It will likely come as a surprise to many to learn that wine has been produced in the United Kingdom since Roman times and that around forty vineyards were listed in the doomsday book when it was compiled in 1086! However, subsequent growth in the industry over the centuries was halted by the phylloxera epidemic of the 1860s, and the passing of law soon after, which cut the rate of tax on imported wines, making it very difficult for home grown products to compete on price. Having said that, the UK wine industry has seen a significant spurt in growth again since the turn of the twenty-first century, with environmentally conscious consumers looking to support local producers, thus accruing fewer food miles. Although it still remains that English and Welsh wines account for only a tiny fraction of all the wine consumed in the UK.
Around two-thousand-nine-hundred hectares of land across England and Wales is now given over to the cultivation of grapes for vinification. Most of the UKs vineyards are in the southern counties such as Kent, Hampshire, Surrey, Sussex, etc, but the practice has also spread to the midlands and as far north as Yorkshire (yes, Leeds has a vineyard / winery!). Given the cooler temperatures of this northern latitude, sites must be carefully selected, well exposed to the sun, with a favourable aspect and preferably sheltered from the potentially damaging winds along the coasts. Even so, it is thanks to the temperature moderating influence of the Gulf Stream, that this bunch of islands in the North Atlantic is able to produce wine at all.
And produce it they do! In fact, such is the growing reputation of England’s sparkling wines in particular, they have even attracted investment from the famous champagne estate, Taittinger. Vines of this joint venture between the French giants and the UK wine agent Hatch Mansfield, were planted in the perfectly exposed, immaculate vineyards of Chilham, Kent in 2017, with the much anticipated first bottles expected in 2023.
Given that sparkling wines made in the traditional method are the staple of the UK wine industry, it is hardly surprising to learn that Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Menuir are amongst the most planted varieties here. Other grapes cultivated with some success in southern English and Welsh vineyards are crossings such as Reichensteiner, Müller-Thurgau and the hybrid variety Syval Blanc which is renowned for its compatibility with the cooler climate. The divinely named Bacchus which delivers crisp, aromatic wines, is also growing in popularity, and has in some quarters, been touted as the United Kingdom’s answer to Sauvignon Blanc.
Undoubtedly, this is an exciting time for UK wines, with new vineyards popping up all the time, continual investment in the industry from both domestic and international sources, and repeated success for the country’s sparkling wines in various competitions. A largely untapped export market and the boundless potential of wine tourism only serve to illuminate a future that already looks bright.