The Wines of England
The Modern English Wine Industry
The planting of the vineyard in 1951 at Hambledon in Hampshire by Major-General Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones GCVO, CMG, CBE, MC DL marked a turning point in the history of winegrowing in Great Britain. This was the first vineyard to be planted specifically to produce wine for sale since Castle Coch in 1875. Seyval Blanc was planted on a one acre site, following a visit by Salisbury-Jones to Oxted, which grew well and produced their first crop in 1954. The wine caused much publicity and Salisbury-Jones was besieged by the press and media interest. The name ‘Hambledon’ soon became synonymous with English Wine. The vineyard has just been revived and replanted (this time with the three traditional Champagne varieties), so in time the name will soon be recognised again.
The expansion of vineyards after the planting of Hambledon was painfully slow. The Merrydown Wine Company at Horam in East Sussex, owned by Jack Ward, planted 2 acres in 1955, and became the second commercial vineyard of the revival. Müller-Thurgau was planted, amongst other varieties. In later years, Ward became instrumental in introducing varieties such as Reichensteiner, Huxelrebe and Schönburger to the UK. He was very much a driving force in the industry and was the English Vineyards Association’s (now UK Vineyards Association) first Chairman.
The third vineyard to be planted was in 1957 by Lieutenant-Colonel Robert and Mrs. Margaret Gore-Browne at Beaulieu, in Hampshire, which by 1960 expanded to almost 5 acres. The highest accolade to be awarded in the UK’s annual national competition is named ’The Gore-Browne Trophy and awarded for ‘Wine of the Year’.
Winemaking in those early days was, from all accounts, a fairly hit and miss affair. Both Salisbury-Jones and Gore-Browne built their own wineries and enlisted the help from Anton Massel, a young German who had come across to work for the Seitz Filter company and eventually opened his own laboratory. Massel introduced a number of modern winemaking practices, and better equipment.
The real expansion of vineyards in England and Wales started in the early to mid-1960s. Vineyards spread across the country, with new sites, training and pruning systems and above all, grape varieties introduced. The development of the industry had begun.
The real expansion of the vineyard area and the establishment of both sizeable vineyards and wineries started in earnest in the late 1960s and early 1970s. One of the features of English and Welsh viticulture is the diversity of backgrounds of those who plant vineyards. In other countries where new vineyards are being planted, one would expect to see existing landowners – most usually those with land in the vicinity of established vineyards – planting up, together with a smaller number of entrants with no experience of growing at all, but with serious funds, usually made in a completely unrelated industry. In the UK, those planting vineyards come from a much wide cross-section of the community.
The years between 1976 and 1995 saw a large number of vineyards planted, including some very sizeable ones.
Plantings in recent years have not been quite so frenzied and the rate of new plantings has certainly declined. Several factors are responsible. A rumoured vine planting ban in 1990/91 persuaded many growers that if they were going to plant it had better be soon and between 1992 and 1994 an abnormally large number of vines were planted. This sudden surge of planting resulted in larger national yields, with the 1996 being the largest on record.
Of course, not all vineyards planted since 1951 in England and Wales have survived. Some vineyards have disappeared through natural causes such as retirement, divorce and death. Vineyards which for whatever reason could not produce sufficient quality and/or quantity of wine to make the enterprise viable have been grubbed out, leaving those capable of producing commercially acceptable wines.
In the last couple of years more hectares have been planted – some 150 – which will be reflected in future statistics, and which shows a new growth in the modern industry, and, importantly, some serious, professional investment.
The nature of the wine business in the UK varies. Some vineyards have bypassed the challenge to produce their own wines and concentrate on growing grapes to sell on to other, mainly larger concerns. Some owners have leased their vineyards to other wine producers, thus reducing the overall number of players in the market
The UK wine industry is now modernizing and producing wines that are competitive in both style and price. One growth area is tourism: vineyards are opening their doors to visitors, introducing appropriate facilities, allowing visitors to see how wine is grown and made, and buy direct. This year VisitBritain has introduced a ‘Taste England’ campaign, encouraging the tourist trade and visitors to explore England’s regional food and drink. There has also been increasing collaboration with regional food, which has been experiencing a resurgence of interest and promotion, largely due to the work undertaken by Food from Britain and the regional food groups.
Official figures on vineyard planting and volumes produced have only been in existence since 1989, prior to which submission of data to then The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) was entirely voluntary. Since 1989, however the information is collected annually Department of Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and reflects the trends in the industry. The full data is available – press here.
The high point of planting was reached in 1993 when 1,065 ha (2,631 acres) was reached. Since then, the total area has declined with the latest (2003) figures showing 773 ha (1932.5 acres). In all cases, these figures refer to planted, not productive areas. The decline in non-productive hectares and the overall number of individual vineyards since 1989 is a sign of the growing maturity of the UK winegrowing industry.
The last 20 years has seen a marked change in wine styles and types sold in the UK. In the late 1960s and 1970s, when English wines started to appear on the market, the biggest selling wines in the UK were Liebfraumilches and other German and Germanic styles. Whilst there is no doubt that price played a great part, their popularity was also down to their easy, unpretentious style. In many respects the better English wines at the time were similar – light and fruity, with a little residual sugar and not too heavy in alcohol – and they met with the approval of many consumers. In the 1980s, the tastes of UK wine drinkers started to change to a preference in drier styles. Wines from Australia started making a big impact on consumers and gradually the liking for German style wines reduced. English and Welsh wines have reflected these changes in the market, and today very few growers bottle in tall German-style Hock and Mosel bottles, preferring to use the Burgundy and Bordeaux (in green or clear) bottles. Many growers also refrain from using the Germanic sounding varietal names such as Müller-Thurgau, Reichensteiner, Huxelrebe etc. and will now give their wines more descriptive names (Surrey Gold, Stanlake Park). Those using varieties such as Bacchus, Ortega and Pinot noir, which appear to be more acceptable to consumers, continue to do so.
The production of bottle-fermented sparkling wines is one of the major growth areas in UK wineries. In the mid-80s vineyards such as Carr Taylor and Lamberhurst proved that our native grape varieties could be used for producing good examples of this type of wine. More recently, vineyards such as Nyetimber and RidgeView Wine Estate, both in West Sussex, have been planted solely with Champagne varieties (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier) for the production of classic bottle-fermented sparkling wines. The quality of the wines and their success in recent years in both national and international competitions and tastings has proven that a world-class product can be produced in the UK, and sell at a premium price. Other styles of sparkling wines, produced either from a blend of traditional and non-traditional varieties, are achieving a sound success – Camel Valley Cornwall Brut and Chapel Down Brut are good examples of these styles.
Some 15% of all wine produced is sparkling, with this figure expecting to rise over the next years, as the popularity of this style continues to increase.
Winemakers in the UK have been making oak aged wines since the mid 1980s, using not only oak barrels, the traditional, but costly method of imparting oak flavour to wine, but also by using oak staves and oak chips in the fermentation and storage tanks. An increasingly popular style nowadays is rosé, which the UK produces well, from the red grape varieties grown in the UK. In the 2004 English & Welsh Wine of the Year Competition the rosé category proved to be the most popular of all the classes. The amount of red wine produced in the UK is small (an average 10% of total production), and there is a demand for them. There is a much greater understanding of which varieties perform well in the UK (Rondo, Dornfelder and Pinot Noir are the current favourites) and how to extract colour. Oak is also used quite widely in the maturation of red wines. Many English red wines accompany light meats and game extremely well. The production of late harvest/dessert wines – of which again there are an increasing number – is another remarkable aspect of the UK wine industry. Varieties such as Huxelrebe, Ortega and Optima are susceptible to the classic pourriture noble (as found in Sauternes or in German vineyards), given the right weather conditions. The relatively high levels of natural acidity balance superbly with the intense sweetness, and provide an ideal accompaniment to cheese.
In 2004, our publisher had the unique opportunity to visit England and Wales and taste English sparkling wine, the UK’s equivalent of Champagne (which is only from France). The taste, he felt, was far superior to some of the best French Champagnes, with a softer, gentler flavor and effect. Other English wines he tried, along with local cheeses, meats and a myriad of superb dishes told him that the United Kingdom is clearly on the map of great wine and food. Gone are the days of Roast Beef and Yorkshire Pudding as Britain, with its celebrity chefs like Heston Blumenthal, Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay exploding the phenomenon of great British food.