Wine Country

A new expression of landscape? Dominic Buckwell is your guide

Breaky Bottom.
Photo of Breaky Bottom by Dominic Buckwell.

New-born lambs bounce around the field. Tendrils curl on rainwashed vines. Glorious, glistening bunches of fruit ripen in the warmth of the sun. I am standing with Christine and Peter Hall at their beloved Breaky Bottom estate in the hillside above Rodmell; the smell of tobacco from his roll-up co-mingles with the fresh scent of hedgerow flowers and clover. In my right hand, a tulip shaped glass of primrose coloured liquid: a volcanic stream of bubbles releasing elderflower, lemon meringue pie and shiitake ‘shroom aromas. I raise it to my lips to taste…

In the last 20 years, Sussex wine has emerged as a triumphant new expression of the local landscape. Top-notch sparkling wines take centre stage, with fresh fragrant fruity dry whites, reds and rosés as creditable support acts. In this and future issues of ROSA, I will offer insights into Sussex wine, explaining how our county has become the epicentre of the English wine movement. My curiosity about this revolution happening around us led me to explore the wider world of wine from Chile to China, studying in the evenings and weekends to qualify as a sommelier, and taking a role in the industry to the point of representing the UK at the International Organisation of Wine, which we joined after Brexit. As a local lad who settled in Sussex (married to a considerably more talented artist/designer/gardener/venue host) I would like to explore synergies between the Sussex landscape and art, and expose some urban myths.

The first myth is that champagne was invented in France in the early 18th century. It was, in truth, made possible by the work of the English scientist Sir Kenelm Digby, who, in the 17th century, developed a way to strengthen glass bottles so they could withstand the pressure of trapped carbon dioxide from fermented apples. The innovation was presented by Sir Christopher Merrett to the Royal Society in 1772. Almost half a century later the French adopted this method to make sparkling wines such as Dom Perignon. (For more background see The Knight who Invented Champagne (2021) by Stephen Skelton, the vineyard expert nephew of Ditchling sculptor John Skelton.)

Two centuries later, David and Linda Carr-Taylor planted a new vineyard near Hastings, and in 1984 produced the first traditional method sparkling wine in England. (Second myth: Nyetimber wasn’t the first). Breaky Bottom was also planted in the early 1970s, by Peter Hall and his first wife Diane when their son Toby was born. In 1998 Brighton-based Chris Foss set up Plumpton College’s wine department, increasing the talent pool for investors and landowners in the area and enabling them to establish new vineyards. An American couple, Stuart and Sandy Moss, chose Champagne Pinot and Chardonnay varieties at Nyetimber in West Chiltington to make their first sparkling wine in 1992, setting the trend for England which in 2018 saw ten million bottles produced.

The Halls switched from producing still to sparkling wine, but have only partly replanted with Champagne varieties. Twothirds of the original planting remain as the earlier-ripening Seyval Blanc variety, which can now claim ‘old vine’ status. As such their roots penetrate the chalk to find water and nutrients needed, accenting the grapes signature flavours with 50 years of vintage ‘memory’.

Peter’s humble aim is for his winemaking to express the  terroir of Breaky Bottom – a five-acre vineyard on the South Downs. A cool climate by viticultural standards (though becoming gradually warmer), Sussex has the same geology of cretaceous chalk as northern France. Limestone, flint and chalk are considered the finest soils for Chardonnay, and planting on hillsides facing the sun accentuates the light and warmth, with valleys and rivers mitigating the risk of ruinous frosts, while sea breezes aerate the vines, puffing away humidity and fungal disease.

Hot on the heels of Nyetimber, two other Sussex producers of sparkling wine, Ridgeview of Ditchling and Digby in Arundel, paid homage to the English originators of bottling technology, adopting trade names in tribute to Digby and Merret. But despite these tremendous efforts, no generic name for English Sparkling Wine has emerged. Queen Camilla, who attended school in Ditchling, is the patron of the association of British wine producers (winegb.co.uk). She and others have sought a pithy name to rival Champagne; but no consensus has been found. The current term, with appellation of origin status enshrined in law, is simply ‘English Sparkling Wine’.

In 2010, Sarah and Mark Driver acquired the 600-acre Rathfinny estate near Alfriston, establishing a state-of-the-art winery at the largest single vineyard in Europe. They applied in 2016 to protect ‘Sussex’ as a legal name for a wine of designated origin (PDO). They had to wait until after Brexit, but it was finally granted by DEFRA in July 2022, and has not gone down well with Kent and Hampshire vineyards who fear their wines may now be perceived as inferior.

But how does one define the unique taste of Sussex wine? And how is it different from Surrey or Essex? Much of the wine produced in Sussex actually uses grapes from Essex: Bolney and Ridgeview are two of the largest producers in

Sussex but only some of their wines are made of fruit from their own vineyards, and several Kent and Hampshire vineyards have their wine made in Sussex under contract. Wine and food with PDO status is generally required to be made in the region exclusively from materials grown in the area, and thereby intended to taste of the place of origin.

Sussex is varied in its terrain. Besides the chalk for Chardonnay, sandstone outcrops at Eridge and along the A272 to Midhurst are great for Pinot varieties. Wealden clay is also good, if not waterlogged. So, what is the taste of the Sussex landscape? According to the Sussex Sparkling Wine legal definition, typically it should taste of: ‘…crisp lemon citrus and green apple acidity from the Chardonnays, while the Pinots can have a more earthy mix of red berry and baked apple flavours, producing wines that are clean and fresh, yet have depth and are complex, with a richness in character.’

Until recently, there were misconceptions about the relationship between the geology of a vineyard and taste of its wine. Aficionados assumed the so-called ‘mineral’ flavours in wines came direct from stones and rocks in the vineyard (such as chalk and flint). The mineral myth was exploded thanks to the work of wine-loving Welsh geology professor, Dr Alex Maltman. It is now accepted that rocks do not impart flavour as they are insoluble and cannot be absorbed by roots to become volatile aromas capable of being tasted.

Peter Hall and Dominic Buckwell.
Peter Hall and Dominic talk wine. Photo by Alex Leith

However, geology is relevant to the way drainage and irrigation enable vine roots to absorb water. Sunshine, warmth and the moderating effect of air currents, oceans, lakes and rivers all influence fruit ripening and hence the resulting taste. And there is much to go in our understanding the effect of mycelium in undisturbed soils that connect roots to enable communication between plants.

Every piece of land is different, so in theory every vineyard in the world can claim a unique terroir, although great wines tend only to emerge in places where socioeconomic conditions are favourable and close enough to a wealthy urban market.

Proximity to London is one reason why so many artists have been drawn to Sussex. Similarly, the great houses and estates of the area were established for convenience. London and the home counties are affluent markets with a huge appetite for locally sourced food and wine. Tourism also plays a role: the South Downs National Park, arts events, festivals and other attractions draw in visitors. Vineyards are a striking landscape feature and delight the senses. The relationship between landscape, art and wine is the founding concept for Sussex Modern promoting tourism across the region.

One of the newest vineyards in Sussex is Artelium, ‘where exceptional art and premium wine converge harmoniously, in the beautiful landscape of the South Downs’. As well as combining the vineyard with a gallery and commissioning labels from local artists, Artelium provides a home to the Skelton Workshops, where John Skelton’s artistic influence continues among a collective of professional sculptors, lettercutters and stone carvers.

There are so many parallels to be drawn between art and wine, and artists and winemakers have a maverick spirit in common. The respected oenologist Emile Peynaud in his seminal book Art and Science of Wine Appreciation (1983) wrote: ‘wine is both a reflection of the people who make it and of the region that produces it, for it is not one of nature’s free gifts’.

The links between art and wine, questions of belonging and origin, taste, tradition and innovation, are all topics to savour –I will swill them around and spit some out(!) in future articles. One question I would like to ponder here is whether wine is itself a form of art. The difficulty in answering this starts with the fact there is no universally accepted definition of art. Bloomsbury Group artist Clive Bell referred to art as being ‘significant form’ by which he meant an ‘object that provokes aesthetic emotion’.

Whether wine does this for you is almost certainly subjective, and might not just depend on what you are drinking, but where and with whom. So as with the conundrum of how to define or what name to give our unique, flinty-chalk/sandy-clay South-East England terroir, there is no single correct answer. But at least let us explore it in these pages dedicated to Sussex culture, and discuss over a glass or two of something local. Whether from Peter and Christine or one of the many other wonderful producers of wine in Sussex, the clean, zingy nectar is certain to refresh and enliven any evening, perfect with local asparagus, fish or spring lamb.

Which takes me back to Breaky Bottom, and that flute raised to my lips. I take a sip. And I’m rewarded with a gloriously uplifting sensation: a cool tingling citrus cocktail with lemon verbena, yellow apple and smoky tones. A taste of Sussex.

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