The making of English wine

The making of English wine


The period to the 1970s

The Romans probably brought the grape vine to Britain. They were certainly great wine drinkers and brought the Italian finished product here, as evidenced by the large number of discarded amphorae found in Roman remains, as well as a present-day vineyard near Shrewsbury that uses the name 'Wroxeter Roman', indicating a historic site. Certainly by the time that the Saxons took over, vineyards were established and were maintained by the new inhabitants . The Isle of Ely is one area that was identified by historians as being densely cultivated with vines. The Normans too discovered that the English wine industry had survived and duly recorded 28 examples in their taxation guide, otherwise known as the Domesday Book. These included Hatton Garden, Leeds Castle near Maidstone and Raleigh in Essex. The presence of vine growing in Sussex is indicated by such settlements as Vinehall Street and Vines Cross. Many old towns boast a Wine Street, indicating historic links with the wine industry, either production or sales.
Invasions had little effect on the number of vines grown but peace did. In 1152 Eleanor of Aquitaine became Queen and brought as her dowry the vineyards of Bordeaux. The English love of imports developed, as usual to the detriment of the native industry. By the time that Henry VIII came to the throne, most production had become concentrated around the abbeys and monasteries. One example was the Abbey of Abingdon where the mediaeval vineyard site is currently being used by Bothy Vineyard. Similarly, Pilton Manor in Somerset boasted a vineyard belonging to the abbey of Glastonbury. When these monastries were nationalised by Henry, most ofthe industry died with them . It is also speculated that slight climatic changes made vine growing less profitable.

In 1887, the Marquis of Bute tried to revive wine production in Wales. He planted 3 sites, including Castell Coch and at Swanbridge in the Vale of Glamorgan. In 1916, they were ploughed up as part of the wartime food production effort, and the revival fizzled out again. It remained dead until after World War II, when Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones decided to plant a small site at Hambleden in Hampshire. Once he stopped trying to grow the red Black Hamburgh grape outdoors and concentrated on vines more climatically suitable, the plantings started producing wine. A few other hardy pioneers followed his lead and by 1964, English wine production had reached a massive 1500 bottles. By 1970, there were groups of vineyards, clustered mainly in the South east and in East Anglia, largly using grapes such as Muller Thurgau and Seyval Blanc. However, in the early part of the 1970's more plantings took place and a few vineyards appeared in the Midlands. The most northerly was at Renishaw Hall, home of Sir Reresby Sitwell.

The enthusiasm of the 1970's

Planting then proceded rapidly,led by pioneers such as Colin Gillespie at Wootton in Somerset and Peter Hall at Breaky Bottom in Sussex. In the Midlands, John and Ruth Daltry planted an organic vineyard at Chevelswarde on the Northants- Leicestershire border. In 2010, they, and it, were still there. The fine year 1976 encouraged many to plant, but as the 1980 map shows, many were short lived. The majority were family farms, which disappeared as their owners retired or enthusiasm waned. Many growers either made their own wines or used contractors such as Jack Ward at Horam (Sussex) . Most were in the south and south-west. Vineyard 'clumps' grew up around Shepton Mallet in Someset, Kent, and central Suffolk.

The 1980s- the early growth of commercialism

Since then it has grown by what can only described as leaps and slumps. Good years were followed by a number of bad ones. 1983 saw 3 million bottles produced but the next few years were disastrous. By 1985, production picked up with the aid of the hot dry summers of the late 1980s and by 1992 it has soared to 3.5 million bottles. In 1993, the monsoons of August and September wiped out the crop for many producers. Some abandoned their grapes to the badgers, birds, foxes and other enthusiasts. Others picked what they could and either produced small quantities of wine or else, like Hidden Spring vineyard, put all their grapes into one bottle and produced a rose. 1995 promised much despite a spring frost that destroyed many shoots. The hot summer allowed the grapes to develop, the wet September threatened to undo much of the August development but a dry October allowed picking of very ripe grapes.
One noticeable feature of the 1980s was the emergence of more commercial thinking whcih is still with us. A second wave of planting in the early 21st century has further increased the scale and professionalism of the industry. A few of the pioneers have survived, or have been taken over. Some, such as Ridgview in Sussex and Camel Valley in Cornwall are making use of the second generation of winemakers. Others, such as Wraxall, Astley, Frithsden and Tintern have completely new owners.

The industry in 1990

During the 1980's there was widespread change. A large number of the original vineyards disappeared. However, there was also a number of significant plantings , many of which have survived. these included Camel Valley in Cornwall and Nyetimber in Sussex. Both of these are now significant producers of high quality sparkling wine, on which the southern industry is based.
The spread northwards had yet to begin in earnest. Only George Bowden at Leventhorpe near Leeds had seen the potential of warm sites in Yorkshire. This situation was to remain until the turn of the century, when the line of growth took in the southern two thirds of Yorkshire. On the western side however, with one or two exceptions, outdoor growth in England has mainly been in Shropshire. There is only one vineyard in Lancashire and one in Cheshire. Anglesey in Wales currently has two. It is interesting to debate whether this expansion has been teh resut of climate change, opr of teh vast number of new varieties of vine emeging from teh German research stations. Sadly, to date, none of our British colleges or universities have shown much interest in producing new vines. In fact only Plumpton, RHC Cirencester and Sheffield Hallam have shown any interest in the industry at all. Hopefully, this will change as the industry expands.


  • The New English Vineyard Joanna Smith Sidgwick & Jackson 1979
  • The Vineyards of EnglandStephen Skelton 1989
  • Visit English Vineyrds in 1992English Vineyards Association
  • UK Vineyards Guide 2010 Stephen Skelton MW 2010 Return to top of page

  • Ukvines- Vineyards of England and Wales

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