An ancient history, a modern success
England’s cool climate is especially well suited to producing grape characteristics required for successful English sparkling wine production, but not only fizz is being successfully made in Great Britain...
History of English Wine
Since Roman times to the present day
Wines were imported
Britons exchanged commodities to supply Roman army in the Rhine for amphorae transporting wine and oil.
First vineyards planted
With the first Roman invasions vineyards were introduced to the country
The Norman nobles led to the introduction of successful viticulture and winemaking in England.
With the worsening of the climate and the acquisition of Aquitaine, English wine was replaced with Claret (from Bordeaux)
Age of adventure
A new interest in viticulture led to several landowners in southern England to experiment with grape growing.
Commercial wines are made
After decades of experimentation, viticulture and winemaking in larger scale starts in England.
Stanlake Park first vineyard
Pioneer Jon Leighton plants an initial area of 500 vines at Stanlake Park, by then known as Thames Valley Vineyard.
Age of expansion
In 2021, there were over 750 vineyards and almost 200 wineries in the UK, and over 13 million bottles were made in 2018.
The Iron Age inhabitants of England imported considerable quantities of wine, but it seems likely that it was the Romans who introduced the first vineyards to the country. A few vineyards were also cultivated during the Saxon period, but it was the Norman nobles who arrived with William the Conqueror in 1066 who really led to the introduction of successful viticulture and English wine making. The Domesday Book records more than 40 vineyards, with the area to the west of London being particularly prominent.
Winemaking expanded considerably in England during the Middle Ages, particularly on monastic and ecclesiastical estates. However, the acquisition of Aquitaine by the crown in the middle of the 12th century, through the marriage of Henry II to Eleanor of Aquitaine, provided a more reliable source of wine for England’s growing urban population and nobility, and this, together with a worsening climate in the later medieval period led to a decline in English winemaking.
But grape growing and winemaking did not die out entirely.
The age of adventure and enterprise in the 17th/18th centuries led to a new interest in viticulture, and a number of landowners across southern England experimented with the planting of vineyards on their estates. Among the most notable of these was Lord Salisbury who planted a vineyard on his new estate at Hatfield House and Charles Hamilton’s vineyard at Painshill in Surrey being particularly famous.
Such small scale experimentation continued through the 19th century, but it was not really until the 1950’s that commercial grape growing and winemaking really began to take off.
Pioneers such as Ray Barrington Brock (1907 – 1999) sought to identify the grape varieties most suited to England’s climate, and a handful of people then began to plant them on their properties in southern England. In 1968, the somewhat eccentric Bernard Theobald planted the largest vineyard in the UK (Westbury Vineyard near Reading) but unfortunately he died in the late 1980’s and the vineyard was no more.
In 1979, pioneer Jon Leighton planted the first 500 vines at Stanlake Park and it became known as Thames Valley Winery before changing the name to Stanlake Park Wine Estate some time later. The initial test area was then expanded to over 15 acres and more than 10,000 vines.
Don’t miss our piece about the History of Stanlake Park Wine Estate.
Making wine in England today
The UK is still one of the coolest vine growing regions in the world and therefore might be considered as one of the most challenging. Our climate imposes unavoidable restrictions on the type of wine that we can reasonably expect to be successful.
We are growing a marginal crop at the limit of its viability and it is important to understand what that means in terms of wine styles. Traditional method sparkling wine; aromatic still whites; refreshing, fruity rosés or light-bodied reds are most appropriate styles for English wine.
In some years, if the British summer is kind to us, there may be the opportunity to diversify into riper styles, but those vintages are currently the exception. Viticulture knowledge and understanding in the UK has grown beyond recognition and our winemaking expertise has gone from strength to strength. The industry has been helped by the availability of innovative technologies protecting against fungal disease and allowing crops to remain on the vines for a longer ripening period. We have also understood the values of gentle handling techniques, cool slow ferments and residual sugar management, and there is continued education, innovation, experimentation and development. All this is leading to higher quality cool climate wines.
It seems likely that the both the quality and quantity of English wine will continue to go from strength to strength in the 21st century. Here are a few interesting facts about current wine production in the UK which really emphasises the strength of our wine industry:
- There are over 750 vineyards and nearly 200 wineries in the UK
- Over 13 million bottles of wine were produced in 2018 (estimated to grow to 40M in 2040)
- The number of vines has increased by 79% since 2015
- 50% of all grapes grown in the UK are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay
- Wine production is split between 70% sparkling and 30% still wine
- 99% of the sparkling wines are made in the traditional method (the same used in Champagne, France)
- 76% of all vineyards are in the south east of England (including Thames Valley)
Similarly, Stanlake Park Wine Estate also goes from strength to strength especially since the arrival of Nico and Natalia. Both the quantity and quality of the wine has continued to increase and this is reflected in the continued sales growth and Industry Awards. Yes, there are many challenges making wine in the UK but we certainly love a challenge at Stanlake Park!