A very interesting debate has emerged over recent weeks to do with Terroir and the changing Terroir
So what is Terroir? It’s a maddening French word that has no direct English equivalent, however, the simplest definition is that it is the environment in which grapes are grown and a wine is made. The online dictionary definition is “the complete natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography and climate”. Or as Jamie Goode, a well known wine writer defined it – “the site or region specific characteristics of a wine”.
In my view it can be summarised as follows, Terroir is the: weather, soil, grapes and people.
One of the wonderful things about wine is that they are all different. Yes, some wines taste similar to others but they are all subtly different – wine is not a homogeneous product. For example, Cameron, our vineyard manager, was in Oregon last month attending a wine symposium, hopefully you read his blog? When visiting one vineyard he tasted three wines, all from the same vineyard and the same grape variety but the vines had been grown on three different soil types and despite being vinified in the same way they all tasted different!
Most wine growing regions around the world have variation within the region, different facing slopes, microclimates, soil types and wine making techniques (weather, soil, grapes and people). Even within the Champagne region you have a huge variation, from the chalk hills of the Montagne de Reims to the Vallée de la Marne, to the Aube, hence the reason for classification of grand and premier crus. There are in fact four main grape growing areas within the Champagne region, they produce different wine with very distinctive flavours, not that the majority of wine drinkers would be able to tell the subtle differences. What most people will taste is age and the winemaking techniques involved, rather than the soil or weather.
Another point being made in recent discussions about European PDOs, and in particular the Sussex PDO, is that they/it should be Terroir based. So ignoring all the other things that make-up Terroir, such as climate and people, but focusing on the soil and the band of chalk that runs through Sussex that forms the South Downs, and because it extends out into Hampshire, Sussex Wine Producers should therefore, for some reason, manufacture a name to encompass these two areas. (Note – we can’t use South Downs because it’s a demarcated area so would exclude many top class vineyards just outside the South Downs National Park boundary).
Creative names like South Coast, South Saxons, Susampshire, or Hamsex have been mentioned. I must admit I quite liked the last one, but it doesn’t smack of quality, can you imagine a waiter asking you, “would you like a glass of Champagne or Hamsex?” However, this all seems to miss the point. Sussex is a recognised geographical area that happens to contain the largest concentration of vineyards in England. Why wouldn’t Sussex wine producers want to register and protect the name and why would anyone want to manufacture a name? Furthermore why would wine makers in Hampshire or Kent want to call their wines Sussex? It would be like extending the borders of Champagne to include the chalk slopes of Lens to the north or Picardy to the West.
We produced a very good soil map on the Rathfinny Estate website, that shows that the same band of chalk runs across the English Channel and forms the South Downs. However, geological soil maps don’t show what’s on top of the soil and Sussex is a well-defined County, separated from the East and West by marsh and swamp, and forests of trees to the North and West.
For the Sussex PDO this is very important as, similar to the Champagne region, we also have different ‘Terrior’ within East and West Sussex and even within vineyards, and this enables wine makers to blend different wines with distinctive characteristics. We have also drawn up a stricter set of rules governing wine making under the Sussex PDO, which we believe will ensure that Sussex becomes a quality mark for wine made in Sussex, England. So the rules will help to ensure that when you buy a bottle of wine with Sussex on the label that it will have gone through rigorous testing and you shouldn’t get a duff bottle of wine.
The Sussex PDO is not just about celebrating the Terrior of Sussex. It’s about the Sussex wine producers getting together and collectively promoting wines from the this part of England. We’re not saying that other wine growing areas outside of Sussex can’t make equally delicious wines, we’re just raising the bar for wines coming from Sussex.
Cheers – To Sussex, England and St.George.