Small World, Big Business: Tracing the Success of the UK Wine Trade
The United Kingdom (UK) is home to some of the most iconic and exemplary sites and structures known to man. From Stonehenge to the Big Ben, the Tower of London to the London Eye, the Westminster Abbey to the Tower Bridge — the sovereign state is an undeniable tourist’s paradise. But there’s another reason why culinary connoisseurs and wine aficionados are flocking to Great Britain and Northern Ireland—and it’s not just for the excellent tea or the exceptional pub food. These days, it’s all about English wine.
The Birth of an Industry
As was the case with a handful of other European countries, the history of viticulture in England can be traced back to the age of Classical Antiquity. According to historical accounts, the Ancient Romans had attempted to grow winemaking grapes as far north in the state as Lincolnshire. And while these efforts didn’t exactly turn England into the next winemaking powerhouse, it did equip local vintners with the know-how necessary in vine planting and wine creation.
By the latter parts of the 11th century, England already had a number of established vineyards. The Domesday Book mentions about 40 wineries as of 1086. Most, if not all, of these wineries were dedicated to producing communion wine and for filling up the wine storage houses of the country’s noblemen.
A Slow Decline in Winemaking
Prior to the Black Death, the monasteries and vineyards in England enjoyed great progress in the development of viticulture. Despite the Anglo-Saxon invasion of the 5th century and the Viking raids of the 8th century, wine production flourished. At this point in time, the English wine cellars were stocked mainly with local wine. But the latter half of the Middle Ages brought a sudden and devastating change to the country.
When the Black Death reached England in 1348, it dealt immediate damage to the populace. In the span of a year, the plague wiped out half of the country’s population, thereby crippling the workforce, and consequently, the country’s economy. The UK wine industry was badly hit. With few available laborers to tend to the vineyards, wine production experienced a drastic decline.
Things took another turn for the worse when King Henry VIII ordered the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536. When the abbots left, the new landowners were hesitant to take up wine creation. Some sources say that the large change in English climate had made it difficult for these new landowners to practice viticulture. The colder summers and milder winters had affected the growth of the grapes, often resulting in fungal problems that meant the grapes couldn’t ripen properly. This brought local wine production into an almost terminal decline.
Despite local winemaking’s painful freefall, the country’s wine trade wasn’t at a complete standstill. During this period, internationally made wines were extremely popular in the local market. Something that started with the English’s preference for French clarets in the Middle Ages, graduated to large-scale importation of sweet fortified wines and Madeira wines from Portugal and Spain in the early 1700s.
A Brief but Promising Revival
Along with the influx of international wine came a resurgence in the country’s interest in viticulture. Many English and Welsh noblemen began establishing vineyards in their estates. One of the most notable viticulturists of that age was Lord Bute, the Marquis of Swanbridge. Having planted a vast vineyard in Castell Coch in Wales, the Marquis enjoyed success in winemaking until his death.
Another key figure in winemaking during this period was the Honorable Charles Hamilton. In 1740, Hamilton founded a vineyard inside his Surrey estate. The winery proved to be a success and operated for a few more decades. The vineyard has since been reopened, and is now producing wine from the very vines Hamilton planted centuries ago.
The 20th Century Decline and Recovery
Like many of the other wine-producing countries in Europe and the New World, the UK wine industry experienced a drop in production during the two World Wars. Once again, the lack of manpower was one of the leading problems in the trade. As a result, many vineyards ceased operations for the duration of both wars. During this period, the country continued importing wine from France, South Africa, and Italy. By the time the wineries were ready to reopen, the English palate was already attuned to the taste of foreign tipple.
As a response to this challenge, the 1950s UK wine industry underwent a renaissance of sorts. Many historians credit Ray Barrington Brock and Edward Hymans for the revival of the local wine trade. After the Second World War, the duo used extensive research to revolutionize English and Welsh winemaking. Vineyards began opening left and right until there were 124 reasonably sized and working cellars and wineries in the UK in 1977. Wine enthusiast, George Ordish, was also instrumental in gathering publicity for the recovering industry. By making wine from a trial vineyard he had planted in Maidenhead, Ordish showed the public that the local industry could compete with other nations when it came to wine quality.
The UK Wine Industry Today
Today, the UK wine industry boasts of 470 vineyards and 135 wineries, spread out in a vine area of 1,884 hectares. There are currently six main wine producing regions in the UK, including the South East, South West, Wessex, Thames & Chilterns, Mercia, Wales, and East Anglia regions.
In 2013, the sovereign state produced a staggering 4.45 million bottles of wine. Out of that number, around 66 percent (%) were sparkling wines, 24% were still whites, and 10% were reds and rosés. In the last few years, English wine has also received awards and praise from some of the industry’s toughest critics. With the way things are going for the UK wine trade, it looks like we can expect the state to take on a bigger share of the international market in the next few years.
The Ultimate Taste Test
Whether you’re already planning your next wine tour, or you’re simply looking to restock your wine cellar, we recommend trying out some of these English blend and varietal offerings.
Chardonnay – Now, who doesn’t love a good chardonnay? As the most diverse white wine grape in the world, expect this wine to come in a variety of flavors, aromas, and acidities. The flavor of the wine is greatly dependent on its ripeness. If the chardonnay is barely ripe, then its base fruit flavors tend to be a bit more acidic. Expect crisp notes of lemons and green apples. If the chardonnay is ripe, then you can expect more tropical fruit flavors like pineapple, mango, and guava.
Aging also plays a factor when it comes to the texture and overall body of the wine. If the wine is unoaked, it tends to be closer to a Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Gris—fresh, z
esty, green, with a medium-high acidity. If the wine has been oak-aged, the chardonnay tends to have this beautiful warm, buttery, and full-bodied texture. Winemakers also tend to add flavors to the wine during oak aging. Commonly added flavors include coconuts, vanilla, pie crust, caramel, and praline.
Pinot Noir – Subtlety’s the word when it comes to Pinot Noir. From the opacity of the liquor to its refined raspberry, cranberry, or cherry notes, this is a wine that is best-suited for the most delicate of palates. Aged in French Oak barrels, Pinot Noirs usually come with underlying flavors of caramel, vanilla, licorice, or tobacco.
Bacchus – With its strong floral notes and distinct sweetness, this award-winning, aromatic white wine is a must-try for enthusiasts who are looking for the next ‘big thing’ in the industry. When used in a blend, its powerful and exuberant flavor lends floral accents to any liquor.
Make your next wine experience a unique one. When it’s time to add something new to your wine vault, consider the fine wines from the UK.