The Origins of English Wine

During their occupation the Romans introduced wine making to England, even trying to grow grapes as far north as Lincolnshire.

And winemaking continued at least down to the time of the Normans with over 40 vineyards in England mentioned in the Domesday Book. (although a great part of the harvest was for making communion wine for the Eucharist)

From the Middle Ages, the English market was the main customer of clarets from Bordeaux, aided by the Plantagenet kingdom, which included England and large provinces in France.

When Henry VIII was crowned in 1509, 139 vineyards were recorded, 11 of which were Royal vineyards, dedicated to the monarchy while later, in the 1660’s Lady Batten, wife of Sir William Batten, Surveyor of the Navy, had a vineyard at their estate at Walthamstow. Samuel Pepys thought their wine, a red, was “very good”.

The Methuen Treaty of 1703 imposed high duties on French wine which led to the English becoming one of the main consumers of fortified wines like sherry, port wine, and Madeira from the Iberian Peninsula. Fortified wine became popular because unlike normal wine, it would not spoil during the long sea journey to England.

Just as English wine began to recover from the epidemics of Phylloxera and Powdery Mildew that were brought back in the mid 19th century, by the Explorers of New America, it was dealt another heavy blow in 1860 when the government, under Lord Palmerston, supported a policy of free trade which drastically cut the tax on imported wines from 1 shilling (5p) to two-pence, (½p) a decrease of 83%.

And then, later in the 19th century, many upper and upper-middle class people, with reasonably cheap access to European wines, began to drink them once more and things went from bad to worse.  The short, ignominious twilight of British winemaking tradition, which stretched back to the first Roman explorers, was brought to an abrupt end with the onset of the First World War.

As the need for land to produce food took precedence over wine production and the subsequent rationing of sugar pushed the knife even deeper until, for the first time in 2,000 years, English wines were no longer being produced, not even in Wessex. (and all Alfred did was burn the cakes!)

It was not until 1936, when George Ordish planted vines in Wessex and the South of England that winemaking returned, bringing about a voyage of rediscovery for English wines and wine making.

With many individuals keen to produce their own wines from home, and with equipment and methods becoming more available, the government characteristically outlawed the production of homemade alcohol at the beginning of the 1960’s! (until the law was retracted after a mere 5 years, when the fashion for the home-brew escalated considerably, and there were taxes to be reaped!)

The effective reboot of English Wine (in the post-monastic era) can be traced to 1952 when English viticulture pioneer John Edginton (born 1936) planted his first experimental commercial grape vines at Lackham College in Lacock, Wiltshire. These vines still exist to this day and are believed to be the oldest surviving commercial wine grapes in the UK.

For the next ten years, Edginton continued to experiment with training and pruning systems, as well as vine varieties, experimenting with new cutting edge hybrid varieties and turning those grapes into palatable wine.

By 1962, he’d planted an experimental vineyard of half an acre of new advanced hybrid varieties of Müller, Reichensteiner, and Seyval grapes, believed to be the oldest surviving examples of these variants in the UK.

This vineyard at Teffont in Wiltshire, later joined by Awbridge and Dinton in Hampshire, still produces wine grapes and Edginton continues to pioneer viticulture and wine making. methods of wine and beer production.

Viticulture itself as a procedure was revived in the 70’s, possibly helped by a rising local temperature due to global warming making many parts of Hampshire, Sussex, Kent Essex, Suffolk, Berkshire, and Cambridgeshire dry enough and hot enough to grow grapes of high quality. The first English wines of the new era were influenced by the sweet German wines like Liebfraumilch and Hock that were popular in the 60’s and were blended white and red sweet wines, called “cream wine” The largest vineyard in England is Denbies Wine Estate in Surrey, which has 265 acres under vines, and a visitors’ centre that is open all year round.

Some random cheese

From a peak of over 400 vineyards in the late 1980’s, by 2000 one-third of these had given up, but have since accelerated, helped by the growing success of English sparkling wines. In 2004, a panel judging European sparkling wines awarded most of the top ten positions to English wines with the remaining positions going to Champagne.

Such results have encouraged an explosion of sparkling wine plantings. Winemaking has spread from the South East, South West, the Midlands and the North of England, with Yorkshire, Shropshire, Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Lancashire boasting at least one vineyard each as of 2007.

Significant plantings have been happening across the south of the country too. The return per tonne for grapes over more traditional crops, are quite astounding. A field of wheat might yield 3 tonnes per acre at around £120 per tonne while grapes can yield 3 to 4 tonnes per acre at around £950 to £1,100 per tonne.

One concern is that growers need to invest a chunk of money for no initial return, as crops tend to come in the third or fourth year. In England, it is only in about 2 years in every 10 that grape production will be really good, 4 years will be average and 4 years poor or terrible – largely due to weather and/or disease exacerbated by weather.

However English vineyards share common European weather patterns and so 2006 was a bumper year while 2007 saw ripe grapes but low volumes. 2008 was very poor, but both 2009 and 2010 were good years. 2011 was average, 2012 dreadful, and 2013 good. Typical British weather one might say, if one were a cynic that is!

But be that as it may, English wine was given a boost when HRH the Duchess of Cornwall became the new President of The United Kingdom Vineyards Association on 25 July 2011 and further added prestige in June 2012 during the celebration of the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II.

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