English Wines


There is only a belief, as opposed to evidence, that grapes grew in the British Isles before the Romans arrived in 55BC. Archaeologists have found prehistoric remains of the pollen of vines in Essex and seed in Suffolk from a time when Britain was still part of continental Europe and a bit warmer than it is now. We do know that the Romans imported vines and there is positive evidence of a Roman vineyard planted at Wollaston in the Nene Valley in Northamptonshire, probably producing "vin de pays" for the army. It is believed to have been warmer in Britain during the period of Roman rule but that temperatures dropped as the Roman Empire declined. Wine was generally imported for use by the Romans from Italy.

There is no evidence of viticulture in Britain until towards the end of Saxon times but with the spread of Christianity after the arrival of St Augustine in 596, the increase in monastic orders created a demand for wine for use in communion rituals. Religious orders planted vines to make wine. In 731, in his Ecclesiastical History of the English Peoples, The Venerable Bede wrote that "wines are cultivated in several localities".

It was however the Norman Conquest in 1066 that had a major impact on wine consumption in England, the soldiers, monks, courtiers and their retinues having wine as their daily beverage. Vineyards became more commonplace so that by 1086 the "Domesday Book" records vineyards in 38 locations as far north as Yorkshire and into south Wales and of these only 12 belonged to monastic orders. The temperatures were also rising at this time. Wine continued to be grown in England during the 12th and13th centuries, partly due to a longer period of warm summer weather.

Two hundred years after the Norman invasion winemaking in England began a long period of decline, caused not by a single factor but by a combination of factors. The marriage of Henry II to Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152 created a large kingdom which included parts of France where winemaking was well established. This included Gascony, the citizens of Bordeaux being granted numerous privileges by King John (1199 - 1216) resulting in wine imports to England increasing because of an easy access to supply and cheaper prices, in turn reducing the need for home grown production. As a result some 1,300 commercial vineyards were grubbed up all over England, the land being used for more profitable crops. The mid 13th century also saw a change in climate with cooler summers having a detrimental effect on growing grapes. The arrival of the Black Death in the mid 14th century had major consequences on the demographics of England, reducing population and winemaking. The dissolution of the monasteries between 1536 and 1539 under Henry VIII increased the decline in English winemaking through an estimated closure of 3,000 religious houses.

Winemaking in the 17th century was restricted to monarchs, nobles and some of the landed gentry. The challenge of growing grapes was taken on in England by James I at Oatlands Park in Surrey, Robert Cecil at Hatfield House and Charles II at St James' Palace, London. Samuel Pepys's diaries of late 17th century London record his consumption of wines made from vineyards at Hatfield, Walthamstowe, Greenwich and Audley Field.

In her biography of George Wade, 1673 - 1748, Denise Chantrey refers to Bath, where Wade was the local MP, as being a walled city comprising 400 to 500 houses in 1728 and with a distinctly mild climate which had long encouraged cultivation of crops such as grapes. In the early 18th century Bath's vineyards were noted for their Black Cluster and muscadine grapes, trained on standards in the foreign manner. However, the crops failed around the year 1730 owing to climatic changes.

In 1738 a vineyard was created at Painshill Place in Surrey but this fell into disuse by the end of the century.

In 1873 a vineyard was planted by the Marquis of Bute at Castell Coch Estate, outside Cardiff. It remained commercially productive until just after World War I.

After 1945 a new wave of interest was created through a more scientific approach experimenting with different varietals and techniques with a view to trying to adapt to the vagaries of the English climate. Over 500 varietals were trialled over 25 years by Ray Barrington Brock at his research station in Oxted, Surrey and Edward Hyams and George Odish generated publicity through writing and broadcasting. The year 1951 is considered seminal in the history of English wine with the planting of the Hambledon vineyard in Hampshire, the first vineyard to be planted commercially in 75 years. Only two other vineyards were planted in the 1950s, the Merrydown Wine Company at Horam, Sussex and that on the Beaulieu Estate in Hampshire, it not being until the late 1960s and the early 1970s that expansion began again in earnest.

In 1975 an estimated 196 hectares were under vine. In 1985 the figure had increased to 488 hectares and in 1993 there were 479 vineyards cultivating 1,065 hectares. This figure in retrospect was artificially high and was caused by a rush to beat a possible EU vine-planting ban, after which the number of vineyards and wineries declined to 38 and 98 respectively. However, the 1970s saw the entry of some serious players planting sizeable vineyards, including Valley Vineyards (now Stanlake Park) in Hampshire, Nyetimber in West Sussex, New Hall in Essex, Three Choirs in Gloucestershire and Denbie in Surrey, the latter being England's largest single vineyard with 94 hectares under production. Chapel Down in Kent, Ridgeview in East Sussex, Stanlake Park, Three Choirs and Shawsgate in East Anglia are now winemaking centres that are used by many of the smaller operations that do not have winemaking facilities of their own. While the total area in production declined to 756 hectares in 2003, it is currently estimated that the last 20 years has seen a 50 per cent overall increase in plantings, some 45 per cent of this since 2005. There are currently 416 vineyards in England, covering about 1,106 hectares. About 3 million bottles are expected to be produced this year, compared to 8 billion in France. Production is set to rise to 5.6 million bottles over the next six years, 3.7 million of which will be sparkling wine.

English (and Welsh) winemaking is now a serious business reflected in the change of styles from the Germanic tastes of the 1960s and 1970s to the drier styles of today and the increased production of sparkling wines that reflect the improvement in quality and the dedication of the winemakers. The best combination of soil types and climate is largely restricted to southern England, the Kent coast being only 80 miles north of Champagne and the geology of the chalk sub-soil and the topography is almost identical. It has been suggested by so-called experts that by the end of the century the Sussex Downs could enjoy the same climate as the Medoc in Bordeaux. 

The large majority of production is dedicated to sparkling wine, challenges now being made by English producers to the wines produced by the Champagne region of France. In the International Wine Challenge and Decanter Wine Awards this year English wines received 24 medals and two top prizes went to Cornish (Camel Valley) and Kent sparkling wines. Growers from Champagne are taking notice and several famous houses have been looking for sites in England.

Predictions are that by 2080 there will be an increase of 5 degrees C in average summer temperatures in southern England, the increase reducing further north because of the influence of the Atlantic ocean. This would mean that the Thames and Severn valleys and the Hampshire basin will be too hot for conventional viticulture with wine production moving northwards.

English wines were described by Mike Marwick's friend, Rose Murray Brown, as being "vividly acidic and aromatic with crunchy apple, grapefruit, elderflower cordial flavours and a distinct hedgerow herbaceousness". She believes that the sparkling and aromatic whites show most potential, roses are improving but reds are limited.

The main problem is in acquiring English wines, retailers stocking them being few and far between, the majority being only available from the vineyards themselves, either by ordering at least a case for delivery or actually visiting the vineyards themselves. A lot now have websites and most can be visited, with or without an appointment. Some of the larger ones are tourist attractions in themselves with expanded facilities evolving around the vineyards themselves.

Regulations now require growers to submit their wines for testing before they can label them "English". Since 1994 the UK has had an official appellation system for still wines, the best being labelled "Quality Wine" or "Regional Wine", the latter containing a hybrid such as Seyval Blanc. Sparkling wines are usually labelled "Quality Sparkling Wine". Wines labelled "UK Table Wine" are best avoided, as is "British Wine" that is made from imported concentrate. The majority of English wine should generally be drunk within at least 4 to 5 years of the vintage and much of it sooner in the case of many whites.


www.bestenglishwine.co.uk - concentrates on award winning bottles.

www.englishwine.co.uk - mainly south east wines.

www.englishwineproducers.com - good all round site, news, mini websites of some of the best vineyards, interviews, details of English Wine Week and vineyard events.

www.ukvines.co.uk - detailed summary of all the vineyards, grape types and others.

www.english-wine.com - news and history sections.

Most of the vineyards have their own websites.

Grape Varieties


Chardonnay - mainly grown for sparkling wine production and the leading variety in the south of England. It has performed well on greensand soils and there are promising results from chalk soils.

Bacchus - related to Riesling and Sylvaner, wines from this popular variety are fresh, aromatic and can taste similar to a new world Sauvignon Blanc. The low acidity and high sugar levels make it one of the most widely planted varietals in the UK. Basic flavours and aromas are of nettles and elderflower. The only downside is poor mildew resistance with a resultant lower yield.

Huxelrube - German-bred cross of Chasselas with Courtillier-Musque, this variety has a "Muscat" style with strong aromas of elderflower producing fruity wines with good sugar and acidity levels that age well. Can be quite spicy. Used for the full range of styles from dry to dessert. Sometimes used for botrytis-enriched sweet wines.

Madeleine Angevine - widely planted in the UK and generally easy to grow. Has only female flowers. Entirely different from the French variety due to subsequent breeding and shows more Germanic characteristics. Early cropping and rarely blended due to good floral aroma and crisp acidity. It can however show poor disease resistance in cooler or wetter years and can lose its refreshing acidity in warmer years.

Muller-Thurgau - also known as Rivaner, once the most widely grown variety in the UK but now less popular, being seen as a producer of unstylish wines. Used as a blending agent.

Ortega - crossing of Muller-Thurgau and Siegerrebe, an aromatic variety with high natural sugars that produces very full flavours. When ripe it produces wines that are rich and zesty with good balance allowing the full range of styles from dry to late harvest. Poor resistance to disease.

Reichensteiner - good blending grape and cropper. Good sugar, low acidity and resists rot but can be rather bland. It develops tropical fruit flavours or limeyness with age.

Schonburger - an aromatic variety with low acidity but high sugar levels and good Muscat tones, often resembling a less powerful version of Gewurztraminer. The wine produced is distinctive, full bodied and delicately flavoured although the acidity can fall very quickly.

Seyval Blanc - a widely grown hybrid variety that is a good all rounder lending itself to sparkling wines, crisp still whites (often blends) and oak matured styles. According to the EU it does not qualify for Quality Wine status (allowing the grape variety and vintage to be shown on the label) but it remains widely planted in England, being well known for its resistance to both disease and the cold.

Siegerrebe - an intensely aromatic variety with small berries, related to the Gewurztraminer grape, being a very early variety. Low in production and loved by wasps but can produce excellent dry and dessert wines. Often used to bolster blended wines, particularly late harvest and dessert wines.

Others - Auxerrois, Kerner, Madeleine Sylvaner, Optima, Orion, Phoenix, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Regner, Solaris and Wurzer.


Dornfelder - a traditional German red grape variety that grows well in cooler climates, including the UK, producing wines notable for their colour and good acidity, being fresh and fruity more like Syrah or Gamay than Cabernet Sauvignon. The fruit yields light to medium bodied but dark coloured and rich wines which would also benefit from oak ageing.

Pinot Noir - one of England's premium varieties, mainly used for sparkling wine production, some excellent and award winning single varietal and blended still red wines also being produced.

Pinot Meunier - the third Champagne variety, with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, grown for sparkling wines. Opinion is divided as to its true worth, it is yet to make its debut as a still wine in the UK.

Regent - most common in the west and south west of England, as well as Wales. Amongst the most important new varieties, being highly resistant to fungal attack. Some of the wines produced to date show promise with intense colour, good acidity, high sugar levels and good yields. Matures well with oak.

Rondo - a hybrid variety that produces wines with a very good colour, style and overtones of classic red varieties. High natural alcohol and yield. It blends well with other varieties, particularly such as Dornfelder and Pinot Noir, and can be likened to a cross between Tempranillo and Syrah. Increasing use, with ageing potential and sits well with oak.

Others - Acolon, Dunkelfelder, Gagarin Blue, Triomphe (formerly known as Triomphe d'Alsace), Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot (both of the latter being grown only under glass or polytunnels).

Wine Styles

Sparkling - by far the most popular of the styles available in the UK today and the biggest growth sector. All English (and Welsh) sparkling wines are produced by the traditional (or bottled fermented) method, the same method that produces Champagne. The wines are mainly white but rose and even red sparklers are produced.

Still White - ranging from dry to medium in style. The current rend is for dry, but wines with some sweetness to balance the naturally crisp acidity and lower alcohol levels produced by the UK climate are also being produced. Alongside the sparkling wines, aromatic whites show most potential.

Rose - An increasingly popular style, and improving, being mainly just off dry in style.

Red - Only about 12 per cent of the UK's total wine production is red. These are light, elegant and fruity in style, going well with white meats, pasta, salads and cheese. Production is increasing as wines with lighter alcohol levels are becoming more fashionable, albeit there has been criticism about the prices.

Dessert - very little dessert wine is produced but it is apparently well worth looking for. These wines are not heavy or cloying, being a delicate balance between luscious fruit, sweetness and cleansing acidity, going well with English blue cheese.

My thanks for helping me compile the above details are as noted at the end of the Tasting Notes for the evening.