The English wine industry in its modern form arguably dates back to the 1950s and progress since then has occurred in fits and starts. About ten years ago, the industry entered a new phase which currently shows no signs of abating. Improved viticultual understanding, availability of more appropriate clones, realisation of the suitability of the terroir for producing sparkling wines, new investment, more highly-trained professionals and the prospect of a warmer climate have all played their part. Today English wines, and especially English Sparkling wines, have a worldwide reputation and a slew of associated medals and trophies.
As the industry matures there will likely be calls from producers and/or consumers for the establishment of Geographical Indicators (GIs). Central to the GI concept is the idea that a particular GI should have suitable boundaries within which production exhibits particular characteristics by virtue of its place. Although the details of production rules and governance etc would need to be worked out, the Weald is a strong candidate for having its own GI. It can be usefully differentiated from other parts of England and Wales by its geological/geomorphological features and its sparkling wine producers have achieved an enviable degree of quality assurance and authenticity.
This article looks at the geological and geomorphological reasons for regarding the Weald as a distinct region. Later articles will deal with soils, climate, wine production styles and quality.
The Weald is the diamond-shaped area between the North and South Downs of South-eastern England. it encompasses parts of Surrey, Hampshire, Kent as well as parts of East and West Sussex. The limits of the Weald are defined by the outcrop of the base Chalk/Upper Greensand boundary which has been reliably mapped. East of Sevenoaks the sands transition into a shale facies and the limit is then defined by the outcrop of the base Chalk/Gault clay boundary. The East-West length of the Weald is ca. 130 km and the maximum North-South distance is ca. 60 km.
The central part of the Weald (“High Weald”) is a designated Area of Outstanding Beauty and consists of woodlands and small scattered farmsteads. Surrounding this is the Low Weald which is often wet and woody. Topography and soil types in the Weald mitigate against widespread or large-scale arable farming so farms are generally small. There are at least two dozen vineyards in the Weald, including many of those belonging to the top flight of English wine producers such as Bolney, Chapel Down, Gusbourne, Henners, Nyetimber and Ridgeview.
The topography of the Weald can be easily visualised by utilising altitude datasets that have been compiled by Google. The sandstones and clays of the centrally located High Weald are clearly visible. These have a maximum elevation of 240 m and have been deeply dissected by a number of rivers to produce a series of ridges and gulleys. There is an ancient network of routes connecting small towns and hamlets as well as the important town of Tunbridge Wells. Woodlands dominate the landscape and farms are small to medium size with irregular shapes. Agriculture is predominantly grassland on which sheep and some cattle graze. The mixture of ancient woodland and a mosaic of small mixed farms is widely seen as being a quintessentially English landscape.
The Low Weald can be seen on the image as the broad, low-lying region surrounding the High Weald with gently undulating vales interrupted by occasional outcrops of limestone and sandstone. Elevations typically range from 15m – 40 m. This is a more pastoral landscape with fruit cultivation and arable farming.
The chalk escarpment is also clearly visible, but between it and the Low Weald is a complex series of plateaus and ridges composed of Greensand beds. In places these rise up to 300 m, rivalling that of the nearby Chalk. The western part of the Weald in particular has a band of lower-lying ground located between the Chalk and Greensand ridges.
The Weald has a a relatively simple geological composition which is well understood. From Permian to Cretaceous times it was an extensional basin that accumulated a thick sequence of shales, sandstones and limestones. During the Tertiary the basin was inverted forming an anticlinal structure which has since been heavily eroded.
There is a stong correlation between rock type and topography, as shown on the geological map which has an underlying topographic relief layer. Where the soft Wealden Clay unit is exposed it gives rise to the low-lying gently rolling topography of the Low Weald. By contrast, the central portion of the Weald exposes older, harder, sediments such as the Ashdown Sands interlayered with softer shales. These have a higher elevation and their erosion results in steep-sided valleys.
This whistle-stop tour through geology and topography of the Weald has hopefully demonstrated that the region possess a distinct grouping of landscape features which are separate and apart from those encountered elsewhere in England and Wales. This is the first, albeit of itself insufficient, argument in favour of recognising the Weald as a distinct wine region.