Ken Clarke: Brexit would be 'extremely damaging' to wine industry

Ben James

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LEAVING the European Union would be “extremely damaging” for the Sussex wine industry, according to former chancellor Ken Clarke, who described the product as s one of the greatest innovations of his lifetime.

The veteran Tory MP and Europhile celebrated Sussex sparkling wine at pro EU event held at No 10 Downing Street yesterday.

Speaking to The Argus he also criticised Boris Johnson and fellow Brexit supporters, describing their campaign as “right wing nationalistic nonsense”.

But Eurosceptic MEP Daniel Hannan said staying in the EU meant more costs the fast-growing wine industry.

Mr Clarke argued access to the European market of 500 million people and minimal tariffs, charges and bureaucracy enabled Sussex sparkling wine to compete with its better known European competition like Champagne and Cava.

Mr Clarke said: “Losing open access could be extremely damaging and we must make sure our producers have the best chance to compete with others in Europe.

“The increasing quality of the wine is one of the great food and drink innovations of my lifetime and the industry must be given the best possibility to continue to grow.”

The event was attended by Ridgeview Wine Estate from Ditchling, as well as producers from across the UK including Wensleydale Creamery from North Yorkshire and Taylors Tea of Harrogate.

Prime Minister David Cameron said leaving the EU would leave exporters with “crippling tariffs” with the sparkling wine industry alone facing charges of up to £260,000 a year.

He said: “Leaving will rob producers of the level playing field and the free access to trade that they currently have.

“British food and drink manufacturers don’t want to gamble their businesses and their employees’ livelihoods on the roll of a dice.”

Tamara Roberts, Ridgeview chief executive, said 20 per cent of the Ditching business now came from exports – with half of that business done in the EU.

She said: “The long term sustainability of our business depends upon the ability to move our imports and our growing exports and our people - which vineyard service providers depend on - between the UK and Europe in a cost effective manner.

“If we left the EU there is a risk we could be encumbered by needless bureaucracy that would severely disadvantage us and other export focused businesses.”

But Daniel Hannan, MEP for the South East and Brighton resident, dismissed the Prime Minister’s argument.

He said: “Leaving the political structures of the EU doesn't mean leaving the common market which stretches from non-EU Iceland to non-EU Turkey.

“No one in Brussels has seriously suggested tariffs between the UK and the EU.

“After all, the day we leave, we'd become the EU's single largest export market. They'd hardly want to jeopardise that.

“Staying in, though, means being subjected to more costs. For example, MEPs recently tried to impose quotas for wine production - which would have been especially disastrous for South East England, Europe's fastest-growing wine producing region.

“Tomorrow night, I'm at a Vote Leave fundraiser in London. All the champagne has been donated by an award winning English wine-grower from Hampshire who knows he'd be better off outside.”

VINTNERS BACK PM’S PLEA TO KEEP BRITAIN IN EUROPEAN UNION

IN 1994 Mike and Chris Roberts planted 13 French clones of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier at the foot of the South Downs.

Twenty two years on, Ridgeview is now one of the leading names in English wine and is sold around the world.

Yesterday, the Ditchling Common vineyard was one of a handful of specially chosen producers to attend a pro-EU event held at Downing Street hosted by the PM.

David Cameron argued our continued membership was vital to ensure the likes of Ridgeview continue to prosper. Tamara Roberts, Ridgeview’s chief executive agrees. She said: “Exporting our wine is increasingly important to us. Being in the EU enables a level playing field in terms of tariffs and taxes. If we were to leave we could be penalised in that respect.”

She said 20 per cent of the business is now in exports with half of that going to European Union countries.

Over the next five years the company intends to increase exports to 30 per cent with the focus on Europe.

Not only does Ridgeview sell to restaurants and shops in Europe but also to wine traders on the continent who then sell on to countries outside the EU.

She added: “It is not just about exporting our wine, it is also about bringing in industry supplies such as the specialist equipment we need.

“There is just not the demand for it to be made in this country so we have to buy it in from Europe.”

Free movement of people through the EU has enabled Ridgeview to bring back the same trusted team of grape pickers from Romania year after year.

Liz Truss, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, recently promoted Ridgeview wine on a trip to the US.

She said it would be “very damaging” to the Sussex wine industry if we were to leave the EU.

She added: “There is no doubt that our food and drink producers are safer, stronger and better off being part of the European Union.”

Ridgeview’s success story is by no means the only one in Sussex, with the likes of Nyetimber, Bolney and Rathfinny all enjoying huge growth over the last decade.

That is largely down to the conditions in Sussex. Although it may seem a long way away, the Champagne region of France, regarded as producing the best sparkling wine, is just 88 miles from the South Downs.

As a result the likes of Ridgeview have much the same weather and chalky geography as the French region, with a cooler climate enabling the grapes to develop high levels of natural acidity when fully ripe – crucial for sparkling wine.

Mike Roberts, who passed away in 2014, was known as the godfather of English wine and helped make the industry what it is today.

He combined some of the 13 French clones he planted in 1994 to create imaginative blends in the way the great Champagne houses have.

Mardi Roberts, sales manager at Ridgeview, said much of the success was down to continuity.

She said: “We have been around for a relatively short amount of time compared to others but we have learnt a lot over those years. We have the same wine-making team and that consistency and continuity has been important.”

Celebrity chef and holder of two Michelin stars Tom Kerridge was at the Downing Street event and vouched for Ridgeview’s quality.

He said: “I have Ridgeview at my restaurants and it really is up there with the best in the world.

“The standard of English sparkling wine is fantastic and Ridgeview is right up there.”

Ridgeview continues to prosper with grapes now grown across 100 acres.

And with the ever-improving reputation and knowledge of English sparkling wine abroad, they see exports as key to the future.

Mardi Roberts said Europe was the focus along with the US.

She explained it was difficult to crack markets further away such as in China as it is not just a case of sending bottles and expecting them to sell.

She said it was vital to go out to export destinations to “sell their story”.

She added: “Gatwick enables us to do that. We can easily go to European countries and promote our wine. That wouldn’t be as easy as, say China, so for now the focus is Europe and the United States.”

COOKING UP SUPPORT AT NUMBER 10

PORTRAITS of the ghosts of Downing Street past adorn the walls of the Prime Minister’s Georgian home.

As you walk around Number 10, the faces of everyone from Brown and Blair to Thatcher and Churchill stare at you.

They have seen some sights and witnessed plenty of historic occasions over the years.

And while yesterday’s gathering may not rank up there, it is certainly a curious event – resembling a sort of summer food festival, the kind you would see on Hove Lawns.

They have come from across the country to back Cameron’s call for a united Europe.

From Nottinghamshire there is the Cropwell Bishop creamery with their world-famous Stilton. From Derbyshire, the Buxton Pudding Company. And representing Sussex, the team from Ridgeview has clinked all the way from Ditchling.

They are packed into the terracotta state room – twice the size of most Brighton flats – and the assorted guests ushered from station to station, enjoying a Wednesday lunchtime of popcorn, smoked salmon and cider.

Even celebrity chef Tom Kerridge is roped in and put to work to highlight the quality of the produce on show.

Liz Truss, dressed in an Albion blue suit jacket and trousers, is led around the room by her entourage, nibbling at the assorted products as she regurgitates her EU message to anyone who would listen.

Ahead of her – and less concerned with making his voice heard – is veteran MP and EU cheerleader Ken Clarke, who pitched camp next to the Loch Fyne smoked salmon and oyster farm station.

Cameron, fresh from PMQs, makes a brief appearance and short speech – in which he tries to make light of his “fantastically corrupt” gaffe, before being ushered off to meet Mr Kerridge and his team.

All the while, the portraits of Gladstone, Baldwin, Attlee and Churchill look on.

The great wartime Prime Minister would no doubt have enjoyed a drop of Ridgeview on a Wednesday afternoon.

But I wonder what Churchill would have made of the celebrity chef taking over the Downing Street kitchens to persuade us that a unified Europe was key to a safer, more prosperous Britain?

We will never know. But on June 23 we get your say.