Articles and Reviews

The History of English Wine

Posted by: Andy Kelly

Date: 17-07-2020

If you ask any wine lover to name the top 10 wine producing countries in the world, more often than not England won’t be on that list.

Our relationship with viticulture has always been a difficult one. One that’s intertwined with a cold climate that seems to have a mind of its own. One that’s burdened by political and economic strife, the quality of which is often seen as inferior to its French Counterparts. But there is a long winemaking tradition in England, and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that when English winemakers got it right, they got it right!

The Beginnings Through to the Tudor Period

The information we have on winemaking in Britain during the Roman times is sketchy at best. Neither Pliny or Tacitus allude to the cultivation of the vine in their descriptions of the country, though it is likely that winemaking in Britain started around AD 280 when the Emperor Probus permitted the cultivation of vines. Vineyards likely sprang up in Somerset and Gloucestershire and we actually have evidence of one in Hertfordshire too.

Writing in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People in AD 731, Bede alludes to the fact that there were vineyards dotted about the countryside. These vineyards were likely tended to by monks who will have used the wine for Mass and on feast days and there is even evidence that October was called Wyn Moneth, when they harvested the grapes.

These years of growth came crashing to a halt not long after as the Vikings pillaged the English countryside for over a century with many of the vineyards being destroyed during this time. Winemaking begins to recover from AD 900’s onwards as king Alfred re-established monasticism in England and enacted a law that required anybody who destroyed a vineyard to pay compensation. This revival meant that by AD 1084, 38 vineyards were listed in the Domesday book, of which 12 were monastic.

Around this time came the Norman conquest of England, and with them they brought their love of wine and skill in the cultivation of the vine. French abbots were installed in all of the monasteries and many of the Saxon landowners were replaced by their Norman conquerors. The recovery was so great that William of Malmesbury, writing in AD 1123, tells us that vineyards covered vast swathes of the southern English countryside which is markedly different from Bede’s earlier assertion. It is estimated that there were as many as 300 monastic vineyards alone in medieval England, a huge amount considering the quality of the wine always relied on the whims of a cold, erratic climate.  

Whilst viticulture was booming around this time, trouble was brewing for English winemakers. In 1154 Henry II ascends to the throne and whilst his reign does little to stem the consumption of wine in England, his ownership of vast vineyards in France kick starts the mass importation of French wine.

A second blow was to come from 1348 onwards as the Black Death wiped out much of the work force in England. The monastic orders were particularly hit hard and by AD 1370 there were only 8,000 monks compared to 14,000 a century prior (Seward 1979). Lay brothers who often worked in the vineyards could not be replaced by farm workers as they would require to be paid which the monasteries could not afford.

Fast forward to AD 1536 and, after a long process, Henry VIII begins to dissolve the monasteries with their winemaking tradition. The reasons were for the dissolution of the monasteries are varied but among them was the general view that Roman Catholics no longer saw the need in the Abbeys, with one alleging that in his monastery “Monkes drynk an bowl after collacyon tell ten or xii of the clock and cum to mattens as dronck as myss (mice)” (Seward, 1979).

From this moment on, viticulture in England declined rapidly and just never got going again until the 20thcentury. Wealthy landowners would sporadically plant vines over the next 3 centuries but the fact that better quality wine could be imported just as cheaply from France combined with the rise of England’s love of port, brandy, rum and whisky meant that farmers in England simply weren’t going to rip up their cornfields and start making wine.  

Was English Wine any Good?

That the English could produce wine of exceptional quality has never been in doubt. William of Malmesbury in AD 1123 assures as that the vineyards in the vale of Gloucester were producing as good a wine as many from the provinces of France. Victorian writers were especially keen at chronicling the quality of English wine, providing many fine examples: At Godingdon in Kent, Captain Toke (an interesting chap who died at the wee age of 92, on his way to wed his sixth wife) “hath so industriously and elegantly cultivated our English vines, that the wine pressed and extracted out of the grapes seems not only to parallel but outrival that of France” (Henderson, 1824).

Arundel Castle in Sussex gets an honourable mention in the Museum Rusticum, and by AD 1763 the Duke of Norfolk’s cellars were brimming with wine comparable to Burgundy (Sheen, 1864). There’s even evidence that vineyards belonging to Charles Hamilton (most likely Painshill Park) was making sparkling wine to rival champagne using the Auvergnat grape from the AD 1750’s onwards. Hamilton even wrote that his wine deceived many good judges, who thought it to be French. Interestingly, he never revealed his wines’ true origin because of “…the prejudice of most people against anything of English growth” (Henderson, 1824).

But it wasn’t always plain sailing. The wines of a Colonel Blount were described as “good for nothing” in AD 1655. Even the Duke of Norfolk’s wine, though as good as those of Burgundy, were dismissed as inferior to those of Beaune. He even receives criticism for using French grapes and employing French methods to cultivate them (Redding, 1860). In the AD 1780’s Sir Richard Worsely attempted to run a vineyard on the Isle of Wight and even produced passable wine in some years but ultimately, he failed due to the terrible climate and the vineyards proximity to the sea (Henderson, 1824).

What Did Old English Wine Taste Like?

That’s hard to determine and we’re clutching at straws at best. Seward (1979) suggests that some English reds may have been similar to German Spätburgunder with others being coloured with mulberries or blackberries. The whites may have resembled poorer vintages of Germany or Austria, “like course Schluck” as Seward puts it.

The Renaissance of English Viticulture

The first half of the 19th century saw the golden era of French viticulture and this, combined with the subsequent crash of the industry following the Oidium and Phylloxera epidemics meant that there was little appetite to revive viticulture in England. Throw in prohibition, sandwiched between two world wars and it looked destined to remain this way throughout the 20th century.

Enter Major-General Sir Arthur Guy Salisbury-Jones (to give him his full name). Salisbury-Jones had fought with distinction in both world wars and had fell in love with France when undertaking his last major military assignment in Paris. A Francophile and wine enthusiast, he decided to plant some vines (Seyval Blanc) in a vacant field at his Hambledon home in 1951. Little did he know it at the time, but Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones was about to revive the English commercial wine industry. Hambledon flourished, and by the mid 1980’s their wines had garnered a cult following, even winning Gold at the 1984 International Wine & Spirits Competition. Though Hambledon doesn’t produce wines today (its grapes instead sold to other wineries), it has set the standard that all other English wineries aspire to.

Today, the UK has approximately 650 vineyards and wineries, with over 2000 hectares under vine. We produce some of the finest wines anywhere in the world and our sparkling wine is particularly coveted, boasting numerous award-winning vintages. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are widely planted, with Bacchus, Seyval and Pinot Meunier also being prevalent. Wineries such as Nyetimber, Ridgeview, Bolney and Aldwick are great places to start if you want to explore some of the best English wines that we have to offer and rest assured you won’t be disappointed.

The history of wine in England is a story of growth and shortage, a cycle of boom and bust that has played out for almost 2,000 years. We are undoubtedly experiencing a boom period at present as climate change brings warmer summers to our shores. Here’s hoping that our winemakers can use this to their advantage and ensure that English wines remain amongst the finest found anywhere in the world for many years to come.

Further Reading

  • A, The History of Ancient and Modern Wines, 1824
  • J, A Matter of Taste, A History of Wine Drinking in Britain, 2005
  • C, A History and Description of Modern Wines, 1860
  • D, Monks and Wine, 1979
  • J.R, Wines and Other Fermented Liquors From the Earliest Ages to the Present Time, 1864
  • P, A Guide to the Wines of England and Wales, 2008