Devil's Advocate - A New Appellation is Born and Britain gets its Own Napa Valley

The UK has its first wine PDO, with boundaries that reflect a county, rather than an area with specific vinous characteristics. Robert Joseph wonders how much this matters.

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Robert Joseph - the Devil's Advocate
Robert Joseph - the Devil's Advocate

Those who care about such things – and there are many – will be delighted to learn that the world has a new PDO, in the shape of Sussex wine. That southern part of the UK now legally sits alongside Champagne and Prosecco on the map of global wine regions. Some people are less happy, however. These, as the Daily Telegraph reported produce wine in Kent, the county to the east of Sussex. Graham Barbour, owner of Woodchurch Wine Estate which straddles the border separating the two areas, is quoted as saying that “This is just a marketing exercise based on the political boundaries of a county. It tells you nothing about the geographical features of a particular vineyard or the quality of the wine.”

Mr Barbour makes the point that "Some Kent vineyards share the same geographical features as parts of Sussex so it’s meaningless to lump everything together under one arbitrary county designation." Amusingly, given the fact that Kent voted 60/40 to leave the European Union in 2016 and boasts some of the most outspoken supporters of Brexit, he evidently favours the continental notion of terroir-based appellations.

And of course, he’s right. Appellations, PDOs, PGIs, or GIs - whatever one wants to call them -– are marketing exercises. Most of them have budgets to cover the promotional efforts required to build awareness and hopefully sales of their wines. One of the most spectacularly successful of these marketing-exercise appellations is in a wine-producing nation looked on with great affection by many of the good folk of Kent who wanted to be separated from everything European. It’s called Napa.

When the borders of that Californian county were drawn up in 1850, no one was remotely interested in the relationship between its soil and microclimates and Cabernet Sauvignon. Any more than anyone at that time cared that Sonoma might prove to be a good place to grow Pinot Noir and Zinfandel.

Today, nearly a century and three quarters later, one of the characteristics of their county that Napa wine marketers most love to highlight is the wide range of conditions it has to offer. You name a grape variety, they’ll say, and we can grow it.

Napa is just one of California’s over 140 AVAs. Producers within Napa can, if their vines are appropriately situated, use one of the 16 sub-appellations such as Atlas Peak, Mount Veeder and Rutherford that are based on regional character. And, if the vineyard, like Mr Barbour’s in the UK, cuts across county lines, like their neighbours in Sonoma, they might be able to call it Los Carneros.

Mr Barbour suggests that the new PDO will say ‘nothing about the quality’ of the wine in the bottle. To be honest, how many wine regions really offer any kind of guarantee, let alone say anything much about the “geographical features of a particular vineyard”? When you buy a cheap Bordeaux Rouge, Rioja or Chianti in a supermarket, it probably won’t taste bad because few wines do these days. But will it taste really good?

Unlike most of their New World counterparts, the people responsible for these European appellations oblige all of the wines sold under their labels to pass some kind of test and, despite English Sparkling Wine having been described as Brexit Juice by the solidly anti-regulation Boris Johnson, the Sussex producers are applying a very similar European model.

In fact, the Sussex PDO was created under the same kind of EU rules as every officially-recognised region on the mainland. Any wine sold under this designation will have to be produced using the Traditional Method and ‘classic sparkling wine grape varieties’ and “must stay in the bottle prior to release [for]15 months [with] a minimum of 12 months on tirage lees”. It will also have to pass an organoleptic test.

In other words, the Charmat-method wine I tasted from a Sussex producer, made from equal parts of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Reichensteiner will not be eligible to be sold under the county appellation. Which is fine by me.

My guess is that in a few years, every winemaking county in Britain will have, or want to have, a PDO and there will be lots of baby sub-appellations based, at least in part, on the chalky or greensand beneath their soil. Some of these may achieve the same renown as Howell Mountain while others will remain as little-known as that other corner of Napa, Coombsville.

And, whatever terroirist purists like Mr Barbour might prefer, like Napa, Sussex may still be the name that more people remember, because that’s what happens with successful marketing exercises.



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