The English have a centuries-old reputation for consuming vast amounts of wine. A survey taken in 2020 ranked the UK as the fifth largest consumer of wine in the world.
However, after a long and turbulent history which spans over two thousand years, the English have finally received recognition as being new rising stars in the world of wine production. Their persistence in wine production has finally paid off. In the last seventy years, English winemakers have finally been able to successfully produce and commercialize their wines locally and internationally and have earned a reputation for creating desirable wines of high quality which are now sought after.
England has a reputation for great “terroir” (the French word that is used to describe the quality of the soil, the topography and the climate which is particularly favourable for the production of wine). English soil is remarkably like that found in Champagne.
Seventy-one per cent of vines planted in the UK are the traditional Champagne varieties of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier. Pinot Noir is the most popular grape variety planted in the UK, other planted grape varieties include Bacchus, Seyval Blanc, Rechsteiner and Ortega.
The recent success of English wine has caused a surge in investment into the industry as well as an increase in the number of vines planted during the past twenty years. The main concentration of vines is planted in the southern English counties of Essex, Sussex, and Kent where the climate is more temperate and suitable for wine production.
There are now over eight hundred vineyards ranging from the smallest which has only six vines up to the largest -around ninety hectares (222 acres). In total there are around 3,800 hectares (9,390 acres) of vines under cultivation. In the past ten years, the amount of land planted under vine has increased by 194% since 2000 with a 70% increase of hectares planted in the past five years.
In 2015 the famous Champagne House Taittinger realized the potential that the English “terroir” had to produce excellent sparkling wine outside of Champagne and launched Domaine Evremond after the purchase of sixty-nine hectares near Canterbury in Kent. www.domaine evremond.com.
The average price for a hectare of land in the Côte de Blancs region of Champagne costs on average 6.2 million dollars while in England the same amount of prime vineyard land could be purchased for around 68,000 dollars.
There is an average annual production of 10,000 bottles of wine, consisting of 64% sparkling wine and 36% still wine. English wine is currently exported to twenty-seven different countries. The United States is the biggest importer of English wine.
The English wine industry is now one of the fastest-growing agricultural sectors in the UK, with sales of English and Welsh wines increasing by 31% in 2021 to 9.3 million bottles. If the current trend continues, annual wine production could reach forty million bottles by 2040.
Currently, there are around 178 wineries in England and Wales.
Vineyards are located six major geographical areas:
-East Anglia 5% of production
-Southeast 75% of production and over 50% of planted vines
-Southwest 11% of all production
-East Anglia 5% of production
-Wales 2% of production (1.5% of planted vines)
-Scotland and Channel Islands 7% of production (.05% of planted vines)
How it all began……
The common belief is that Emperor Claudius brought vines to Britain in 43 BC during his conquest of the British Isles. The Romans were known for enjoying wine and it was quite common for wine consumption in private homes as well as the local army barracks. The Romans tried to grow grapes in England without limited success. Well-established trading links with Italy and France meant that it was easier to import wine than to produce it.
The Doomsday Book which was a detailed record of life during the Middle Ages was written at the time of the Norman invasion in the eleventh century that was led by William the Conqueror. The records mention the existence of more than forty-two vineyards, twelve of these vineyards were listed as being attached to different monasteries located in South England at the end of the 11th century. It is unknown whether vines existed prior to pre-roman Britain as there are no reliable supporting records or archaeological evidence to verify this.
As in many other countries, wine was made by the monks that lived in the local monasteries. Vineyards were neglected during the invasion of the Jutes, the Angles and the Saxons which was then followed by the three-hundred-year Roman occupation. The revival of Christianity led to the rebirth of vine growing and there is evidence that new vineyards were planted, however, the invasion of the Vikings in 793 AD. once again brought viticulture to an abrupt halt as the Scandinavians raided monasteries during their pillage of the British Isles. The increased production of wine in mainland Europe also had a detrimental effect for British wine production.
There was a revival in Christianity after King Alfred defeated the Norse monarch Guthrum of East Anglia in May 878 at the Battle of Edington. Viticultural practices were once again encouraged, and viticulture and winemaking became part of the monastery activities. There was a high density of vineyards, particularly in the western country, as well as in the south and central regions.
Records show that there was an increase in temperature in Britain during a three-hundred-year period at the time of the Norman invasion, the warm temperature sadly did not last and led to a decline in viticulture during the Middle Ages.
Another contributing factor to the failure of English viticulture was the marriage of Henry II to Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152. The union along with the subsequent reign of Henry II served to promote the commercial links between France and Britain. French wine was also considered superior to English wine and was better suited to the palates of the British Nobles. Subsequently, copious quantities of French wine were imported from Bordeaux during that Epoque. As is the case today, English wine faced tough competition from other wine-producing countries, the British love of wine resulted in the country becoming famous for its ability to select, import, cellar, and bottle wine.
Just when it seemed that things could not get worse, the Black Death (Bubonic plague 1346-1353) of the Middle Ages depleted farm hands as millions of people died, and vineyard owners decided that it was more profitable to grow crops that would produce cash quickly in a desperate effort to feed their starving families.
Despite their disadvantaged position in the wine market, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a group of noblemen and botanists continued to experiment with wine production. The Honorable Charles Hamilton at his estate Painshill Place in Cobham Surrey (where wine today is made from the grapes that still grow on the property). www.painshill.co.uk/the-pain still-wine/.
The famous botanist John Tradescant also experimented with vines at Lord Salisbury’s estate in Hertfordshire. Sadly, the uncertain British climate triumphed over the enthusiasm of the owners and their lack of success eventually led to many of the vineyards being abandoned. The reduction of tax by 83% approved by Lord Palmerston in 1860 further crippled the wine industry in Britain making it impossible to compete with the superior wines imported from countries such as France, Italy, Germany, and Spain. To make things even worse, the palate of the upper and middle-class wine-consuming population was also changing with a trend of drinking wines that were from Australia and South Africa that were fortified, heavy, and sweet in style.
World War I brought the English wine industry to its knees as producing food took priority over wine production. It was only after the end of the war that English winemaking started once again.
Hambledon Vineyard was founded in 1952 by Major-General Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones. Located in Hampshire (Southwest England), the estate was planted with one specific purpose, to produce wine. The mission was simple, to create the finest English fizz possible, in 1955 the property was commercialized and successfully continues to produce wine today. For more information visit www.hambledonvineyard.co.uk.
Are you inspired to learn more about English wine? The Decanter World Wine Awards rated the top ten English wines of 2020.
- Roebuck Estates, Classic Cuvee Brut, West Sussex 2014
- Simpsons Wine Estate, The Roman Road Chardonnay, Kent 2018
- Chapel Down, Kit’s Coty Coeur de Cuvée, Kent 2014
- Chapel Down, Three Graces, Kent 2015
- The Grange, Pink Hampshire NV
- Chapel Down, Kit’s Coty Blanc de Blancs, Kent 2014
- Chapel Down, Kit’s Coty Chardonnay, Kent 2017
- Debbie’s, The Brokes Botrytis Ortega, Surrey 2016
- Gusborne, Blanc de Noirs, Kent 2013
- Hoffmann & Rathbone, Blanc de Blancs Brut, East Sussex 2012
More information can be found about each wine on the following link: www.decanter.com/decanter-world-wine-awards/top-10-english-wines-445642.
Chapel Down is the largest English wine producer for more information visit www.chapeldown.com.