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History of Wine-Making in the British Isles

By: Elizabeth Hinds - Updated: 11 Sep 2012 | comments*Discuss
English Wine Welsh Wine History Of

If we’re looking at wine-making in the British Isles, the first important point to make is that we’re not talking about British wine!

British wine is the name given to wine made in the UK and Ireland but not from grapes grown in the UK or Ireland. It can be made from imported grapes or grape juice or a mixture, and is likely to be of low quality. On the other hand, English and Welsh wine are made from grapes grown in those countries, and are recognised and come under the governance of the EU Wine Regime.

Now that’s sorted we can begin our look at the history of wine-making in the British Isles.

Early History

Wine drinking was certainly introduced by the Romans but experts think it unlikely that vines were grown here, and almost definitely not in the quantity that would have been required. But its taste must have gone down well with the locals as, over the next 1,000 years, the number of vineyards increased. The Domesday book records at least 46 vine-growing areas in the south of England, and by the time of Henry VIIIth, that had increased to 139 through England and Wales.

But from the early sixteenth century until the later part of the nineteenth century, the number of vineyards declined, until, from 1875 to 1914, the only commercially produced wine came from Castell Coch in South Wales. Nobody can satisfactorily explain this decline, or why, for about 25 years following the First World War, commercial production of wine in England and Wales stopped completely.

Modern History

After the Second World War, three men in particular could be said to be responsible for the re-establishing of the English wine industry.
  • A research chemist called Ray Barrington Brock began to work out which varieties of grapes were best suited to the English climate and soil.
  • Edward Hymans, a gardening writer, in order to thoroughly research a book he was planning, planted a vineyard.
  • In 1951 Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones planted a new small vineyard from which, in 1955, commercially produced English wine was finally again sold.

From the 1950s onwards the number of vineyards increased matching the enthusiasm of the pioneers who wanted to prove that great English wine wasn’t a contradiction in terms. There are currently about 360 registered vineyards in England and Wales, producing approximately 3.3 million bottles of mainly white wine.

Going Against The Flow

If you look for England or Wales on a globe, you’ll quickly see that the British Isles lie further north than is usually the case for a wine-growing country. It’s the effect of the Gulf Stream bringing warmth to our shores that has enabled the production of wine at all. But we also have more than our fair share of rain. Only 2 years out of every 10 are likely to be ‘good’ for wine in England.

But the high quality of a number of wines made from grapes grown in these countries is testament to the dedication of the wine-makers and what can be achieved by carefully choosing a location and wisely – or sometimes daringly – managing a vineyard.

Wine in the British Isles facts

  • The grape varieties most usually grown are: Bacchus, Reichsteiner, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Seyval Blanc.
  • Only 1% of wine bought in the UK originates in England or Wales.
  • A Quality Wine Scheme for testing and tasting exists in the UK. Wines that pass the test are allowed to have on their label ‘English/Welsh Vineyards Quality Wine psr’. (psr means Produced in Specific Regions.)

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