You can’t help but notice that the Sussex wine industry has grown dramatically over the last two decades. At the last count, Sussex had about 70 vineyards which account for about a quarter of the UK’s total wine production. Sussex has also built an increasingly impressive reputation for producing top-quality sparkling wines that are rated among some of the best in the world, with many individual vineyards being award-winning or multi-award-winning.
Sussex winemaking history
Whilst wine was probably consumed in England during the Iron Age, it is believed that it was the Romans who introduced vines and cultivation to England and Sussex. After they left, wine-making may have dwindled but with the arrival of the Normans, winemaking was back with a vengeance. There were 45 vineyards recorded in the Domesday Book, all in the south-east of England with most belonging to the Normans or the great abbeys (of which we had our fair share in Sussex).
Winemaking seems to have thrived in England until the 12th and 13th centuries but then the Crown acquired an area of France that provided a reliable source of wine, and the English climate began to worsen. By 1275, for example, the vineyard at Battle Abbey had ceased grape production and although thereafter, winemaking in Sussex limped on, it wasn’t really until the mid-20th century that it started to re-emerge as a viable concern.
Bolney Wine Estate was established in West Sussex in 1972 and was one of the first new commercial vineyards in England. Breaky Bottom in East Sussex was another pioneering vineyard planted near Lewes in 1974. And with these two and just a small handful of others, the beginning of a new winemaking era in Sussex was born.
To understand why Sussex is now proving to be such a successful wine producing region, you have to start by understanding just a little about the Sussex terroir, terroir being the environment in which wine is produced, including the soil, topography, and climate. Very broadly speaking, across the south, you have the chalky North and South Downs running more or less parallel. In between the two, you have an almost triangular shaped area known as The Weald which is a mixture of clay in the Low Weald area and sandstone in the High Weald. This mix of chalk and sandy soil is similar to that found in the Champagne region of France.
Climate change (particularly over the last 10 years) has also played its part in the Sussex vineyard and wine revival, with the county enjoying increasingly dry, warm summers and cool winters, allowing the grapes to ripen slowly. The maritime influence helps too, ensuring the grapes develop high levels of natural acidity which is particularly important for sparkling wines. And our many south-facing slopes are ideal for grape varieties such as Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier – or the sparkling wine magic three as they are sometimes known.
Sussex vineyards today
According to Wine GB South East, as of 2020, the three most popular varieties of grape in our region are indeed Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier primarily used for sparkling wine production and accounting for 75% of vines planted. But there are now also an increasing number of still wines being produced in Sussex including some rosés and reds. Other grape varieties grown here include Dornfelder, Bacchus, Riesling, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris.
In 2016, a group of Sussex wineries applied for PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) – an official EU designation for quality products for the region. Defra approved the application and final sign-off from the European Commission is thought to be imminent. The impact of this will be that only wine produced from local grapes within the county borders can be called ‘Sussex Wine’ much like the French ‘appellation controlee’.
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