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Vino, Vidi, Vici: The Vineyards, Breweries & Distilleries of Sussex

James Forryan investigates the history of producing wine, beer and spirits in Sussex, and how we should all say 'Cheers!' to its great success...

Fans and enthusiasts sometimes call it ‘The Nectar of the Gods’; detractors and teetotallers may offer the more derisory term ‘The Devil’s Piss’. But whether you refer to it as ‘booze’, ‘grog’, ‘tipple’, ‘bamboozle juice’ or, quite simply, ‘the sauce’, the production and consumption of alcohol has long been a big part of life in all regions of the UK and Sussex is no exception, with a rich history in the production of wine and beer in particular.

June is a month of celebration for all ‘adult beverage’ enjoyers. The annual revelry of Beer Day Britain is set to return on June 15, and whether you’d prefer to spend the weekend sipping craft beers and sampling street food while dancing to live music at These Hills Festival, or in the more relaxed environs of the CAMRA-organised South Downs Beer & Cider Festival in Lewes, there are plenty of different ways to join in the fun.

June 15 also marks the beginning of English Wine Week – and Sussex is certainly a great place to enjoy it! With more vineyards than any other region in the UK and an enviable reputation for producing world-beating wines, Sussex has become England’s 'wine country' over the last half-century and accounts for more than a quarter of all wine produced in the UK.

So, whether you’re the kind to enjoy a tasting session or camping amongst the vines at one of the region’s scenic vineyards, or the type to visit one of the area’s growing number of taprooms and craft breweries for an adventure in new flavours, let us guide you through the history of vineyards, breweries and distilleries in Sussex and find out where best to enjoy all of your favourite alcoholic refreshments…


'What have the Romans ever done for us?'

The history of winemaking in Sussex stretches back at least 2,000 years, and while there’s evidence to suggest that wine imported from Europe was consumed by high status individuals in Britain even earlier, during the late Iron Age, it is widely accepted that the cultivation and production of wine in the region began with the Romans, who brought with them a well-established viticulture and likely identified the chalky soil and south-facing slopes of the South Downs as a promising climate for growing grapevines.

While historic vineyards and wineries can often be difficult to find evidence of, due to their organic nature, various archaeological digs in the region have uncovered Roman amphorae – dual-handled, conical vessels used for transportation and storage – at locations including Chichester, Boxgrove, Oving and Ashburnham. Some of these were evidently imported, studded with yellow garnets mined from the Etruscan region, while others appear to have been produced locally, indicating that the production of wine began in Sussex as early as the 1st century AD.

So why did the Romans choose Sussex for their vines? In winemaking there’s a concept known as terroir, a French term used to describe the environmental factors that affect a crop’s phenotype, or ‘character’. Soil type, terrain and climate are three of the main elements that can influence the flavour of a particular grape, while at the production stage a fourth element – tradition, or technique – can be an equally important factor in a wine’s overall character.

Along with an abundance of south-facing slopes across the South Downs, Sussex benefits from a relatively warm climate compared to the rest of the UK, while much of its landscape is made up of chalk grasslands. These three factors, along with cool evenings courtesy of a coastal breeze, make the region highly suitable for growing grape varieties such as Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier – three types often used in the production of sparkling wines.

That’s no mere coincidence, either; large swathes of Sussex sit on top of an ancient geological feature known as the Weald-Artois anticline, a long ridge running all the way from the Weald to the Artois region in France which once formed a land bridge between the south of England and continental Europe. Though a section of the ridge now lies submerged under the Strait of Dover, the resulting consistencies in soil types between Sussex and French wine-producing regions such as Champagne may go some way to explaining why Sussex Sparkling Wine, in particular, has enjoyed such critical acclaim in recent years.

The New Era of Winemaking

Historically, English wine was often considered inferior to that of its European counterparts, but that has steadily changed over the last 50 years or so, thanks in no small part to the rapidly growing number of Sussex vineyards. As of 2023 there were 138 vineyards across Sussex – the highest concentration anywhere in the country – accounting for 28% of all wine produced in the UK last year.

In 2023, sparkling wine accounted for 72% of all wine produced in Sussex and, as of 2022, Sussex Wine has enjoyed Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status, giving it the same level of recognition as the likes of Champagne and Bordeaux. Indeed, many of the region’s wines have become award-winners, often beating those from the famed winemaking regions on the continent.

Additionally, Sussex is home to the UK’s only centre of excellence for wine at Plumpton College, which offers world-class courses in all aspects of winemaking, while many of the region’s vineyards have also diversified into producing other alcoholic beverages such as gin.

Several of the vineyards in Sussex offer tours, wine-tasting sessions and dining experiences, presenting a unique and highly enjoyable way to experience the Sussex countryside.


Sussex has a long tradition of beer and ale production dating back to the Norman conquest, when the monks at both the Priory of St Pancras in Lewes and Battle Abbey near Hastings were known to brew – and consume – large quantities of ale. The monks enjoyed their wine too; a study published by the University of Adelaide in 2010 stated that: 'In medieval England the normal monastic allowance was one gallon of good ale per day, often supplemented by a second gallon of weak ale. The daily ration for the Black Monks of Battle Abbey in Sussex was one gallon of wine a day, more if the monk was sick…'

Excessive as that may seem, it was certainly safer to drink than the local water supply, which often contained bacteria responsible for diseases such as cholera and typhoid fever. However, the ale brewed at these monasteries was quite different to the golden nectar that flows from pumps across the world today – flat, weak and prone to deteriorating quickly.

The introduction of hopped beers, first arriving from the Low Countries during the 15th century, not only offered a solution to the problem of long-term storage, but also proved a popular choice with drinkers. Oast houses used for drying or ‘kilning’ hops were constructed at many locations in Sussex; the oldest of these can still be found in Rye (built in 1585) and in Salehurst (1597).

Sussex’s oldest surviving brewery that's still in continuous operation is Harvey’s in Lewes, which has been serving up a constant stream of pints since it was founded in 1790. Harvey’s may even have been the originator of the world’s first cocktail – a hot drink known as a ‘Huckle-My-Buff’ made with Harvey’s porter and rum (the latter ingredient usually smuggled in from France).

It wasn’t just their beer the Normans brought with them either; a long tradition of cider-making in Sussex can also be traced back to the arrival of William the Conqueror’s men. Although cider production in the region reached its peak during the 17th and 18th centuries, when almost every farm would have had a small orchard and a cider press, there has been something of a revival in recent decades, with more and more craft or ‘garden’ ciders growing in popularity amongst Sussex drinkers.

Sussex has also been at the forefront of the explosion of craft breweries, according to the UK Directory of Brewers there are currently more than 130 active breweries across Sussex, many of whom focus on producing small quantities at very high levels of quality.

Taking a pioneering approach to the use of new ingredients, flavours and techniques, many Sussex-based brewers have become multi-award winners. Most run their own taprooms too, where you can sit and enjoy a bewildering range of beverages from milkshake stouts, sharp pilsners and hazy IPAs to mango pale ales and cherry sours.


While the history of distilleries in Sussex is somewhat less storied than that of wine or beer, especially in comparison to other UK locations such as the Scottish Highlands, in recent years there has been a notable rise in the number of distilleries popping up across the region, with gin in particular proving to be a popular local product for spirit lovers. Along with vineyards expanding into gin-making, relatively young distilleries across Sussex have already earned themselves a reputation for quality, innovative products, experimenting with different botanicals and flavours in much the same way as their beer-brewing neighbours.

Their success may be partly a result of the expanding consumption of cocktails in the UK more generally. A 2022 survey conducted by drinks manufacturers AG Barr found that 7.4 million drinkers opt for a cocktail when visiting a bar – a 13% increase on pre-pandemic levels. Of these, 48% indulge in a cocktail once a week.

The recent growth in gin consumption, particularly, may also be down to the breaking of certain stigma around the juniper-based spirit. Once referred to as ‘Mother’s Ruin’, gin once had a somewhat unfavourable reputation, especially amongst women. Historic ‘gin-joints’, as they were known, were the first places in Britain where women were allowed to drink alcohol alongside men and, subsequently, gin was blamed for everything from falling mortality rates in children to a rise in prostitution.

Things have changed a lot since then. These days, gin and tonic is the most popular ‘pre-mixed’ cocktail among UK drinkers and Sussex is now home to many drinking establishments specialising in locally made gin. Many distillers also offer courses in gin- or spirit-making, allowing you to learn the process and experiment with different botanicals to make your own weird and wonderful blends.

Please drink responsibly.


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