Yes, mate! The UK produces wine and boasts around 500 vineyards, for a total of 4,500 acres (1,821.09 hectares), that produce both sparkling and still wines. After the English Wine Week, let’s explore UK, shall we?
A bit of history…
It’s not clear whether vines were grown or wine was produced in Britain before the Romans, although pre-Roman wine amphorae have been found in the south of England, which probably indicates its consumption.
It is commonly believed that Romans were responsible for introducing vines to Britain. However, growing this plant didn’t really end in success, as the weather didn’t prove to be suitable. Wine amphorae, cups and grape remains found in archaeological excavations have led researchers to assume that from A.D. 43, the consumption of wine became quite popular. Moreover, grapevine pollen dating from the Roman occupation suggests that vineyards were cultivated back then on a commercial scale.
It all changed dramatically after the Romans started leaving Britain, as the invasions by the Jutes, the Angles and the Saxons led people to flee and there was no one left to take care of the existing vineyards. Then came the Viking invasion, which led to the destruction of several monasteries – where the knowledge of vine growing and wine making narrowly survived until then, as wine played an important role in the Christian culture. Luckily, in the 9-th century, King Alfred managed to bring Christianity back, thus reviving the local viticulture. Archaeological evidences show that vines were grown and wine was produced in the 10-th century, especially in the West country and Central south regions.
From 1066, viticulture bloomed, as William the Conqueror/William I brought French abbots and monks, who held the knowledge of winemaking and helped quench the thirst of soldiers with wine. In 1086, he commissioned a survey on all landholders in England and their possessions, which resulted in the famous Domesday Book. Now as far as wine is concerned, it turns out that there were 42 different areas under vines – from which 12 were attached to monasteries. Most vineyards were set up in the coastal areas of the South East and around Somerset, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire.
Who would’ve imagined that Black Death would have a negative impact on viticulture as well?! The plague caused the monastic workforce to decrease and consequently the monasteries started leasing their land. In need of a quick return on investment in order to pay the rent, the new tenants gave up on vines and started cultivating other crops that would allow them to earn money faster. Not only that, but between 1536 and 1541 there was the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII as well, which cause the viticulture knowledge to fade once more. At that time, the weather wasn’t any helpful either, as it was wetter, with mild summers and winters, posing further difficulties such as the spread of fungal diseases. In the meantime, Britain imported wines from other European countries: loads of Port, Madeira and Sherry, to name a few, passed through the ports of London, Leith and Bristol.
Now if we mix all these factors, we can understand why viticulture was not so hip back then! Nonetheless, some vintners stuck to it, like the Honourable Charles Hamilton, from Painshill Place, who set up a vineyard in 1740. Or the Marquis of Bute, who sent his gardener Andrew Pettigrew to France, in 1873, in order to learn how to grow vines. Upon his return in 1875, 3 acres (1.21 hectare) were planted at Castle Coch and wine was produced until 1911. Viticulture then succumbed to World War I and World War II…only to be reborn in the fifties, with new grape varieties and more effective cultivation techniques.
There are 3 names to remember among the wine-people, as they were responsible for the revival of the wine industry from its moribund state: Ray Barrington Brock (1907-1999), Edward Hyams and George Ordish. Mr. Brock founded the Oxted Viticultural Research Station, in Surrey, and dedicated years of his life to the study of grape varieties that could get along with the British weather, thus creating a collection that would lay the fundaments for UK’s viticulture, apart from introducing Müller Thurgau (a.k.a. Riesling Sylvaner) and Seyval Blanc to Britain. In addition to that, he also carried out several experiments on winemaking, leaving a remarkable legacy behind.
When Mr. Hyams started researching grape varieties, he bumped into some peculiar vines in Wrotham (Kent) which looked like French Pinot Meunier. He then took some cutting to Mr. Brock, who named it Wrotham Pinot. Mr. Hyams left a large contribution to viticulture on his books, such as “The Grape Vine in England” (1949) and “Vineyards in England” (1953). And to this day, those books are brimming with useful information on the history of grapevines and how to grow them.
Mr. Ordish was an entomologist and economist who happened to work in the Champagne region (France). Back home, he realised that vines could be grown in Kent, as the weather was similar to the one in Champagne. On his book “Wine Growing in England” (1953), viticulture appeared to be very alluring and a business to invest on, as he described the ROI on an acre of grapevines. As a result of all the excitement around wine making, the first commercial vineyard in Britain was setup in 1951, in the small village of Hambledon (Hampshire), by Major Sir Guy Salisbury Jones, who planted 1 acre of Seyval Blanc. Then came The Merrydown Wine Company, in Horam, where Jack Ward planted 2 acres of grapevines in 1955 and later introduced Reichensteiner, Huxelrebe and Schönburger to Britain. Afterwards, the third vineyard was set up in 1957, by Lieutenant-Colonel Robert and Margaret Gore-Browne. By the way, the most famous prize for Wine of the Year in UK is named after her: the Gore-Browne Trophy. Since then, the wine industry moved forward admirably, with new grape varieties, improved cultivation and pruning techniques.
Wine preferences change in time
- 1960s – 1970s: the top selling wine in UK was the German “Liebfraumilch” (= Beloved Lady’s Milk) and UK wines started taking their baby steps on the national market. Customers looked for fruity wines, with a hint of sweetness and low on alcohol.
- 1980s: customers demanded drier wines and Australian wines were in. British vintners also tweaked their wines accordingly, in order to satisfy the clientele. German wines were no longer fashionable, there was prejudice around German-sounding grape varieties and German style bottles made room for Burgundy and Bordeaux ones.
- Approximately 15% of the wine produced in UK is sparkling and 10% is red;
- Oak barrels, oak staves and chips are used in winemaking;
- Rosé wines are very popular;
- Late harvest/dessert wines are produced mainly with Huxelrebe, Ortega and Optima grapes.
Have you ever had any wine from the UK?