Wine from the United Kingdom
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The United Kingdom is a major consumer but only a very minor producer of wine, with English and Welsh wine sales combined accounting for just 1% of the domestic market.
Wine production in the UK has historically been perceived as less than ideal due to the cold climate. The current market, however, is growing. Recent warmer summers have played a role in increasing investment and sale of wines. Most of the wine produced is of a white and sparkling variety, with the majority of vineyards in existence across Southern England and Wales where the climate is warmer than that of northern areas. Vineyards are becoming more commonplace in counties such as Essex, Sussex and Kent, where more varieties of wine can be produced due to the drier and warmer climate.
The limestone soils (technically chalk) of Sussex, Kent and other portions of southern England are suitable for growing the grapes used to produce sparkling wine, and particularly on south-facing slopes, the climate, at least in recent years, is warm enough. At the last official count, the Wine Standards Board reported that there were just over 450 vineyards producing wine throughout England. The largest of these is Chapel Down in Kent, as of mid-2018 when they became the largest winery and vineyard in England. "English wine" is also a common generic term used in India meaning "Western spirits". The most northerly commercially producing vineyard is in Leeds, Yorkshire.
Welsh vineyards were first planted by Romans, but in the 1970s, modern vineyards were planted in South Wales with the intention of creating Welsh wine. Despite a slow start, by 2005 Wales had 20 vineyards, producing 100,000 bottles a year, primarily white wines, but also a few reds.
According to the Wine Standards Board, by September 2015, there were 22 operational vineyards in Wales.
In 2015 Scotland's first home-grown wine, produced by Christopher Trotter, in Fife at a vineyard started in 2012, was described as "undrinkable" by experts. One merchant described it as sherry-like with "nutty" notes, and thought that it might complement a "very strong cheese".
The term British wine is used to describe a drink made in Britain by the fermentation of grape (or any other fruit) juice or concentrate originating from anywhere in the world. It cannot be used for wine in the legal sense, which must be produced from freshly pressed grapes. The most common style is a medium or sweet high-strength wine that is similar to sherry, and was formerly known as British Sherry.
Roman era to 19th century
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The Romans introduced winemaking to England, and even tried to grow grapes as far north as Lincolnshire. Winemaking continued at least down to the time of the Normans, with over 40 vineyards in England mentioned in the Domesday Book, although much of what was being produced was for making communion wine for the Eucharist.
From the Middle Ages, the English market was the main customer of clarets from Bordeaux, France, helped by the Plantagenet kingdom, which included England and large provinces in France. In the 18th century, the Methuen Treaty of 1703 imposed high duties on French wine. This led to the English becoming a main consumer of sweet fortified wines like sherry, port wine, and Madeira wine from Spain and Portugal. Fortified wine became popular because unlike regular wine, it did not spoil after the long journey from Portugal to England.
When Henry VIII was crowned in 1509, 139 vineyards were recorded, 11 of which produced wine for the royal household.
Just as English wine began to recover from the epidemics of phylloxera and powdery mildew in the mid-19th century, brought back by the explorers of New America, commercial English wine was dealt a heavy blow. In 1860 the government, under Lord Palmerston (Liberal), supported free trade and drastically cut the tax on imported wines from 1 shilling to twopence, a decrease of 83%. English wine was therefore outcompeted by superior foreign products that could be sold at a lower cost to the customer.
Later in the 19th century, many upper and upper-middle-class people started to drink wines from many parts of Europe like France, Spain, Italy and Germany.
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The twilight of British winemaking tradition was brought to an end with the onset of the First World War, as the need for crops and food took priority over wine production. The rationing of sugar pushed the knife even deeper until, for the first time in 2000 years, English wines were no longer being produced in Wessex, nor the rest of the country.
It was not until 1936 that George Ordish planted vines in Wessex and the South of England, bringing about a voyage of rediscovery for English wines and winemaking. With many individuals keen to produce their own wines from home, and with equipment and methods becoming more available, the government outlawed the production of homemade alcohol at the beginning of the 1960s, only to retract the law after five years as the homebrew fashion escalated considerably.
Other small commercial vineyards in Britain followed in the 1960s with growers such as Joy and Trevor Bates in Kent, Norman Cowderoy in West Sussex, Nigel Godden in Somerset, Gillian Pearkes in Devon and Philip Tyson-Woodcock in East Sussex. Wales also had George Jones, Lewis Mathias and Margaret Gore-Browne.
Viticulture was revived in the 1970s onwards, possibly helped by a rising local temperature due to global warming, making many parts of Hampshire, Sussex, Kent, Essex, Suffolk, Berkshire and Cambridgeshire dry and hot enough to grow grapes of high quality. The first English wines were influenced by the sweet German wines like Liebfraumilch and Hock that were popular in the 1970s and were blended white and red sweet wines, called "cream wine" (creams). The largest vineyard in England is Denbies Wine Estate in Surrey, which has 265 acres (1.07 km2) under vines, and a visitors' centre that is open all year round.
From a peak of over 400 vineyards in the late 1980s, by 2000 one third of these had given up, but plantings have since accelerated, helped by the growing success of English sparkling wines. In 2004, a panel judging European sparkling wines awarded most of the top ten positions to English wines – the remaining positions going to French Champagnes. Similar results have encouraged an explosion of sparkling wine plantings. English still wines too have begun to pick up awards at most big wine competitions, notably Decanter, and the IWSC.
Winemaking has spread from the South East and South West and also to the Midlands and North of England, with Yorkshire, Shropshire, Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Lancashire boasting at least one vineyard each as of 2007.
Significant plantings have been happening across the south of the country with a number of farmers contract growing vines for some of the major English producers. Farmers are looking at the potential benefits of growing vines, as the return per tonne for grapes over more traditional crops are not to be ignored. A field of wheat might yield 3 tonnes per acre at around £120 per tonne. Growing grapes could yield 3 to 4 tonnes per acre at around £950 to £1100 per tonne. One concern is that growers need to invest money for no initial return, as crops tend to come in the third or fourth year. Another concern is that grape production in the climate is highly variable: "In England, it is only in about 2 years in every 10 that grape production will be really good, 4 years will be average and 4 years poor or terrible – largely due to weather and/or disease exacerbated by weather." However English vineyards share in common European weather patterns, so 2006 was a bumper year, 2007 saw ripe grapes but low volumes, 2008 was very poor, but both 2009 and 2010 were good years. 2011 was average, 2012 dreadful, and 2013 good. Total British cereal production is not so variable.
Another explanation for the growth in viticulture in the UK is the local food movement, and the desire by consumers to cut the amount of food miles connected with the produce that they buy, including locally produced wine.
English wine was given added prestige when the Duchess of Cornwall became the new President of the United Kingdom Vineyards Association on 25 July 2011.
According to the English Wine Producers over 1300 HA had been planted by 2009, and with further major plantings of sparkling wine varieties the total was likely to be in excess of 1500 HA by 2012. As of 2004, Seyval blanc was the most grown variety, with Reichensteiner next, with Müller-Thurgau and then Bacchus following closely behind. However, Müller-Thurgau, which was one of the first to be grown during the 20th century renaissance (see below), has recently lost favour, dropping from 134.64 ha (1st) in 1996 to 81.1 ha (3rd) in 2004. Other widely grown varieties of white grape include Chardonnay, Madeleine Angevine, Schönburger, Huxelrebe and Ortega. Red varieties include Dornfelder, Pinot Meunier and Pinot noir, and a few others, but red grapes tend to be grown less often, with 20,184 hL of white wine and only 5,083 hL of red wine made in 2006.
Surviving British grape varieties
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With the decline of wine producing most of England's grape varieties were lost. However a known survivor of these lost varieties is Wrotham Pinot which has been found to be a distinctive clone of Pinot noir and is speculated to be up to 2,000 years old and to have possibly been introduced with the Romans. Wrotham Pinot was found by accident growing wild up a cottage wall near the village of Wrotham in Kent. The variety is noted for its unusual furred leaves and great disease resistance, particularly to powdery mildew. In appearance it more closely resembles Pinot Meunier but DNA testing has revealed it to be a clone of Pinot noir. It has a higher sugar content than Pinot Meunier and ripens two weeks earlier.
Greenhouse table and wine varieties
Cheap coal, glass and labour meant that the wealthy could easily maintain heated greenhouses throughout the year during the 19th century. During this period many grape varieties were grown under glass, with one of the most popular varieties being Black Hamburg.
However, a number of seedlings arose accidentally or through careful breeding that were propagated for eating or wine. Most of them barely survive, but some such as Foster's seedling are still available.
Effect on the British economy
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Most of the wine consumed in Britain is imported from other countries. Now that English wine is being produced in larger quantities, more people in Britain are buying it as opposed to imported wines. The quantities produced are small compared to the volumes consumed, less than 1% according to DEFRA.[when?] Production doubled from 1.34 million bottles to 3.17 million from 2008 to 2009, and in 2010 4 million bottles of English wine were produced. By 2018 production had risen to 15.6 million bottles.
Supermarkets tend to sell all wines at the market rate irrespective of their country of origin.
Rules of wine labelling
Protected Denomination of Origin (PDO) is the top category official category of wine in the UK. PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) is next and then varietal wine. PDO and PGI wines must have a full post bottling analysis and pass a tasting panel (or win an award at a recognised competition). These are established via the UK Vineyards Association (UKVA) and the UK Government's Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).
English sparkling wines are made from grapes grown close to the limit for viticulture. All vineyards are positioned at above 49.9 degrees north leading to long daylight hours in the growing season. The climate is temperate with few summer days above 30 °C. The diurnal temperature range is high.
These wines are made from the classic sparkling wine grape varieties. In England these varieties reach full phenolic ripeness at moderate sugar levels and with high acid levels. Wines from this PDO are made entirely from must containing only natural acid. These wines exhibit stronger aromatic flavours of the underlying grape varieties than wines from the same varieties grown at warmer latitudes.
The northerly latitude of the vineyards in this PDO creates the long growing season and long daylight hours that are key to the development of strong aromatic flavours. The moderate temperatures lead to the high acidity and low pH which is the backbone of fine sparkling wines.
English sparkling wines are made from the following vine varieties:
- Pinot noir
- Pinot Précoce
- Pinot Meunier
- Pinot blanc
- Pinot gris
- Seyval Blanc
Where the conditions for the use of the terms "bottle-fermented", "traditional method" or "bottle fermented by the traditional method" have been met, the term "traditional" can be used on the label.
- Asimov, Eric (22 April 2011). "Royal Wedding Wine May Be Bubbly and English Andrew Testa for The New York Times Gusbourne Estate in Appledore, Kent, one of several sparkling-wine vineyards in the area". The New York Times. Retrieved 23 April 2011.
southern England has become a source of excellent sparkling wines, made in the illustrious mode of Champagne.
- The Wine Standards Board's Report on English and Welsh Wine – February 2006
- "Chapel Down to create 'largest vineyard' in England - BBC News". Bbc.co.uk. Retrieved 3 July 2019.
- Wainwright, Martin (26 September 2003). "Vintage year for Leeds vineyard". The Guardian. Retrieved 2 November 2018.
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- Freeman 1996, p. 19.
- "UK Vineyard Register: Full list of commercial vineyards, Updated September 2015" (PDF). food.gov.uk/. 19 April 2015.
- "Scotland's first home-grown wine 'undrinkable'". The Scotsman. 13 July 2015. Retrieved 3 July 2019.
- English-wine.com – English or Welsh but not "British"!
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- UK Vineyards Guide by Stephen Skelton MW P70 ISBN 0951470337
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- "A list of the varieties can be found here". Retrieved 2 November 2018.
- Wallop, Harry (3 May 2010). "English wine production doubles to 3 million bottles". The Daily Telegraph. London.
- Gluck, Malcolm (12 May 2011). "Will this be English wine's best ever year?". The Guardian. London.
- "Record 15.6m bottles of wine produced in England and Wales last year". The Drinks Business. Retrieved 22 January 2020.
- "ENGLISH WINE – PROTECTED DESIGNATION OF ORIGIN (PDO)" (PDF). The UK Government's Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). December 2011. Retrieved 7 June 2012.
The Great British Vineyards Guide www.gbvg.uk
- Freeman, Bobby (1996). First catch your peacock : her classic guide to Welsh food (Rev. paperback ed.). Talybont, Ceredigion: Y Lolfa. ISBN 0862433150.
- Skelton, Stephen (2014). Wine Growing in Great Britain, A complete guide to growing grapes for wine production in cool climates (First ed.). London: S. P. Skelton Ltd. ISBN 9780951470367.