Revolution among the vines of England & Wales
Currently encompassing over 400 vineyards, the English and Welsh wine industry is rapidly growing, gaining plaudits for its elegant, soulful wines.
Vines have been grown in the British Isles since before the Romans arrived and, following the Norman invasion of 1066, became a feature of monastic life and the gardens of royalty and nobles. However, they were rarely if ever commercial, and wine production was always very limited. The revival of viticulture, which started in 1945 and gathered pace in the 1960s and ’70s, was based upon different grape varieties and production techniques, and this has resulted in vineyards today being a significant feature in the agricultural landscape of Great Britain.
A modern resurgence
The first commercial vineyard of the modern era, admittedly only 0.4 hectare in size, was planted in 1952 at Hambledon in Hampshire. Since then, the area under vine has grown to proportions the pioneers can only have dreamt of. Today, some 60 years later, there are over 1,600 hectares of vineyards with almost 70% in the southern and eastern counties: West and East Sussex, Hampshire, Kent, Surrey, and Essex. Other counties with sizeable vineyard areas include Devon, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Suffolk and Cornwall.
Although most of the vineyard area is concentrated in these more southerly counties, commercial vineyards extend as far north as Yorkshire and there are even some experimental vineyards in Scotland. Although most vineyards are very small, around 75% of the total area is accounted for by 50 vineyards, with a dozen or so being over 20 hectares and the largest with 150 hectares under vine.
A grape evolution
Up until the mid-1980s, most vineyards were planted with a selection of German cross-bred varieties, with Müller-Thurgau, Reichensteiner, Bacchus and Schönburger being the most popular, plus the hardy French-American hybrid, Seyval Blanc. Today, a combination of changing consumer tastes in wine and, most importantly, a rise in the average temperatures, has seen the varietal spectrum undergo massive changes. In 2013 the two major varieties are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and together with Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir Précoce, an earlier ripening variant, they cover almost half of the planted area. They are mostly used for the production of bottle-fermented sparkling wines, estimated to account for 60% of the total UK wine production. For still wines, the major varieties are (in order of importance) Bacchus, Seyval Blanc, Reichensteiner, Müller-Thurgau, Rondo, Madeleine Angevine, Schönburger and Ortega.
The range of wines produced in UK vineyards is as wide and diverse as in some other cool-climate regions, with the already mentioned sparkling wines accounting for the majority of the production, but also still white, rosé and even the occasional red wines. In terms of quality, the bottle-fermented sparkling wines – usually, but by no means always, made from the classic Champagne varieties – tend to shine, with the long-aged, Chardonnay-based blanc de blancs being especially successful. Pinot-based rosé sparkling wines are also winning awards and medals. The best still wines are made from the Sauvignon Blanc-like Bacchus, as well as blends based upon the major varieties.
With a heritage that stretches back only a few decades, the modern industry is still very much in an experimental stage and each vintage brings not only new challenges, but also more experience and expertise to enable UK growers and winemakers to adapt and improve.
For the definitive history of winemaking in the UK, see Stephen Skelton’s UK Vineyards Guide 2010
9th ICCWS 2016 – Brighton
Many wineries are within easy reach of Brighton, the location of the 9th ICCWS, and will be open to visitors around the time of the Symposium.
Top producers such as Ridgeview, Nyetimber, Chapel Down, and the UK’s centre of viticultural excellence, Plumpton College, are all involved with the ICCWS, sharing expertise and insight, as well as tastes and tours.
We look forward to welcoming you to the vineyards of England and Wales.