Report finds Sussex could become winemaking hub

The South Downs National Park has the potential to become a centre for viticultural for the UK, a report has found.

Monday, 21st June 2021, 5:43 pm

The South Downs National Park Viticulture Growth Impact Assessment by Vinescapes found a 90 per cent increase in vineyard coverage in the National Park since 2016, with around five new vineyards planted every year and concluded that up to a third of agricultural land may be suitable for winemaking giving a boost to the economy.

The county and those surrounding it are dominated by limestone chalk soils which is similar to those found in the region of Champagne, France and the South Downs has already made a name for itself for producing some of the best English sparkling wines.

In the National Park there are currently 51 vineyards and 11 wineries, employing 358 people, attracting approximately 33,000 visitors a year and contributing directly around £24.5 million to the local economy and £54million to the wider economy.

Rathfinny Estate Vineyard in the South Downs National Park Picture: Vivienne Blakey

It also suggests 800 full-time jobs could be created with a £127 million contribution to the UK economy along with 75,000 visits by tourists if wine production doubles from its current size.

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Nick Heasman, a countryside and policy manager for South Down National Park Authority, which commissioned the study, said: “Commercial vineyards have existed in the National Park area since the 1950s, and there are references to vineyards in the region going back to Roman times.

“Then, as now, the special nature of the South Downs National Park provides a working landscape that helps produce world-class wines.

Nick Heasman

“This study is really important – in terms of improving our understanding of the current viticulture sector in the National Park and also the potential for wine-making to grow sustainably. Climate change is undoubtedly having an impact and, with warmer summers predicted in the future, we know farmers and land managers may be looking at grape-growing opportunities on their land.

“More viticulture undoubtedly has the potential to help our local communities thrive and prosper, but at the heart of our thinking is that any growth must be environmentally sustainable.”

The independent report found that 0.4 per cent of farmland is used to viticulture but 34 per cent could be suitable for vineyards. It also identified 39,700 hectares as suitable if just one-tenth of this land (3,970 ha) were to be converted for growing grapes, this would represent an area larger than the current UK viticulture sector (3,500 ha in 2019) and more than 22 million bottles of wine could be produced annually. (2.5m are currently produced annually.

Alongside the report key new planning guidance for current and potential winemakers has been announced recognising that any increase in vineyards must protect and enhance the treasured landscape of the South Downs and help biodiversity.

The guidance recommends any future proposals are landscape-led and must deliver multiple benefits for the National Park, including creating space for nature (such as planting trees and wildflowers) and helping to protect soils and watercourses (by reducing pesticide use, for instance).

Lucy Howard, planning policy manager for the National Park Authority, explained: “This useful planning guidance is aimed at current and prospective winemakers. It forms a framework for how viticulture could expand in the National Park over the coming years, while also delivering benefits for landscape and biodiversity. The South Downs National Park is known for its inspirational landscapes, sense of place and rich history. This marries up with the philosophy of winemaking where for centuries, vineyards and wine producers have drawn on landscape character, soils and a sense of place or terroir to impart or explain the difference and uniqueness of their wines.”

Anyone considering a viticulture development can get in touch with the Authority for advice and to find out if they need planning permission. Visit www.southdowns.gov.uk/planning-applications/advice/