Rebel Wines

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Rebel Wines.
Glasses of deliciously funky rosé at Tillingham.
Photo by Rowena Easton

This article focuses on a different style of fizz: some are very good, but I am sorry to say, some aren’t: you won’t often read a wine column that draws attention to inherently bad wines, but I wanted to write about the rebellious producers of Sussex who buck the trend with wines so different in style as to be inadmissible to the legal appellations for both Sussex and English Sparkling Wine.

Modern English wine was born out of the ambition to innovate. For some it is the spirit of Agincourt: to conquer the French at their own game. But whatever the motivation, pioneers of English Sparkling Wine chiselled from the landscape a fine-boned and chalky expression of Champagne. Whether you taste Nyetimber, Tinwood or Wiston from the West of Sussex, or Ridgeview, Rathfinny and Henners further East there are similarities – conformity of type – typicity. This is not just down to soil and climate, as many have the same wine makers; notably Dermot Sugrue (ex Nyetimber and Wiston) or Simon Roberts and the team at Ridgeview in Ditchling. Both turn out sparkling wines for several other estates who don’t have their own winery equipment.

Wine styles of course do not exist in a vacuum. They reflect the culture of people who produce them, as much as they convey characteristics of the natural elements (earth, air, water, heat) where the grapes are grown. The motivations inspiring those who produce Sussex wine are as diverse as the people themselves. Motives can be good or bad, so can be the resulting wines.

Drinking habits, like fashions, are always changing: for example Gen Z may not find the allusion to Champagne as aspirational as it perhaps was for Boomers. It is always important to look to the future and there are some whose deliberate wine styles contradict and stand far out from what has become the tradition, so as to subvert its message and typicity. This growing class of Sussex wines constitute a kind of Salon des Refusés. Following Newton’s Third Law, every movement worthy of a name tends to spawn a countermovement: Romanticism in answer to Neoclassicism, for example; Luddism to industrialisation.

As the epicentre of the English wine movement, ‘Sussex Sparkling’ is bestowed with its own legal appellation to protect the good name from imposters (like Champagne and Prosecco). The technical elements are identical to English Sparkling: made from the same grape varieties, and by the Traditional or Classic (aka ‘Champagne’) Method whereby the base wine undergoes second fermentation in its bottle to become fizzy.

The Sussex appellation was designated in 2016, which year also saw the launch of England’s first ‘non-traditional’ sparkling wine produced by the Tank (or Charmat ) Method; this process is faster and less expensive, and most closely associated with Prosecco from Italy’s Veneto region, with the second fermentation in pressurised stainless steel tanks. Some of the established estates saw this as a threat to their investment.

The latest industry survey by Wine GB reports there are over 1000 hectares of vineyard in Sussex; 28% of the country’s grapevine footprint, shared among 138 registered vineyards. The vast majority of wine produced from these grapes is either ‘Traditional Method’ sparkling, or still wine made from the same varieties planted in homage to Champagne’s most prolific grapes: Chardonnay and various types of Pinot. So what of these non-conformists from the hegemony of English wine culture? – let’s look at those who would dare disrupt the disruptors.

The Good

I first met Dan Cahill and Gareth Davies, pioneers of Fitz, in 2016. They were concerned about the English Wine establishment, who had omitted the Charmat style of wine from the English Sparkling Wine appellation, attempting to stop them producing it. As their company name ‘Divergent Drinks’ implies, they always intended to be different. The product is called Fitz because this name denotes a ‘bastard son of royalty’ – alluding to disownment and distancing from the English wine establishment. The back label states: ‘Rulers Breed Rebels – Charmat Method Sparkling Wine’.

Having set up a production plant in Worthing on an industrial estate, they have the capability to produce over 100,000 bottles per year. Besides the method of producing bubbles in the wine, another distinctively different element in their products is the inclusion of a grape grown for its suitability to our cool and damp climate: Madeleine Angevine 7672. This aromatic variety is based on a table (ie eating) grape, with light grapey and orange-peel aromas, giving an enticing lift to the nose as one approaches it in the glass. Costing around £25 a bottle, Fitz is a delightful cheaper (but by no means cheap) rival lighter style of fizz, with more fruitiness (rather than biscuit flavours) on the nose and palate than the Traditional Method style.

Another good award-winning producer worth looking out for is Off The Line (referring to the old ‘Cuckoo’ railway line, now a cycle route) near Hailsham, owned by Kristina Studzinksi and Ann-Marie Tynan. Specialising exclusively in rosé, they have crafted a sparkling wine called Lady of Charmat. This compliments their trio of dry and off-dry still rosés with funky labels inspired by British art and creative non-conformists. Vivid pink in colour, fruity and vibrant flavours abound. Lady Charmat is produced in Sussex from vines painstakingly tended entirely by their own hands.

The Bad

There is, however, a Charmat Method (aka Prosecco-like product) coming from the rapidly expanding vineyard group MDCV, owned by the Monaco-based billionaire of Regus Office fame, Mark Dixon. As I shall explain, my advice is not to be aware of this operation, but to beware it.

Dixon acquired Kingscote in 2017, a beautiful estate near East Grinstead once owned by William Morris. He also bought Seddlescombe in Robertsbridge, notable as England’s first organic vineyard. Kingscote originally turned out a respectable Classic Method fizz, but MDCV’s team set about trucking its fine Sussex grapes to Italy, utilising bulk production facilities to turn out low-shelf product. Shipping it back to England in glass bottles, it was sold for a price less than half that of Fitz, undercutting every English Sparkling Wine on the market. However, as production was partly outside the UK, it was open to question whether it qualified to be sold as a ‘product of England’ let alone a ‘Sussex’ wine.

After an anonymous tip-off to the authority responsible for wine labelling (Food Standards Agency Wine Inspection Team) I saw the wine on sale with black marker-pen ink obliterating the words ‘England’ and ‘Sussex’ either side of the crest on the front label. Its taste was a disappointment: bland and generic, it would be difficult to have any idea where it might be from if tasted blindfold. It is a wine that tastes from anywhere, not somewhere, let alone Sussex or England.

MDCV subsequently revamped the product with a high-budget makeover. They renamed it ‘The Harlot’ with flashy neon colours, matching foil, old English font and images from medieval manuscripts. The Harlot website (be careful if you search for this) declares:

‘SOME MIGHT TRY TO SHAME US FOR WHO WE ARE

SNEER DOWN THEIR FLUTES AT US LET ‘EM.

BE HARLOT BE CHARMAT NOT CHAMPERS

SPARKLING WINE THAT STICKS TWO FINGERS AT THE STATUS QUO…

BECAUSE SOME BUBBLES JUST WANT TO HAVE FUN’

Also on aluminium cans, the branding was designed by Lewesian Jem Egerton and intended to shock. I spoke with Jem, who explained most English wine labels are conceived in the image of what the producers want to project about themselves: ie conventional and Francophile. His brief for Harlot was to ‘rip up the rule book’ to appear diametrically opposite from a traditional champagne house-style label, and appeal to a younger target audience.

Having fulfilled the brief beautifully, however, Jem confided that the overt reference to sex work made it unsuitable for sale in supermarkets and off-licence chains. For M&S, they instead commissioned an innocuously rural sounding Bramble Hill branding, in line with an English expression of Prosecco [sic].

Both Kingscote and Seddlescombe vineyards are on the market with Savills; hopefully they will be acquired by a new owner interested in quality rather than quantity. MDCV’s focus has shifted to Kent, with one million new vines planted in what is now the UK’s largest vineyard. Under the name Kentish Wine Vault, Norman Foster designed a £30-million visitor centre and winery to churn out five million bottles per year. KWV met local resistance, and in July 2023 was turned down by the Secretary of State on appeal against refusal of planning permission by Medway Borough Council.

Meanwhile, the Kent wine marketing collaboration ‘Wine Garden of England’ is yet to invite KWV to join. Using a different design agency, MDCV has tweaked the original Kingscote label but taken another regal sounding name ‘Silver Reign’ for their Kentish Charmat. In a recent Twitter thread initiated by Telegraph wine critic Victoria Moor, one wag suggested ‘Golden Shower’ as more appropriate.

The Ugly

Finally, no article on alternative Sussex wines could be complete without mention of Tillingham, near Rye: set up by ex-Gusbourne CEO Ben Walgate on land owned by Lord Devonport. Tillingham has a superb boutique hotel, restaurant and pizzeria. Earlier this year responsibility for the outfit was handed on to Conor Sheehan, former manager of Soho House’s Kettners Hotel. It appears Tillingham’s wine offering was considered its weak link.

A superb salesman, Ben pushed the boundaries of ‘natural’ wine styles, made without adding sulphur or other chemicals, and not removing dead yeast or using conventional techniques to ensure the drink is palatable. He has, however, parted ways with Devonport, poetically paid off with the entire stock of his unfinished funky wines. An ugly ending unfortunately, but I do recommend visiting Tillingham, while stocks of earlier vintages last, to judge for yourself. Other wines are available in the restaurant, and going forward management of the vines is in the competent hands of the neighbouring organic Oxney Estate.

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