver, owner of Rathfinny Estate. “It means that the product that you get as a consumer is a consistent quality product. It’s not meant to stymie innovation or creativity, but what it does do is ensure that you get a quality wine.” Driver also contrasts the Sussex name with other sparkling wine denominations around the world, such as ‘Australian sparkling wine’. “It lacks soul, it lacks place and relevance,” he argues. By contrast, Sussex is well-known and “quintessentially English,” he adds.

The dispute 

But the plans have come under fire from others in the sector, including Frazer Thompson, chief executive at Chapel Down in Kent. “There may be a place for generics, but ‘Sussex’ just isn’t it,” he argues.

“Sussex is a political boundary, not a cultural, climatological or geological one. It therefore has no rational meaning, other than to a politician.” For Thompson, strong brands are more important than local appellations. “I believe that the continuing success of English sparkling wine demands that we have healthy businesses achieved by highlighting the excellence and consistency of brands, as well as their differences – not their spurious similarity.” He goes on to add: “Under a PDO, the strength is only as strong as the weakest player. I’ve had awful Chablis, flabby Burgundy and dull Champagne. But I’ve never had a bad bottle of Ruinart or Krug.”

Controversy surrounds the fact that, in order to satisfy the rules of the PDO, wines must not only be made from Sussex grapes, but must also be wholly produced within the county boundaries. For Sussex-based Ridgeview Estate, which supports the application and is on the committee discussing the proposal, this is a key issue. “[This] seems nonsensical to me,” says Ridgeview CEO Tamara Roberts.

“Surely it is where the grapes are grown that is important for a ‘sense of place’ – dare I say terroir? Provided the wineries operate in the manner required by the PDO winemaking rules and segregate grapes received from Sussex from other counties, then a pure Sussex wine will be made.” And, she adds, there are “many excellent Sussex wines” currently made by contract wineries outside the county – which would be barred from using the Sussex name on their labels.

Driver is sympathetic, but points out that PDO rules stipulate production in the region of origin. “It’s very frustrating, but unfortunately we’re having to battle with these rules,” he says.

Questions have also been asked about the commercial side of the Sussex PDO after it emerged that Rathfinny had registered “Sussex Sparkling” as a trademark in 2011. Driver insists that this was done for protective reasons – in other words, to stop others from using the Sussex name for inferior products – while the PDO regulations were agreed. The brand, he says, will be given to the company set up to run the PDO, and will be open to all Sussex winemakers.

Nonetheless, many are questioning whether now is the right time to establish Sussex, or any other local appellations in England. “We still have a long way to go to convince people to drink English wines, and perhaps we are a little ahead of ourselves to start focusing on regions – a bit more maturity in our industry would be useful to really see how regions are developing,” says Roberts.

“More rules in an already tightly regulated young industry are not helpful for a business and a nation that has to thrive on ingenuity and innovation, rather than lowest-cost production,” adds Thompson. “Some will say that change can be managed through the system. Really? Innovation and change approved by an appointed committee of ‘experts’? No thanks! Speed is the most critical element of innovation, and England can be rather good at it.” 


At the time of writing, discussions on the Sussex PDO are continuing, and production rules are being tightened further, with an application likely to go to the EU later this year following consultation. Driver thinks that up to 250,000 bottles of ‘Sussex’ could be produced each year, if and when the PDO comes into force. “This PDO application is about Sussex winemakers being proud of the quality of wine being made in this part of England, and introducing a new quality benchmark for ­English wine from Sussex,” he says. “It’s raising the bar. It will be good for English wine generally and does not preclude other regions from applying for their own PDOs.”



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