The History of English Wine

English wine: its history in a nutshell!
The Romans brought the vine and wine to Britain   Many vineyards in Middle Ages, but later decline   Renaissance of English vineyards post World War 2 - now nearly 400


grapes growing in a Midlands vineyard

Index

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Roman origins?
Domesday and Middle Ages
Victorian experimenter
Twentieth century gap
Post-war pioneers
Exponential growth
Maturity?
Problems
An un-level playing field?
Re-positioning English wine
A peculiarly "British" confusion
Less means better?
A reading list
Appeal for contributors

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Roman Origins

It is said that Julius Caesar brought the vine to England. Nice though that story is, some scholars think it apocryphal - wine was certainly brought to Britain by the Romans, but it is less certain whether the vine was grown here, or if it was, whether it was in sufficent quantity to satisfy the local requirement for wine or just as an ornament to remind Romans of home and wealthy Romano-Britons of the source of their civilisation and prosperity.


Domesday & Middle Ages

It is more certain that by the time of the Norman Conquest, vines were grown, and wine made, in a substantial number of monastic institutions in England, especially, southern England. The legacy of street names (such as Vine street or the Vineyards) in London and provincial towns and cities - suggests that vines and vineyards were certainly no great rarities.

Seyval - a high yielding variety popular in England

At the time of the compilation of the Domesday Survey in the late eleventh century, vineyards were recorded in 46 places in southern England, from East Anglia through to modern-day Somerset. By the time King Henry VIIIth ascended the throne there were 139 sizeable vineyards in England and Wales - 11 of them owned by the Crown, 67 by noble families and 52 by the church.

It is not exactly clear why the number of vineyards declined subsequently. Some have put it down to an adverse change in the weather which made an uncertain enterprise even more problematic. Others have linked it with the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII. Both these factors may have had some part to play but in all probability the decline was gradual (over several centuries) and for more complex reasons.


Eighteenth & nineteenth century experimenters

In the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth century there is evidence of various noblemen experimenting with growing grapes and making wine - such as the Hon. Charles Hamilton who grew vines at Painshill in Surrey (a garden which has in recent years been restored).

black grapes ripening in a Midlands vineyard

In the late nineteenth century, the Marquess of Bute established a vineyard on a commercial scale at Castell Coch in South Wales - this is very well documented. The Marquess died in 1900 but in 1905 there were 63,000 vines at Castell Coch and Swanbridge superintended by the Marquess's 19 year old son who had succeeded him, but no wine making seems to have been carried out after the First World War.


Twentieth century gap

The period from the end of the First World War to shortly after the end of the Second World War may well be the only time in two millennia that vines to make wine on a substantial scale were not grown in England or Wales. Doubtless, during that time, there were some vines being grown on a garden scale by amateur growers, but for more than 25 years there was a total cessation of viticulture and winemaking on a commercial basis.


Post-war pioneers

After the Second World War, two men seem to have been the inspiration for the re-establishment of the English Wine industry. One was Ray Barrington Brock (who died only this year). He was a research chemist and set himself a private research mission to discover which varieties of grape would grow and ripen well in Britain. The other was Edward Hymans, a writer on garden matters who planted a vineyard and researched for a book he was writing on the history and practice of grape-vine cultivation in England.

The work of these two pioneers inspired others: Major General Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones planted a vineyard at Hambledon, north of Portsmouth, in Hampshire. He initially planted 4,000 vines on a 1.5 acre site in 1952 and in 1955 the first English Wine to be made and sold commercially since the First World War went on sale.


Exponential growth

The rest, as they say, is history. An ever-increasing number of pioneers followed these leads and especially during the 1960s, 70s and 80s there was a rapid increase in the number of English vineyards to a figure well over 400 by the late 80s/early 90s. The total area under cultivation rose to more than 2,000 acres.

Black grapes (Rondo) at Sedlescombe organic vineyard, East SussexLook carefully - a superb crop of black Rondo grapes at Sedlescombe Organic Vineyard in East Sussex (1996)

The vast majority of these vineyards were small (5 acres or less, many less than 1 acre), whilst a few much larger vineyards emerged, such as Three Choirs near Newent in Gloucestershire. Denbies at Dorking in Surrey has, so far, marked the apogee of size in English vineyards, with around 250 acres under cultivation. Clearly such vineyards have been very serious commercial developments, but many small English vineyards have been retirement or "second-career" ventures, quite often by individuals or married couples wanting to escape the urban rat-race whilst still pursuing an occupation requiring both manual and intellectual challenges.


A mature industry?

In the 1990s the increase in the number of vineyards and the acreage under cultivation has levelled off, maybe even declined a little. There are a number of reasons for this - many English vineyards have undoubtedly been established with little knowledge of, or even concern for, their financial viability. A saying has grown up that the best way to get a small fortune is to have a large fortune and buy an English vineyard. Whilst this is cruel, it is also pretty certain that it is true.


Problems

However, there are, fortunately, a good number of vineyards demonstrating that this adage is not necessarily true of all English vineyards and some of the more recently established vinyards and those which have grown from smaller origins have accumulated the professional and scientific expertise needed for successful commercial scale operations.

1999's crop nears harvest Some English vineyards have clearly been established in less than favourable soils or situations and have selected inappropriate vine varieties and, as a result, have been marginal, or worse, in their productivity in the average 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).

The best of present day vineyards are well sited, grow the right varieties for their situation, are well managed and their growers understand what they are doing in a scientific way. There have been some notable examples of new vineyards being planted in recent years on a very scientific basis - with their owners/developers seeking out the right soils and situations for what they want to achieve. One thinks of Nyetimber vineyard in West Sussex, deliberately developed on the Greensand to emulate the growing conditions in the Champagne region of France. Already Nyetimber's reputation for its sparkling wines confirm the efficacy of this rational, scientific approach.


An un-level playing field?

In the 1990s English vineyards, especially those in the south-east of England, have also suffered from the cross-Channel "smuggling" phenomenon whereby it is possible (due to high rates of customs duty and VAT on wine in England) for any UK citizen to take a cheap trip by Channel Tunnel or Ferry to one of a number of French ports (such as Calais) and buy practically duty free wines from vast wine supermarkets. On sheer cost of production it is not possible for English wine producers to compete on such prices.


Re-positioning English wine

However this has led the more thinking members of the English wine industry to raise their sights (as, to be fair, many of them have always done) and to aim not at the bottom of the market but at the top. Recurring successes in blind tastings against all-comers from around the world have shown that when given a fair trial English wines can be as good as the best from anywhere else. Of course, some are not in this league and it can be argued that if low quality producers drop out of the market this may, in fact, be a good thing however much it may be a disappointment or even tragedy for individual winegrowers and makers.


A peculiarly "British" confusion

The final hurdle that faces English wine producers is ignorance and confusion. A surprisingly large proportion of English people have never ever even tasted English wine - or if they have, they may have tried just one example and been unfortunate in their experience and have never repeated their experiment with a better English wine.

The confusion factor comes from a bizarre use of terminology that is allowed in Britain. Look on the shelves of any supermarket and the cheapest wines you will see are described as "British". Such wines are decidely cheap, but generally have little or no character, which, when one knows their origin and method of manufacture is hardly surprising. Unfortunately many people have the impression that they are "English wines". Nothing could be further from the truth. English wine is good honest wine which has by law to be both grown and made in England (Similarly, "Welsh" in Wales). The grapes have to be grown in England and the wine has to be made in England. Often, indeed the English grape grower makes the wine in his own winery at his own vineyard.

By contrast, the so-called "British" wine is not made from grapes grown in England (or Wales) but is made, like a giant home wine-making kit from Boots the Chemists, from wine concentrate imported in tanker ships to ports such as Shoreham in Sussex. The wines are "made" in factory scale enterprises inland in towns such as Kingston-upon-Thames in Surrey.

This low cost/low price "factory wine" for the very bottom of the wine market in Britain developed when there was no native grape-growing and wine-making industry in England or Wales. This is how its manufacturers managed to establish the designation "British wine". One suspects that had there been an established wine-growing industry at the time the designation would never have been allowed and the present damaging confusion in the public's mind would have been avoided. Although it should not be over-stated, it has muddied the waters and confused the public.

Successive UK governments have shown little sign of wishing to aid the fledgling English wine growing and making industry - in particular they have been unwilling to abate the high levels of excise duty and VAT which afflict the English wine producers. Although there has been no sign of them being willing to do so, one of the easiest things government could do to help would be to find a new term to replace that of "British" wine to describe wine made from imported juices or concentrates.


Less means better?

At the end of the second Millennium it may reasonably be said that England has at least a small indigenous wine growing industry. The realities of climate and latitude probably dictate that it will never grow into the massive industries of France, Italy, Germany or Australia. However, and it may fairly be said to be one of the best kept secrets of these islands, the fact is that though the grapevine is most productive in sunnier, hotter climes, it produces wine of the very highest quality where it is at the very margin of its existence. That is, in England and Wales.


A reading list

The author admires Adgestone Vineyard, Isle of Wight (1998)

There are a number of books about the history of English Wine. "A Taste of English Wine" by Hugh Barty-King (Pelham Books 1989) and "A Tradition of English Wine", also by Hugh Barty-King (Oxford Illustrated Press, 1977) are particularly informative and comprehensively researched. Stephen Skelton's "The Vineyards of England" (published by S.P. & L.Skelton 1989) is a superb guide both to the history of English Wine and also the state of the industry and a comprehensive gazeteer of individual vineyards. Unfortunately it is now 10 years old and lots of changes have, inevitably, taken place, but it is believed that a successor volume bringing the picture up-to-date will be published in mid-2000. I acknowledge with gratitude the assistance I have gained from these and other volumes in drawing up this brief summary of the history of English wine

Robert J. Tarr
Coventry & Cornwall, England. © 1999


Appeal for contributors

Visitors who would like to contribute to this history would be most welcome to do so. Please see our homepage for contact details.

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