The History of Wine in Great Britain

Red grapes on an ancient vine

Pre-Roman Britain to the 1950s

It has long been thought the Romans introduced the vine to Britain as early as 43 AD. Some have suggested vine growing and winemaking existed in pre-Roman Britain but any evidence of this is up for debate. From archaeological discoveries it can be suggested the Romans liked to drink wine. Often wine amphorae and drinking cups were uncovered, however whether or not these vessels were used for homemade or imported wine is another matter. 

Towards the end of the fourth century Christianity became more widespread and the consumption of wine increased, but, yet again, it is difficult to know if the wine was local or imported. The Dark Ages followed and much of the limited civilisation was destroyed. Any vineyards owned by the Christian faith were surely neglected, resulting in the total vineyards area declining. 

At the turn of the sixth century, trade links with mainland Europe improved and business increased. This included the importation of wine which was documented at the time. This also meant there was little incentive for farmers to plant grapes which brought little cash value when they had access to the wines of Europe.

By the 10th century Christianity was re-established and vineyards were planted and wine was produced. Documentations prove vineyards were attached to monasteries and were mainly located in the West Country and central south England. According to the Domesday Book records of 1085-6 vineyards were planted in 42 locations, but only 12 of these were attached to monasteries.

The weather was reported to have warmed up in Britain for a period of 300 years from the beginning of the Norman Invasion, which would have aided the growth and ripening of grapes. Yet the weather turned cool and wet, resulting in more fungal disease and a decline in viticulture, at the beginning of the Middle Ages. 

As Henry II became King of England in 1154 transport speeds and conditions improved, the importation of wine became cheaper and winemaking improved. What followed over the next five centuries were wines made specifically to suit the British palate and thus little motivation to produce homegrown wines.

wine bottle tops

Britain’s Influence on Europe: 15th - 20th Centuries

15th Century: Whilst France belonged to the British crown, Bordeaux was transformed into the most important wine region of France and its wines were sent back to the British market in England. The loss of Bordeaux to France in 1453 saw a decline in exports to England, leaving the British market thirsty. 

16th Century: It was not until the 16th century that Britain found an alternative to Bordeaux. As London wine merchants settled in Spain’s Sanlucar and Malaga the Sherry industry started to emerge. 

17th Century: As Britain approached the mid-17th century wine prices started to rise and it was soon only the upper and middle classes who could afford to buy wine. Champagne looked increasingly delectable, as too did Bordeaux once again, and sales soon started flourishing in London. So much so, Arnaud de Pontac, owner of the prestigious first growth Haut-Brion in Bordeaux, opened a fine dining restaurant in London, Pontack’s Head, where he could sell his wines to the British aristocracy at outrageous prices. London was quickly established as the chief market for fine wines. 

18th Century: Once again, Britain needed to find a new wine market as Champagne prices started to rise and supply from France was limited during the war. This time London merchants had settled in Porto and were sending back huge quantities of Port in the early 1700s. Port was originally, at best, a tolerable red wine, quickly improved by the addition of Brandy which suited the British palate and stabilised the wine during hot and long sea voyages. The evolvement of Port is another example of how wine was made to suit the British market. 

19th Century: Just as Port was sent back to Great Britain and made to suit British tastes, so too was Marsala from Sicily. 

To this day Great Britain has retained strong relationships with the aforementioned wine markets, and it is potentially for this reason that we did not establish our own wine industry. Great Britain’s cool and wet climate is another factor as to why, until recently, England and Wales’ wine industry failed to take-off. 

Balfour sparkling rosé

Modern Great Britain

The revival of Great Britain’s wine industry started in the early 1950s. At the time Germany, whose climate was often compared to Great Britain’s, was planting Seyval Blanc and Müller-Thurgau and so these varieties were introduced to the UK and planted by Ray Barrington Brock. Brock is considered to be one of the founding fathers, a pioneer, of the revival of English vineyards. 

In 1952, Major-General Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones planted the first commercial vineyard in England at Hambleden, Hampshire. What started with only a mere 0.4 hectares of Seyval Blanc has grown to over 80 hectares of the three traditional grape varieties. 

The expansion of vineyards after this time was incredibly slow. The second commercial vineyard was planted in 1955 by Jack Ward, who owned the Merrydown Wine Company in East Sussex. Ward became instrumental in the English wine industry as he introduced new varieties to the UK and was the first chairman of the English Vineyards Association. The third vineyard was planted in 1957 by Lieutenant-Colonel Robert in Hampshire. 

It was not until the 1960s that plantings of vineyards really began to take off. New grape varieties and technology were introduced, and with that better knowledge and understand of owning and running vineyards. 

Come the mid-70s and plantings started to increase dramatically for two decades. Plantings of vineyards have continued to rise year on year, if not slightly more steadily. However, wine is now one of the fastest growing agricultural sectors in the UK, with plantings having tripled since 2004. Naturally some vineyards have disappeared for whatever reasons but others have attracted a worldwide audience. 

England is the largest producer of wine in Great Britain. The large majority of vineyards are planted in the south of the country where it is warmer, however even Scotland have planted vines of their own. Wales is the second largest producer in Great Britain, with producers striving for high quality wines. England has gained the attention of wine regions around the world and of those in Champagne, who our sparkling wines are so often compared too. Champagne houses Taittinger and Vranken Pommery have both planted vines in south England.