Innovation vs. Confusion in English Sparkling Wine

Fitz - a Charmat Method fizz from England...but not an English Sparkling Wine

It's quite exciting to see the first few Charmat Method wines, Pet Nats and even new carbonated wines start to appear in England. If these prove successful I think it's inevitable that we'll see more vineyard owners look at these as potentially more profitable homes for some of the less-fashionable varieties that grow well here, especially if wineries invest in the expensive equipment needed for the Charmat process. This would be likely to prompt calls for firmer, thicker lines in the legislation.

My inclination is that over-legislation during these awkward teenage years of the wine industry is a mistake. The idea of a generic name for English Sparkling Wine has always sent a shudder down my spine (although I don't think we've heard the last of it), and I don't think we're ready for regional appellations. What we have seen is a move towards a tighter definition of some Traditional Method wines from Champagne grapes in the form of the Sussex P.D.O. - might similar moves be initiated in the future by other top-end producers if they feel that the definition of 'English Sparkling Wine' starts to get a bit...cloudy?*

What do consumers think English Sparkling Wine is?

Here are six wines that either exist at the moment or could very feasibly exist in the near future, within the current UK wine legislation:

1. A top-quality Blanc De Blancs from vineyards owned by a French Champagne house in Kent and Sussex. 4 years on lees. Labelled as English Quality Sparkling Wine P.D.O. (Protected Designation of Origin). £40

2. A lightly-carbonated Reichensteiner/Seyval Blanc blend, 10% a.b.v with a touch of sweetness, well-made from bought-in grapes in a converted laundrette in Peckham, packaged in ultra-hip garb, crown-capped and labelled as 'Wine of England'. £15

3. A good quality 'Sussex PDO' Quality Sparkling Wine grown to a high standard on the chalky slopes of the South Downs. Pinot Noir/Chardonnay harvested at good levels of ripeness and moderate acidity, 3 years on lees. £35

4. A Pétillant Naturel fizz from Bacchus, Meunier and Reichensteiner - organic, cloudy, funky and hip. No P.D.O./P.G.I. designation

5. A Charmat-Method sparkling wine from multiple varieties, produced by a specialist producer from bought-in fruit, very well-made and sold as 'Wine of England' in kegs to the on-trade to serve 'on tap', smartly-branded in such a way to make clear that it is both fizzy and from England. £6 a glass

6. A good-quality Sparkling Wine made from Seyval Blanc in Devon, labelled as 'Quality Sparkling Wine of England', 2 years on lees £24.

Although only numbers 1 and 3 are allowed to be called "English Sparkling Wine" in the legal sense,(the others are non-P.D.O. and only allowed to be called "Wine of England" in cases 2,5 and 6), I'd bet that most people would say "I had an English fizz yesterday" after a glass of any of them. We often talk about P.D.O.s/P.G.I.s from the producer's perspective, whereas effective labelling regulations are also there to help consumers differentiate between products, make price/quality judgements and discover similar wines. So what are the pieces of information consumers look for, and are they being communicated clearly enough?

Style, Quality, Provenance 

Carbonated Bacchus from The Uncommon


Style

When you take a step back, if all of the wines listed 1-6 at the beginning of this article are sparkling wines made from English grapes, it is not unreasonable to think of them as "English Sparkling Wines"! I was in Mendoza recently, where there was no clear front-label distinction between Charmat Method fizz and Traditional Method, both of which were regularly produced - the only clue was in the price. That scenario hardly benefits producers of either wine, especially in the UK where Charmat wines are still not going to be cheap. Production will remain overwhelmingly-focussed on Traditional Method wines here for some time, but we can't ignore the potential growth of other styles.

Quality

It is impossible to guarantee quality on a label. Having said that, the top appellations in the UK at the moment, the Sussex P.D.O. and the Quality Sparkling Wine P.D.O, are not especially ambitious. Non-Champagne grape varieties are allowed in the 'Quality Sparkling Wine' P.G.I., and in practise, with the addition of the permitted term 'Wine of England', these wines are indistinguishable to the consumer from the P..D.O wines. Some producers that would qualify for the P.D.O. choose only to apply for the P.G.I. as it is cheaper and easier; they obviously don't feel like consumer perception of higher quality is there. 

Provenance 

Champagne houses have shown us that provenance in sparkling wine is about more than where the grapes come from. It is also about history, ethos, brand and craft; in other words, people. It's for this reason that I raise an eyebrow at those who claim to be practising 'non-interventionist winemaking' in Traditional Method fizz. Of course there's a sliding scale, but if you give a winemaker a tonne of Chardonnay, a large vat, something to scrub their feet and some bottles and corks, at no stage will the resulting wine remotely resemble Champagne. Sparkling wines have to communicate more about the human side of their production more than still wines, as grape provenance is often complex. 

Having said that, Champagne houses have become much more open about where their grapes come from, with snobbery about some of the outlying areas of the AOC becoming generally less prevalent. Grape sourcing in the UK for those producers that buy fruit is much more of a behind-closed-doors affair. Perhaps producers aren't confident that the public will respond well to 'a dash of zesty Snodland Chardonnay' or 'perfumed Braintree Pinot' (of course there are much lovelier names about, but none quite roll off the tongue like Avize or Côte de Sézanne). Perhaps there are just too many small parcels of fruit being used. Perhaps those for whom tours are an important part of their business worry it would detract from their appeal if visitors realise the grapes don't actually come from there.

Whatever the reasons for this guardedness, I think it's missing a trick. I liked seeing recently that Lyme Bay Winery in Devon produced an award-winning still Chardonnay from grapes grown in Essex, clearly stating the two vineyards that the fruit was sourced from. The provenance of good fruit should be celebrated, especially since producers that are sourcing fruit widely do seem to be doing very well

What we're not quite in a position to do at the moment is start generalising about the qualities of fruit from specific geographical areas. There are only a handful of places in the UK that have a large enough concentration of vineyards in a small enough space to give anything like the appearance of a homogenous vineyard 'zone'. We would need many more examples, going back through many more vintages, to start talking about the differences between wines of the Kentish North Downs and those of Ditchling, if such a generalisation could ever be made. So why start creating geographically-limited appellations? 

The Sussex P.D.O.

Mark Driver of Rathfinny, the instigator of the Sussex P.D.O. says;

"...the ability to taste the difference is not the basis of a PDO. A PDO can be granted to products from a specific area, in this case Sussex, with features and characteristics due to geographical area, in this case the chalk South Downs, the proximity to the English Channel, the climate and the other features I’ve described."

Rathfinny Blog

A 'Sussex Sparkling' could not ever be a Charmat Wine or a hipsterised carbonated Reichensteiner. In that sense, it solves the 'Style' problem. Does it solve the 'Quality' problem too? Almost. For all the talk of stricter quality standards, the requirements to become a Sussex P.D.O. wine are fairly basic, and certainly below those which any of the top tier of producers anywhere in the country would adhere. It is a definite step up from the general P.D.O., however, in stipulating 8% potential a.b.v. at harvest (rather than 6%) and matching Champagne's 15 month maturation requirements.

What about Provenance? Is it reassuring to the consumer that their wine comes from Sussex? Possibly. However, that reassurance is misplaced. Within any county there are good sites, average sites and poor sites on a multitude of soil types, so there is only the broadest possible definition of viticultural provenance in the term 'Sussex'.  Useful guarantees to the consumer come only from the quality stipulations laid out in the P.D.O. and the assessment of the tasting panel, not from any geographical or geological consideration. How strict that tasting panel becomes over time remains to be seen; if it follows other examples it will only really reject faulty or demonstrably mis-made wines.

Geological Fudge

"These inherent natural factors, in particular the calcareous soils, an exceptional sunshine record and the moderate annual rainfall of 600- 850mm, make Sussex an ideal region to produce grapes of outstanding quality for wine and determine the specific quality and characteristics of the wine produced."

Sussex P.D.O. Application

If the "calcareous soils....determine the specific quality and characteristics of the wine produced", then what about the large swathes of Sussex not on chalk? What about the Sussex producers on greensand and clay that are eligible for the P.D.O. (Bluebell/Bolney/Fox and Fox/Ambriel and many more)? Surely, if we are saying that simply being from one particular county can "determine the specific quality" of a wine, then the Sussex P.D.O. proves that geology is irrelevant! And if geology is irrelevant, then what is there, in any viticultural sense, that says that Sussex is anything other than a political boundary and a nice word?

Not much.

Perhaps that's all it needs to be. The well-established quality producers based in Sussex (Nyetimber and Ridgeview) don't have access to it as they use grapes from different counties, so its marketing advantages for Rathfinny (and the others aiming to use it) are clear, especially if they are aiming to export a lot of wine in competition with these producers. I suspect one of the reasons it has ruffled so many feathers is that it is, for all the discussions, a shrewd and probably effective move for the producers involved.

What does it achieve for consumers?

I'd sum it up as follows:

Style A clear, unique word that guarantees that the wine is Traditional Method from Champagne Varieties. For consumers it is much better than the rather unclear 'English'/'Wine of England'/'Quality Sparkling Wine'/P.D.O./P.G.I. terminology in this respect.
Quality Ruling out the lowest-quality wines - the sort that wouldn't get very far anyway.
Provenance nothing widely recognised as viticulturally-relevant (elevation/aspect/soil), other than the broadest possible ones about county-wide climate which could be said about a number of southern counties.

In other words, I do think that the Sussex P.D.O. has a point. However, that point has little to do with Sussex, and arguably serves the producers more than it serves consumers.

Bonus points for anyone who can name this variety, growing at my family's small vineyard in Kent! It is made into (very much non-P.D.O.) garagiste fizz...

Ways Ahead

The way I see it, things could go a number of ways:

  1. It's widely decided that it is best to remain fairly loosely-regulated, with a wide range of fizz produced in various styles and no overbearing system of classification.
  2. An optional generic name for Traditional Method Fizz from Champagne grapes is adopted for use by the whole country, with quality stipulations more in line with the Sussex P.D.O. It is unclear how widely this would be adopted.
  3. The existing English Sparkling Wine P.D.O. remains in place, but groups of producers initiate their own, geographically-limited P.D.O.s i.e. a Kent Downs P.D.O., a Hampshire Hills P.D.O. etc. These would make more sense to me if they are not simply County-based, but have a tighter geographical/geological/climactic basis, as is the case in other classic wine regions. Despite Rathfinny's insistence that regional P.D.O.s are not theoretically about 'tasting the difference', some sort of correlation between regionality and flavour is exactly what high-end wine consumers look for. As we can't provide this yet I'm not sure of the usefulness of this approach at this stage. 
To paraphrase a much-heard refrain, perhaps 'no solution is better than a bad solution'? 

*I have purposefully neglected Brexit in this piece, mostly because I have no idea what its impact might be, if any. If anyone does have an informed opinion on what Brexit may allow or prevent wine producers from saying or doing it would be interesting to hear it.

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