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 wine-making. Domesday Book thus records more than 40 vineyards, with the area to the west of London being particularly prominent.
The Middle Ages
Wine making 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 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 England’s wine making. But grape growing and wine-making did not die out entirely. The age of adventure and enterprise in the 17th century 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. During the 18th century, other landowners continued to experiment with viticulture, with Charles Hamilton’s vineyard at Painshill in Surrey being particularly famous.
The 19th Century
Such small scale experimentation continued through the 19th century, but it was not really until the second half of the 20th century that commercial grape growing and wine making really began to take off. Pioneers such as Ray Barrington Brock 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. The English Vineyards Association was established in 1967; by 1969 there were some 83 members, and this total had risen to 107 in 1974.
Global viticultural research has enabled proprietors to identify the grapes most suitable for cultivating in England’s climate, and together with enhanced wine making skills, this has permitted there to be considerable expansion in the wine industry. By the mid-1990s there were some 400 vineyards in the UK, with the first vines at Valley Vineyards, part of Stanlake Park, having been planted in 1979. These grapes produce red, white and rosé wine of the highest quality. England’s cool climate, closely similar to that of the famous vineyards of Champagne in northern France, is especially well suited to producing grape characteristics required for successful sparkling wine production. With the warming effects of climate change and the enterprise of England’s wine makers, it seems likely that the quality of our wine will go from strength to strength in the 21st century.