Imagine the scene. It’s a big day. You’ve had some good news and decide to celebrate. You head to your local hostelry and say, ‘A glass of your finest Sussex please, landlord.’ And he gives you what we would currently describe as a glass of sparkling wine.
Sounds far fetched? It won’t be if Sussex-based winemakers have their way. If their wish is granted, their product will be added to the select group of delicacies that have been granted protected status by the European Union. Think Champagne, Bordeaux or Cheddar and you get the idea.
A consortium of local winemakers is applying to the EU for protected status, known as a PDO. It includes big names already well-known among British wine drinkers, such as Ridgeview and Bolney Estates, as well as new growers.
If approved, Sussex wines could join other protected British products including Arbroath smokies, Cornish clotted cream and Stilton Cheese.
This could happen as soon as soon as next year and has government backing. Though in an election year, which politician wouldn’t back its local wine industry?
One of the newest vineyards joining the bid for protected status is Kingscote Estate near East Grinstead. Its owner, former ad man Christen Monge, planted his vines seven years ago, but is selling his first harvest this year. ‘It’s been a marathon,’ he says, looking out at the 15 acres of vineyards that will produce still and sparkling white wines.
Sussex lies on the same latitude as the Champagne region and has the same limestone ridge. It’s that ridge which produces the minerals that go into making sparkling wine.
Britain makes what are known in the trade as cool climate wines. These are ones produced between 30 and 50 degrees north. Sussex’ vineyards are all on the edges of the 50-degree mark.
They’re known as ‘marginals’. But our slowly warming weather is boosting the trade producing a longer growing season, reducing the numbers of frosts, all adding to the flavour and, ultimately, the quality of the wines.
‘Now is our time,’ says Christen Monge, who ironically enough, was the advertising brain behind the launch of Fosters in the UK and the iconic Guinness adverts. ‘Before, we didn’t have the weather to have these varieties of grape that we can grow now. There was just a concentration of Germanic varieties.’
But, as 14 out of the 15 warmest summers on record have been in the 21st century (according to the Met Office), what winemakers can grow in Sussex has changed. Kingscote Estate grows Pinor Meunier, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Bacchus, Pinot Blanc and Regent grapes on its south-facing slopes. The aim is to produce more than 100,000 bottles of still and sparkling wine per year.
But, while Britain’s winegrowers are beneficiaries of climate change, they don’t necessarily want it to get too much warmer.
‘We are nothing if not marginal here,’ says Monge. ‘The champagne varieties need to struggle a little bit in order to make the wine taste good. But if we don’t get the sun, we can’t bring a crop in.’
Alex Rabagliati, assistant winemaker at Bolney Wine Estate, says, ‘As long as the weather stays the same we will be fine. And hopefully, things will get a bit warmer. We are undoubtedly beneficiaries of climate change. We are becoming less of a cottage industry. It’s now hard to get a job in the British wine industry as more and more people are learning how to make wine.’
Mardi Roberts, Ridgeview’s sales and marketing manager says that the warming weather is helping the growers and starting to give them an advantage over the French, ironically.
‘The warmer summers have worried the Champagne makers,’ she says. ‘What’s happening is that they are having to harvest earlier and earlier. The difference here is that we now have a longer growing season. The cooler evenings here maintain the acid in the wine. So we harvest in October.’
The growers are keen to see their wines awarded protected status. Charlotte Lintner from Bolney Estates says, ‘It’s really about quality. It will protect those of us who make good quality wines. That’s the real benefit. It’s massively exciting. We have great sparkling wines in Britain and being awarded the protected status would put us on a level with the French.’
Christen Monge agrees. ‘It’s a quality standard. We can use that to support what we do. People love the idea of an English ‘champagne’ vineyard. I don’t know if it will happen, but whether or not it does, now is our time in English wines. This is a defining moment.’
The bid has however, unsettled wine producers in other parts of Britain. There are vineyards from the Isles of Scilly to Yorkshire.
And, if introduced, it would mean tougher standards for Sussex’ wine producers. Sparkling wine for example would be required to be aged in bottle for at least 15 months, similar to Champagne, and have a higher minimum alcohol content than current guidelines.
Julia Trustram Eve, marketing director of English Wine Producers, says, ‘It is still early days for this initiative, but it reflects the opportunities available to producers within this still growing and evolving industry – not only to build on the quality parameters of wine production but to enhance their geographical significance.’
So, don’t hold your breath, but in a few years’ time, if climate change continues and the EU looks favourably on Monge and the other Sussex winemakers, you really could be walking into your local bar and drinking a glass or two of Sussex.