Saturday, March 19, 2011

The history of English winemaking.

UK vineyard locations today

Many are surprised to hear of wine production in England. Very little of the wine ever makes it out of the UK. Sommeliers around the world typically have no opportunity to taste these wines unless they pay a visit to the regions themselves. So when people read about the wines of England they naturally think this is a relatively new development. But a reading of the history of English winemaking below will definitely surprise most and change opinions…
Roman amphora discovered in Kent, England

The first wine production in what is now England occurred during Roman times, about 2000 years ago. Oxford Archaeology has discovered many artifacts telling of the consumption of wine throughout the Roman era, including an amphora from BC times (see above). The small-scale winemaking enterprise was welcomed among the conquered: they had developed an appreciation for wine due to the importation of the beverage from the Belgae before Roman occupation. But some historians believe that the production was, in fact, so small-scale that hardly any wine was produced at all, and that the ceremonial tending of the vineyards and making of the wine was more a remnant of the homesickness of the Romans than an actual productive business.

Conquest of the Normans

The departure of the Romans and the subsequent Dark Ages mostly resulted in these small vineyards falling into disuse and disrepair. The adoption of Christianity under King Alfred encouraged a bit of winemaking to produce wine for the church, but more widespread interest didn’t begin until the entrance of the Normans in 1066.

By the time of the Norman conquest vines were certainly grown in quantities that allowed a significant amount of wine production. Evidence abounds throughout cities in England of the importance of wines (street names such as Vine Street, for example). The Normans were heavy drinkers who enjoyed wine in particular, and their skills as winemakers were finely honed. The Domesday Book reported 46 vineyards in the south of England in 1085-1086, and English production nearly matched imports in volume. Of these only 12 were tended by monasteries. The rest were property of noblemen, producing wine for their personal pleasure. At this time wine was being produced in the coastal area in the southeast and in an area including present-day Somerset, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, and Worcestershire.

Thereafter the number of vineyards suddenly declined. There is a popular debate regarding a potential climate change that may have taken place during the Norman times that might explain this demise. Some say that the summers became colder and winters became warmer, and that the climate in general became wetter, making grape growing a much more difficult task. Others attribute the change in vineyard land to the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII in 1536. Still others point to the change in agriculture following the Black Plague due to a dramatic drop in population. Importation of the wines of Bordeaux, Champagne, Germany, and Portugal may have had an effect as well. By the late 1300s more than half of all the wine in Bordeaux was loaded onto British ships and sold within England. Unfortunately we have very few records to help us figure out the exact reason or combination of events that led to the fall in vineyard acreage.

A tavern frequented by wine drinkers in 18th century England

In the 17th century and onward there was once again a rise in wine production, mostly due to private enterprise. A few influential figures were key in boosting the home industry such as the Hon. Charles Hamilton in 1740, who developed the vineyards at Painshill Park in Surrey which has been recently restored. John Tradescant planted 20,000 vines on the estate of Lord Salisbury in Hartfordshire. The Marquis of Bute planted vines at Castell Coch in South Wales in the late 19th century, considered to be the last great experiment in viticulture prior to the modern period. His wine was not thought of as the finest: a joke existed about it, posing the question “How many men does it take to drink a glass of the Marquis’ wine?” The answer is 3: one to drink the wine, and two more to hold him down while he does. After World War I a labor shortage hit the wine industry heavily, leaving many vineyards untended for years.

Wrotham Pinot Noir, discovered by Edward Hyams

The modern revival can be traced to a couple of influential figures. Ray Barrington Brock, a research chemist, developed a research lab in Surrey where he experimentally planted over 600 grape varietals to study their growth in the English soils and climate over a period of 25 years. He introduced the relatively well-faring Muller-Thurgau (Riesling Sylvaner) and Seyval Blanc (Seyve Villard) to the English countryside. Edward Hyams, a writer and journalist, used his skills to popularize viticulture, winemaking, and wine consumption. He collaborated with Brock in Surrey and discovered a number of “native” vines still growing in England, including Wrotham Pinot (an interesting clone of Pinot Noir, cultivated a little now in California). George Ortish, another who impacted England’s wine industry, studied horticulture in Champagne and upon returning to his native Kent realized the similarity of the region to Champagne. He planted a vineyard in 1938 and proved himself to be an excellent winemaker.

Major General Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones in his vineyard

The first modern 100% commercial vineyard was planted by Major-General Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones in 1951. A few others slowly followed suit, planting mostly Seyval Blanc and Muller-Thurgau after the recommendations of Brock’s research. The period immediately after 1976 saw a huge boom in vineyard land for winemaking. Currently the growth has slowed, and there are 1,215 hectares planted today.

During the last couple decades sparkling wines, roses, and oak-aged reds have become the norm of English production. Germanic-style fruity, easy to drink quaffers are slowly being replaced by more serious examples, though grapes such as Huxelrebe and Scheurebe still constitute a large amount of production. Beside those, Chardonnay, Ortega, and Optima constitute most of the white blends. As for red varietals, Rondo, Dornfelder, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier are favorites. A comprehensive list of varietals grown commonly can be found here. In addition, the Quality Wine Scheme (England’s AOC, DOC, or AVA setup) can be found here.

I visited Kent recently to do a bit of wine tasting myself. I'll post a couple of writeups of some Kentish vineyards over the next week.


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