The English Wine Industry (a history of) – a neglected opportunity?

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In recent years there has been a rising amount of media interest in English wines and the English wine trade. Hits on English wine websites have been increasing and sales in the shops rising. Why might this be? Certainly a general shift towards localism and regionalism regarding food and drink choices is one factor. Growth in awareness and understanding must be another variable thrown into the mix. However, although the Great British public may be going out in search of English wines today, there may not be such an awareness of the origins and chequered story of viticulture in this country. Certainly personally speaking, before I began researching for this article, I was unaware of the chronology behind wine making in England.

Friends, Romans, Countrymen

It is widely acknowledged that the Romans were the first to bring the vine to English shores although there is some evidence that grapes may have been grown before the Roman invasion. Although the Celts preferred beer and mead, tribes such as the Belgae of the south and east were partial to the odd cup of wine. Nonetheless, vineyards were only established on a commercial scale during the Roman occupation. Archaeological evidence at Woolaston in the Nene Valley has uncovered a 35ha site.

With Christianity interest and drinking of wine increased although following the Romans, vineyards were neglected by the next run of invaders, the Jutes, Angles, Saxons and then the Vikings. It was not until the 9th and 10th Centuries that viticulture experienced its first renaissance with a multitude of grape varieties being grown in monastic vineyards.

Medieval viticulture

Domesday(1087) shows us that vineyards were present in 42 locations across England, only 12 of those being monastic holdings. The focus of growing was both in the south and east as well as the West Country (Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Somerset).

The Black Death and the subsequent general changes in agriculture and horticulture through the 14th and 15th centuries meant that viticulture suffered. The 1536 Dissolution of the Monasteries however is thought to be the single most important event in the demise of vine growing. Monastic vineyards were some of the most important and prevalent systems around. There was also a gradual shift in the English climate, to a much colder, wetter weather system – something we still don’t seem to have said goodbye to!

The Viticulture Renaissance

Of course, there were some instances of renewed vine growing between the dissolution and the 20th Century, including a 19th century experiment at Castel Coch by Lord Bute and the writing of a treatise on ‘The English Vineyard Vindicated’ by John Rox in 1666. However, largely, viticulture was neglected.

The revival began in 1946 with the establishment of a viticulture research station at Oxted, Surrey by the man heralded as the founding father of the modern wine industry in Britain, Ray Barrington Brock. He trialled 600 varieties over a 25 year period. Edward Hyams acted as the marketeer, publishign and broadcasting about English wine. His ‘The grape Vine in England’ (1949) and ‘Vineyards in England’ (1953) did much to raise the profile of the English grape potential. Entomologist George Ordish is also credited in raising the profile for the renewed industry with his work ‘Wine Growing in England’ (1953). Through the 1950s, 60s and 70s vineyards were planted in places such as Sussex and Hampshire, the first being at Hambledon owned by Major General Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones.

Today

English wine is now more competitive both in terms of style and price. The tourism sector has increasingly recognised the potential in coupling with vineyards and creating a new form of wine growing – bringing the consumer and the producer together. As already said, this reflects the general trend in food and drink towards regionalism and localism. Interest in organic and biodynamic ways of growing vines has also been increasing. Although the high point of vine growing was 1993 with 1065 hectares (2632 acres) under production (which can be compared to 2003 figure of 773 ha – 1932.5 acres), certain vineyards seem to have grown both in terms of quality and conspicuity.

With the potential for a warming climate, a growth in awareness by farmers and producers to diversify their businesses and, it seems, a growing awareness of the potential in English wine by consumers perhaps more Brits should be considering turning to English and Welsh wine.

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