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Sugrue South Downs Wine

Dermot Sugrue (©AAH/Alan Wright)

After earning a reputation as one of the UK’s leading winemakers, Dermot Sugrue founded his own company. Working alongside wife Ana, the winemaker launched Sugrue South Downs, and it wasn’t long before the Washington-based couple were receiving acclaim for their English sparkling wines. Here, Dermot describes his winemaking journey in his own words… 


I studied Viticulture and Oenology at Plumpton College and even as a young man enjoyed making my own wine, beer and spirits. However, my winemaking journey truly began in Bordeaux, France, during two seasons at Chateau l’Eglise-Clinet in Pomerol and Chateau Leoville-Barton in St Julien. 

I returned to the UK in 2002 and helped establish a new winery in Suffolk, before joining Nyetimber in Pulborough. In 2004, I was appointed Winemaker and contributed to the vineyard’s reputation as one of the finest producers of English sparkling wine. After a couple of years, I met Harry and Pip Goring, who had a vision for a vineyard and winery on their family estate at Wiston. They gave me the opportunity to lead a winemaking operation at the foot of the South Downs. I was Winemaker for the Wiston Estate for 16 years, during which time we were named ‘Winery of the Year’ by Wine GB on four occasions. 

I hadn’t worked at Wiston long when I was approached by Catholic priests at Our Lady of England Priory in Storrington. They wanted to plant a vineyard, and their land had potential. Working alongside Father Paul McMahon, I planted a hectare of vines and made wine for the priests. In return, I took a percentage of the grapes to make my own wine, which were the ones used to launch Sugrue South Downs. 

Birds devoured the grapes and put paid to hopes of a 2008 vintage. Some of our labels still features birds, as well as our lurcher, Noodles, sadly no longer with us. However, the following year we made a small number of our signature brand, an English sparkling wine called ‘The Trouble With Dreams’. The 2010 vintage was selected for a blind tasting test by wine experts from Decanter, a well-respected wine magazine. It received the highest score Decanter’s critics had ever awarded an English sparkling wine. 

Whilst we had great feedback to our early wines, production was relatively small. To grow the brand, I needed to focus more on Sugrue South Downs. I had been at Wiston for many years and loved every minute, but the business belongs to the Goring family and the vineyards are their legacy. I felt it was time to try and create one of my own.


‘The Trouble With Dreams’ is a song by Eels, one of my favourite bands, and the title reflects my journey in winemaking. Establishing a vineyard and creating even one bottle of wine is a monumental undertaking. You have to find the right land and buy it, then plant and nurture vines for three years before you have enough grapes to take to the winery. It requires more investment to press, ferment, bottle and store the wine, and then after waiting several more years, you can finally label it and try to sell it in a highly competitive marketplace. 

For at least seven years, money only goes out. That is why most vineyards in the UK have either been started by people who have been successful in other industries and want a change of lifestyle or a legacy project, or landowners who want to diversify by planting vines rather than having arable crops. We’re different, in that we have created a brand without capital investment or land. We’ve achieved it through experience, talent and hard work. 

There are ways to speed up wine production, but we do things the long, hard way. After grapes have been picked and pressed, wine ferments in barrels or stainless-steel tanks for about six months. Wine is then placed in bottles before yeast and a small quantity of sugar is added. The bottle is capped to maintain about six atmospheres of internal pressure, and the wine then undergoes its second fermentation in the bottle for at least three years. They often stay on the lees (the term for deposits of residual yeast that slowly gather at the bottom of the bottle) for much longer, as the wine continues to age and mature. After this second fermentation period, we invert the bottles and freeze the yeast, which is removed in a process called ‘disgorging’. Finally, the cork is added and the wine is ready to labelled, packaged and sold. 

The traditional method – or ‘Champagne method’ of sparkling wine production – is what we use at Sugrue South Downs. It is time-consuming, laborious and requires a vast amount of space and investment, but you reap the rewards eventually with spectacular quality wines, if done well. You need a little luck from Mother Nature along the way too! 


We don’t have our own winery. Instead, we using a collaborative space in Madehurst, near Amberley, with two other producers of English sparkling wine: Digby and Artelium. We have our own storage units and a lot of our wine ages in 225 litre or 500 litre Burgundy barrels, where contact with the oak creates subtle differences to the flavour. 

Working together means we can share machinery, some of which is only required for short periods of time. As we are not independently wealthy, Sugrue South Downs rents space at two vineyards, one in Storrington and the other at Mount Harry Vineyard near Lewes. Throughout my career, I’ve made wines for others, so collaborating comes naturally. Perhaps it helps that I’m an outsider – an Irishman trained in France! The wine industry in this country is still relatively young, so it’s important to share experience and knowledge as it will benefit the global reputation of English sparkling wine. 

Our current vintage of The Trouble With Dreams is the 2017 (60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir) and we try to make that wine ever year. Our Blancs de Blancs, currently from 2015’s vintage, is named in memory of my late brother, Boz. We also have a rose, Ex Machina (50% Pinot Noir, 20% Pinot Meunier and 30% Chardonnay) and Zodo (60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir). Zodo is an abbreviation of ‘zero dosage’, so no sugar is added after the first fermentation. Making a good, balanced wine this way is extremely challenging, as it makes for an intense, fruity wine with high acidity. 


We also have a multi-vintage cuvee blend, the Dr Brendan O Regan, named after my great uncle. He established a school for hoteliers in Ireland and the world’s first duty free shop at Shannon Airport. He also ran a restaurant in County Limerick where, along with chef Joe Sheridan, he reputedly invented Irish coffee, and was awarded an honorary doctorate for his contribution to promoting peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. 2017 marked the centenary of his birth, so we launched a wine to celebrate his life. 

Climate change has meant that vineyards in the south of England, especially the South Downs with its chalk soil, can produce very good wine. Some critics are of the opinion that English sparkling wine is as good as Champagne, if not better. In 2020, we were rated as the finest producer of English sparkling wine by Hugh Johnson OBE, a respected international wine author. We have twice been named ‘Boutique Producer of the Year’ by WineGB and in 2022 we were one of three finalists in the ‘Best Drinks Producer’ category of the BBC Food & Farming Awards. We were beaten by a peppermint tea producer in Hampshire!

We sell to restaurants in Brighton, London and across the UK, but the export market is growing too. We distribute to wine merchants and other clients across mainland Europe and Scandinavia, with strong demand from America and surging interest in English wines from Asia. The world is waking up to English sparkling wines and importers and distributors everywhere are exploring our best offerings. Because of my experience with leading producers, there has been considerable interest in our project at Sugrue South Downs.


My wife has played a major part in our success. Ana studied Horticulture in Croatia and her Masters was in Viticulture. She worked in Peru, New Zealand, California, Austria and Germany, before moving to England as Winemaking Lecturer at Plumpton College. Ana became the first employee of Sugrue South Downs in 2021 and has transformed the company. As well as taking charge of financial matters, her experience helps me develop the wines and market them too. We are in the luxury goods business and our labels and packaging represent that. 

Over the years, several people have enquired about investing in Sugrue South Downs, but none of the proposals were quite right for us. Now, we have found an investor we’re delighted to being working with. Robin Hutson is the founder and chairman of The Pig group of hotels, the latest of which is down the lane in Madehurst. 

Robin is a keen supporter of English wine, and his Pigs hotels have actively suppressed Champagne in favour of English fizz. The Pig in the South Downs has planted a two-acre vineyard and we will be making the first vintage next year. So, the investment is mutually beneficial and will help Sugrue South Downs expand too. 

Last year’s harvest is in sensational form. After the great, long summer of 2022, we had a reasonable quantity of grapes with exceptional ripeness. We’ve been sampling from the barrels and they already taste fantastic. You’ll have to wait a while, but the 2022 vintage will be a good year!


Artcile first published in AAH on 1st March 2023.

Further information: To buy Sugrue South Downs wines, please visit www.sugruesouthdowns.com