June 22, 2024

Legend says that Julius Caesar brought the first wine grapes to the U.K. But while it’s clear that the Romans did bring grapes to the region, it’s not so clear whether there were native grape vines already in existence. The Romans may have brought their own grape varieties because of a preference in taste, or simply to remind them of home-but either way, theirs is the earliest known occurrence of winemaking in the U.K.

The Romans had to bring their own grapes to far-flung outposts of the Empire. As the Empire grew, it became more and more difficult for supply trains to travel-sometimes through hostile territory-to the more remote Roman settlements. So those settling in the U.K. needed to cultivate their own grapes if they wanted wine on a regular basis.

When the Romans finally left, winemaking stayed. The Venerable Bede mentioned vineyards in his Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, written in 731. A few hundred years later, in 1085, the Domesday Book showed thirty-eight vineyards in existence.

Many wineries during the middle ages were located in monasteries. This may have been because wine was an integral part of Catholic ceremony. However, wine wasn’t just a religious drink. In the medieval era, it was a common social drink for all classes, particularly in the South of England, and it was common for the wealthy to have their own vineyards.

By 1491, there were about 139 large vineyards in England. Many of these were owned by the church, but a significant number were owned by the crown and various noble families. It’s clear that by this time wine was firmly established in England.

Production was declining during this time, however, and it continued to over the centuries. Historians are not completely sure why. Some believe it may be linked to the Little Ice Age, a period of intense cold weather experienced in Western Europe. Plague, political upheaval, and competition from continental winemakers may have contributed as well.

Whatever the reason, the production of wine in England fell into decline-and commercial winemaking in the region was easily eclipsed by wines produced on the continent for the next few hundred years.

There is evidence that various noblemen made attempts to grow grapes and make wine during the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries, however. In the late 1800’s, the Marquess of Bute established a commercial-scale vineyard in South Wales. Wine was made there up until World War I. During the period between World Wars I and II, however, commercial winemaking in the U.K. came to a near standstill.

Ray Barrington Brock, a research chemist with an interest in gardening, is often credited as the man who brought viniculture back to the U.K. Not long after World War II, he became interested in grape growing and made it his mission to introduce grape varieties particularly suited to England’s climate.

Another pioneer in contemporary English grape-making is Edward Hymans, a gardener and writer who planted his own vineyard as part of his research for a book on the cultivation of wine grapes in the U.K.

These two helped to re-introduce grape cultivation to the U.K., but they did not develop their own commercial wineries. They did, however, inspire Major General Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones to establish one in 1952. His was the first commercial winery to be established in the U.K. since before World War I.

Since then, hundreds of wineries have established themselves in the U.K. The industry still faces some challenges, however. The climate is still not ideal for grape-growing, and winemakers must have solid scientific knowledge of soil composition, grape varieties and harvesting techniques to stay in business. High prices and VAT rates send many customers to France, where wine can be bought more cheaply. And the labeling of many cheap, low-quality wines made from concentrates as “British” has not helped the industry’s reputation.

However, wines from the U.K. are starting to make their mark in international circles. In 2007, the judges at the International Wine Challenge bestowed a gold medal on an English wine for the first time.

Because of the limits imposed by climate, the U.K. wine industry may never be as prolific as those in France, Italy, and Australia. But while the U.K. may never be known for the quantity of wine it produces, it may well become famous for its quality.