History of English Wine

Contrary to popular belief, the history of English wine is a long and distinguished one. Sadly, an unfortunate interwar interruption in the production of English wines has seen England gain an erroneous reputation as a nation in which no vineyard may flourish. It is most unfortunate that this decline in the English commercial wine trade happened to coincide with a period of great change and social upheaval, during which wine became accessible to an upwardly mobile swathe of the population. Wine began to really take off as a mass commercial enterprise in the late forties and fifties, with people buying for dinner parties and home consumption at an unprecedented rate. Unfortunately, however, no good quality English wine could be found on the shelves due to a dearth of English vineyards. Worse, that wine which was marked as a ‘British’ product was the very cheapest available - synthesised factory stuff bearing only the most superficial resemblance to that which could have been made in a properly managed English winery. An entire generation of people, therefore, grew up thinking that ‘English wine’ was anathema to the sommelier, and naturally greeted any proper winemaking enterprise in England with raised eyebrows and the conviction that England was not a nation which could support a good quality winery. As it happens, however, winemaking in England has a long history – an impeccable pedigree which, if restored, may go a long way towards aiding the reputation of English wine.

Roman Vineyards

The origins of English wine remain shrouded in a certain mystery, but there is evidence to suggest that viticulture was first introduced to Great Britain by the Romans. Few people would deny that the Italians know a thing or two about wine, and the Romans appear to have utilised their Italian wine-making instincts by racing to make the most of England’s viticultural potential. They planted many substantial vineyards – particularly in Northamptonshire, where conditions were perfect for crafting Roman-style wine (a very sweet affair, with plenty of honey added). After the Romans left, the wine stayed – a tradition testified to by the proliferation of ancient wine-related place names like ‘Vine Street’ and ‘Vintners Road’ throughout the country.

Monastery Wines

England continued to make wine in prodigious quantities throughout the Middle Ages, with the largest producers being the Christian monasteries – a tradition which still continues (although the less said about the travesty that is Buckfast ‘tonic wine’ and its associated problems with violence and alcoholism the better…). Although monastic viticulture was periodically disturbed by first Saxon invasion and then Viking raids, English winemaking skills were never lost. With the ninth century ascendancy of King Alfred and the subsequent strengthening of Christianity, wine-production became a well-established facet of monastic life. The arrival of the Normans and wine-loving French abbots sent monastic viticulture into overdrive. Norman nobles, granted enormous estates in conqueredEngland, were also eager to produce wines on their new land and set to planting vineyards with gusto. Aristocratic cellars were liberally stocked with English wines, which had the great advantage of being less likely to oxidise during their journey from winery to table than imported wines. Simultaneously, the ‘mediaeval warming period’ provided an ideal climate for English vineyards to flourish.

Dissolution and Mercantile Refinements

The later Middle Ages saw several blows to the monastic life in Britain which had a knock on effect upon English viticulture. Demographic changes during and after the Black Death saw a vast reduction in the available workforce, as well as the growth of a generally more cynical attitude towards religion. Furthermore, the scarcity of labourers meant that the working peasantry could in many ways now call the shots. They were able to pick and choose their employment rather than being tied by necessity to whoever offered them work. Faced with a reduced and less pliable workforce, many monasteries were forced to give up their vineyards in order to turn the land to less labour intensive enterprises. Winemaking continued in some of the larger monasteries, but the dissolution of the religious houses under Henry VIII sounded the death knell for monastic winemaking. Furthermore, there is speculation that the climate in Britain became colder and damper during this period, making grapes more susceptible to fungal infection and less likely to ripen effectively. However, this by no means indicates that English winemaking went into terminal decline at this point. On the contrary, English interests in France and the prolific nature of the English wine trade means that the English simply turned their expertise to the wine of other regions. Claret, Madeira, Sherry, Hock, and many other famed varieties of wine had a significant English input at their conception, and were certainly considerably refined by the bottling and cellaring techniques of wine merchants based in England. Indeed, champagne was even invented by a Gloucester man named Christopher Merret in 1632 – almost a century after the monasteries were dissolved.

Estate Vineyards

The following centuries saw many nobles experimenting with viticulture upon their estates. Notably, the Hon Charles Hamilton established a vineyard at his Surrey estate in 1740, which continued successfully for several decades. The vineyard has since been restored, and continues to produce wine from the very grape varieties planted by Hamilton all those years ago. Another experiment of repute was that of Lord Bute, Marquiss of Swanbridge, at Castel Coch in Wales, who planted an extensive vineyard which ran successfully until the Marquiss’s death. The Marquiss was succeeded by his son, who ran the vineyard with alacrity until business was interrupted by the First World War.

Wartime Decline

Much like the Black Death centuries previously, the First World War spelled devastation for English viticulture. The majority of English vineyards were on private estates, and could not survive either the reduction in workforce or the dissolution of the country estates which followed the war. The problem English winemaking faced was not, primarily, one of climate or soil quality (as came to be the accepted notion), it was one of economics, politics, and social change. The interwar period and the decade following World War Two saw a socio-economically induced dearth of English wines as the nation struggled to readjust to a world changed forever. Wine drinkers looked to France, Italy, and South Africa for their tipple, and it never crossed their minds to consider either making or trying an English wine. It was during this period that many of the modern ‘rules’ governing wine and wine tasting were laid down, while simultaneously many ‘ordinary’ people who had not before had the chance to taste a drink like wine began to sample its delights. English wine was regrettably absent during this time of change – a blow from which its reputation is only slowly recovering.

A Steady Recovery

However, recovering it nonetheless is. Pioneers like Ray Barrington Brock and Edward Hymans in the postwar period combined scientific experimentation with traditional knowledge to rebuild winemaking in a style uniquely tailored to the English and Welsh climate. Barrington Brock’s viticultural research station at Oxted, Surrey, provided an extensive body of research into vines, winemaking, and the English climate which has proven invaluable to English winemakers ever since, while Hyams did much to publicise the revival of English wines through his considerable body of published work on the subject of English viticulture. They and other notable enthusiasts - like George Ordish, who grew a trial vineyard in Maidenhead and found it fruitful – presented an alternate view to the public. Far from being an impossibility, viticulture in England was not only perfectly plausible, but good quality wines could result from it. The revival was slow, and has suffered setbacks, but English wine is nonetheless gaining a foothold in the world of respected wines, with sparkling wines being a particular area in which English producers have triumphed. Progress is slow, but steady, although there is still that unfortunate post-war reputation to counter. Perhaps giving the industry back its history will go some way towards dispelling the idea that English viticulture is a poor-quality newbie attempting to leap upon a bandwagon.

By Evelyn Jackson