The History of English Wine

Many people don’t think of England or the UK as a typical producer of wine. Yet England is home to numerous vineyards and wineries that can hold their own with some of the classical wines that come from their European neighbors. In fact, the number of wineries is actually growing, and in 2021 there were nearly 200 wineries in the UK [1]. It’s been steadily increasing, too, with each passing year.

Did you know? English Sparkling Wine is made in a nearly identical fashion to Champagne and that it still takes 15 months to two years [2] to properly make it?

There are also over 800 vineyards producing a variety of grapes specifically for the production of wine, and England is only refining its wine production even further, making it a somewhat atypical choice that still has great flavors associated with it. Three major regions in the UK are associated with producing wine: Sussex, Kent, and Surrey. [3]

Some may wonder how growing grapes and producing wine in British weather is even possible, and yet it still receives a lot of rain. That rain, combined with the rising average temperature in the UK and across the globe, is only helping the ripening of the grapes to happen even better. So while global warming is a serious issue, it seems to be positively affecting those who may be looking for one. We will touch upon this later on.

What types of wines does England produce?

It’s not just one type of wine that they are known for. Each region that is home to the wine production industry in the UK produces a variety of different types of red and white wines. Pinot Noir, Bacchus, Pinot Meunier, Chardonnay, and English Sparkling Wine are their most popular wines. Keep in mind that English Sparkling Wine is a protected term, similar to how Champagne is a protected word. Several conditions need to be met to ensure that it is, in fact, English Sparkling Wine.

What is the history of Wine in England?

We have looked at the discussion of wine from the perspective of it becoming a booming business. Yet it’s important to note that this current revival is quite new. In fact, it happened due to the commercialization of wine production that occurred in the early 1950s in Hampshire. We will revisit this later on.

England in Roman Times

One thing everyone can thank the Roman conquest for during their empire; they brought with them their lifestyle and goods. One of these, of course, was wine, and when the conquest of Britain was initiated around 43 BC by the then Emperor Claudius. During and after the conquest, the Romans did their best to try to grow wine with minimal success in reproducing the finer wines they had already started to master in the south. Unfortunately, before this time, there’s no historical recollection of the Celts or any of the other troubles making wine specifically.

Viking Era

While we will go down this historical period, it’s essential to remember how long it took before Britain became its own country. Before its formation, Christianity came to its shores, which also came with growing vineyards again. However, whilst there’s always the possibility and small pieces of evidence that wine was produced, war broke out again until around the year 900 AD when Christianity came back, and so did viticulture. Yet any of this type of growth was tied to monasteries within the land.

The Middle Ages in England

The priority here was more about survival than wine production. Since the import of wines was rampant from countries such as France, up to a point where an imported wine was of lower cost than a locally made wine, those that owned local English vineyards wanted to repurpose their lands for more profitable ventures.

Another item of note is that while Britain didn’t produce much wine in this era, they were known for other facets of the wine industry, such as importing quantities, cellaring wine, and bottling it (from those large wooden casks).

Entering the 20th century

We don’t see many attempts at rebuilding the wine-producing industry in England post the Middle Ages. Instead, there’s a lot of focus on exploration, colonization, and trade routes being established on the global level. As we head over to the 20th century, it’s quickly having England and other nations face the brutalities of two world wars, halting any type of focus on the production of wine in England.

Yet that doesn’t mean it was the end. A man known as George Ordish [4], author of many books, published a book in 1953 called ‘Wine Growing in England’. He concluded that, after spending time in the Champagne region, it was possible to produce good English wines. He had discovered, upon building his own small vineyards, there were similarities between where his home was and Champagne.

Many also saw similar features during this era, as there was some type of unseen force pushing for the creation of English wines. For example, Ray Barrington Brock created the Oxted Viticultural Research Station), which focused on 600 varieties of grapes for 25 years [5]. This helped with the necessary renaissance for English Winemaking that we know today.

Going beyond research, it was in 1952 when Major-General Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones worked to commercialize it. Hambledon Vineyards [6] is the oldest commercially producing vineyard in the UK. It still produces English Sparkling wine, affectionally referred to as English Fizz. They have since modernized their overall process to ensure that they produce as high-quality English wine as possible.

English Winemaking today

English viticulture has grown strong since its import and exploration of monastery-producing days. However, it is continuing to go only in one direction, which is up. The southern portion of England, where the majority of wine is produced, seems to continue to have new vineyards and wineries open up every few months.

It’s not just about the quantity of the wine being produced, but there is particular care being taken to the quality as well. In the past few years, English wines have received numerous awards globally and from the IWSC itself. It’s competing with hundreds of years of tradition and coming out on top in some categories, making its rise as a major player one where it will continue to stand.

The advantage, as mentioned earlier, is due in part to English ingenuity but the fact that the regions where the vineyards are are starting to feel as if they are southern French towns. Global warming is really heating it up to a point where it’s not just a fluke weather system but here to stay, meaning that the wine industry in England is going to go full speed ahead and take full advantage of it.

Those who love their wine and its history might consider their next selection of wine to be an English bottle of wine.

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Categories: Country Profiles, This Day in Wine History | ArticlesTags: By Published On: May 10, 2023Last Updated: February 29, 2024

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