Sussex PDO: MWs for and against
The drinks business invites Anthony Foster MW and Stephen Skelton MW to state the cases for and against PDO status for Sussex wine.
A group of Sussex wineries led by Rathfinny Estate and including Ridgeview, Bolney estates – has applied for a PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) – an official EU designation for quality products that are linked to a specific geographical area – for the region.
As reported in the drinks business in February, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) recently indicated its approval of the proposal. The next stage in the administrative process will be for it to be submitted to the European Commission for final sign-off.
The EU guidelines for PDO status state that it is “open to products produced, processed and prepared within a particular area, and with features and characteristics due to the area”.
There are currently around 70 winemakers making wine in Sussex, representing around 25% of England’s total wine production.
Currently PDO status exists for ‘English wine’, ‘Welsh wine’ and ‘English/Welsh quality sparkling wine’; there is also the PGI (Protected Geographic Indication) for ‘English Regional’ and ‘Welsh Regional’ wine.
Many people in the industry expect that, should Sussex be awarded protected status as now seems likely, other English counties will soon follow.
However opinions within the English wine industry on the PDO’s merits are divided. With that in mind the drinks business invited two masters of wine with a special interest in English wine to state the cases for and against PDO status.
Stephen Skelton MW
Stephen Skelton MW is a leading viticultural consultant and author of EnglishWine.com. He established the vineyards at Tenterden in Kent that are now home to Chapel Down. He was also winemaker and general manager at Lamberhurst Vineyards in Kent:
A Sussex PDO would dilute the impact of brand ‘English Sparkling’:
“I don’t like to pour cold water on anyone’s bright ideas, but a lot of people in the industry feel that by having separate PDOs for sparkling wine, the marketing clout of a single PDO ‘English Sparkling Wine’ – which is already in the regulations and available to all producers in England – will be diluted.
“The industry has accepted that we are not going to come up with a term for UK-produced sparkling wine (such as Cava, Sekt, Cap Classique, etc) and therefore the one we have will have to do.
The application has not been subjected to proper consultation:
“The prime mover behind the Sussex PDO, Mark Driver of Rathfinny, I understand has already privately registered the term ‘Sussex’ for sparkling wines [which he now says he will donate to the cause of the Sussex PDO].
“Personally, I wish Mark Driver all the best. He has every right to promote himself and his yet-to-be-released wines in whatever way he wants.
“But I think there should have been more industry-wide consultation before it was agreed that ‘Sussex’ (and there is in fact no such place – it’s East Sussex and West Sussex) should go ahead.
“Also, the Sussex PDO will be open to all producers and they will have to pay for its organisation, but cannot be forced to pay for its promotion. Will the producers who do pay a promotional levy want to support those who don’t?”
A Sussex DPO does not provide geographical specificity:
“100% Sussex wines will not differ in style, type, quality, price, etc from English wines – so what’s the point?
“I think that the PDO is a dead – or at least severely wounded – duck. Many large growers make wines from several counties so the Sussex PDO will not be for them. I just cannot see it getting more than minimal traction in the market place.”
A Sussex PDO makes wine buying more complicated for consumers:
“Most consumers want an easy life and ‘English’ is as much as they need to know.
“It’s all new territory of course and maybe the Sussex PDO, with the Driver millions propping it up, will be a huge success and we will end up with Kent, Hampshire, Surrey, Dorset, Devon, Cornwall PDOs…”
Anthony Foster MW
The chairman of the UK Vineyards Association (UKVA) Awards tasting panel for three years, Anthony Foster MW believes that English wine “needs all the support that it can get” to help it succeed on the world stage and that ultimately PDOs enable this:
A Sussex PDO would help local growers by protecting the sourcing of fruit:
“Anything that can help in the promoting of an image of a vineyard’s wines should be encouraged and I think that the Sussex designation is a very good one. I also believe that it shouldn’t be on its own – there should be a Hampshire, there should be a Kent, an East Anglia…
“East Anglia are keen to protect Bacchus and so am I – I am concerned about people winning gold medals in another county for their Bacchus and yet they got the fruit from Chelmsford.
“I hope Sussex [winning PDO status] will lead to other people doing similar things. Hampshire must be saying, hang on, how about us? But I think if somebody wants to try Hampshire Reichtensteiner, or whatever it is, then they want to feel that is is actually grown and nurtured there.”
A Sussex PDO would be of benefit to the consumer:
“It makes it clearer for the consumer to know what they’ve got.
“More and more different wines are being made. I judge on the UKVA [wine competition] and we judged around 340 wines last year, so more and more people are submitting their wines, and therefore some sort of clarification would be helpful.
“If somebody can differentiate their wines from the other sundry different wines that are around by saying it’s Sussex – which means it’s from fruit in the area, and we’re proud of it, and it’s been through a tasting panel – people will go for it.”
A Sussex PDO is good for the image of English sparkling wine:
“’English Sparkling’ is so flakey as a description. I know the big boys take strength from their own estate name – Nyetimber is Nyetimber – however there are lots of lesser-known growers who would like the comfort of a PDO.
“Furthermore, the famous chalk belt through Sussex is special and ideal for classic méthode traditionelle wines, which differ from the albeit excellent bubbles from Wales or the Thames Valley.
“Simply calling things ‘English Wine’ is not enough. And I think that regional status and designation is something to be commended. But I would go one stage further. I’m really keen that our sparkling wine should have a similar sort of protection – not only by region but also by method of making.
“At the moment, English sparkling wine could be Charmat or even more basic. France makes it abundantly clear whether it’s going to be méthode traditionelle or Charmat or whatever, but we don’t have it here.”
A Sussex PDO would be a good marketing tool:
“I am a great believer in wines having as much to tell about themselves as is possible – not just simply to be a drink, but to tell a whole story.
“This is why I like the PDO thing, because you can say that ‘This came from x and the vineyards are there’ … and it’s all part of the thrill and the excitement of the whole experience.
“Wine is not just simply something that you quaff: you look at the label, you talk about it and you romanticise a little bit about it. This is part of the packaging. And if you can say as much as you can about a wine, somehow it gets better and better when come to drink it. And this is what the Sussex thing is going to do.”
A Sussex PDO would help local wine producers:
“There is liable to be a period where people are not selling their wine as rapidly as they might have anticipated, and therefore any sort of leg-up these wines could have will help sales.
“The industry is well established now and it’s developed dramatically over the past 20 years in a fascinating way. Anything which helps the consumer to hone in on his area or the area he’s interested in, for authenticity, I’m all for it.”