The history of the English and Welsh wine industry from the 1950's to the present day
The revival had to wait for the arrival of pioneers who wanted to disprove the theory that wine could not be made from grapes grown outside in our climate. A combination of new varieties, more suitable growing techniques, better disease control and an acceptance by the public of the style of wines that those varieties produced, were the key elements in that revival.
There are 3 individuals who, in their own ways, brought about the start of the revival which lead to the planting, in 1951, of the first commercial vineyard of modern times at Hambledon in Hampshire. They were Ray Barrington Brock, Edward Hyams and George Ordish.
Ray Barrington Brock must be considered as one of the founding fathers - if not the founding father - of the revival in wine production in the British Isles. Brock established a research station at Oxted in Surrey, where he trialled some 600 different table and wine grape varieties over the 25 years of the station’s life. Through obtaining grapevines and vine cuttings from universities and viticultural research stations in the major winegrowing countries of Europe (including Hungary) as well as Russia and various parts of the United States, he built up a collection of grape varieties that were to become the backbone of the early English and Welsh wine industry: He introduced both Müller-Thurgau (then called Riesling Sylvaner) and Seyve Villard 5/276 (Seyval blanc) to the UK. Brock also built a winery in which he experimented with methods of winemaking to suit those grape varieties that were growing well. To improve his winemaking skills, Brock made contact with various institutions and organizations. This included sourcing the right yeast cultures to suit the winemaking practices being employed. There was no doubt that his enterprise created a lot of good will and people were intrigued to see how English and Welsh viticulture would develop.
Brock also published books on the subject and sold vines from the nursery bed he created at Oxted. Many of the earliest vineyards to be planted (Beaulieu, Horam Manor, Elmham Park, Felsted and Yearlstone) obtained vines from him.
Ray Brock’s work on vines must be seen as really quite remarkable. That he should decide to establish a private research station to study a crop that did not have a natural home in our climate is quite a feat in itself; that he should do so with such effort, energy and diligence for little or no personal gain, apart from the satisfaction of seeing it done properly, is another matter. In retrospect the site he chose could have been better - nearer to sea level and less exposed - and undoubtedly this would have resulted in riper grapes and better wine. He always countered this by saying that he felt comfortable in recommending a variety that had performed well at Oxted, knowing that it would therefore ripen in almost any site in the south of the country. The legacy of the Oxted Viticultural Research Station is to be seen in today’s English and Welsh wine industry. He lived to see an industry that was slowly gaining recognition. He died in February 1999, aged 91.
Edward Hyams, who first appears in the Oxted story at the harvest in 1949, shares with Brock the honour of being one of the fathers of the viticultural revival. Through his extensive writing and speaking he did much to publicise the subject and make the public aware that the revival was under way.
In 1946, Hyams was de-mobbed from the Royal Navy and he and his wife returned to Kent. They planted some vines for table and wine, and contacted likely sources for suitable varieties, including some of the same institutions and nurseries that Brock was in touch with, and ended up with some of the same varieties, which were planted in 1947 and 1948.
Hyams collaborated with Brock, and also went searching for old varieties already growing in Britain and through an appeal in one of his many articles, discovered a vine growing on a cottage wall at Wrotham in Kent. In appearance it resembled Pinot Meunier and was therefore named Wrotham Pinot. Cuttings were taken and propagated at Oxted. When compared to supplies of Pinot Meunier from France, Brock recorded that Wrotham Pinot had a higher natural sugar content and ripened two weeks earlier.
Hyams greatest contribution to the advancement of viticulture was undoubtedly the massive amount of publicity he created through his writing and broadcasting. His first book was published in 1949, called ‘The Grape Vine in England’, with a forward by Vita Sackville-West. This book marked a milestone in the early years of the revival. It was, and remains to this day, a scholarly work on the subject and contains chapters on the history of the grapevine in England, the work of Brock at Oxted and the cultivation of the vine and winemaking.
In 1953 Hyams edited ‘Vineyards in England’ - a masterly work of 20 chapters, many written by different specialists, covering every conceivable aspect of grape production in the British Isles. The book stands today as one of the most important for anyone contemplating growing vines in England or Wales and despite being over 45 years old, much of it, apart from the choice of varieties, remains relevant. One of his last articles before his death in 1977 cited that “there is no doubt that English vineyards in the right places can produce fine white wines, and that such wine should be the object of English viticulture”. By then of course the revival - for which he was in no small part responsible for instigating - was well under way.
George Ordish was by training an entomologist and economist, working on horticultural problems in Europe, Latin America and Africa and took a keen interest in the pests and diseases - those that caused the greatest damage both environmentally and economically and about which he also wrote in detail. One of his first jobs was as an entomologist working in the Champagne region. On returning to his native Kent he was struck by the similarity in the climates and by the differences in the landscape. After local research revealed that England had a history of viticulture, he resolved to see whether he could get grapes to flourish and ripen and, in 1938, planted a few suitable vines in his garden near Maidstone.
Ordish proved to be an accomplished winemaker and he soon saw that good wines could be made from English grown, outdoor fruit. His trial vineyard had proved that grapes would ripen in our climate and these trials prompted his first book on the subject, ‘Wine Growing in England’ which appeared in 1953. This book, which came out in the same year as Hyams’s second book on the subject, drew on many of the same sources. Ordish had also been in contact with Ray Brock and had visited Oxted on more than one occasion.
One notable inclusion in Ordish’s book is the chapter where he sets out the costs and returns from an acre of grapes. The book was yet another medium of publicity for the revival of winegrowing in Great Britain and helped spread the word. It certainly helped add to the number of people in the country who looked on outdoor grapegrowing as a possibility. Ordish went on to write two further books concerning viticulture. He died in 1990.
Between them, Ray Brock, Edward Hyams and George Ordish had questioned why it was that outdoor viticulture in the British Isles had all but died out and had, to acertain extent, shown how it might be revived. Although they had not discovered all the answers, they had, through a combination of practical demonstration, scientific research and publicity, generated sufficient enthusiasm for those with the inclination to, to start planting vineyards. The first modern vineyard, Hambledon in Hampshire, planted in 1951, was the tangible evidence that the revival was underway.
The Modern Industry 1951 onwards
The planting of the vineyard in 1951 at Hambledon in Hampshire by Major-General Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones GCVO, CMG, CBE, MC DL marked a turning point in the history of winegrowing in Great Britain. This was the first vineyard to be planted specifically to produce wine for sale since Castle Coch in 1875. Seyval Blanc was planted on a one acre site, following a visit by Salisbury-Jones to Oxted, which grew well and produced their first crop in 1954. The wine caused much publicity and Salisbury-Jones was besieged by the press and media interest. The name ‘Hambledon’ soon became synonymous with English Wine. The vineyard has just been revived and replanted (this time with the three traditional Champagne varieties), so in time the name will soon be recognised again.
The expansion of vineyards after the planting of Hambledon was painfully slow. The Merrydown Wine Company at Horam in East Sussex, owned by Jack Ward, planted 2 acres in 1955, and became the second commercial vineyard of the revival. Müller-Thurgau was planted, amongst other varieties. In later years, Ward became instrumental in introducing varieties such as Reichensteiner, Huxelrebe and Schönburger to the UK. He was very much a driving force in the industry and was the English Vineyards Association’s (now UK Vineyards Association) first Chairman.
The third vineyard to be planted was in 1957 by Lieutenant-Colonel Robert and Mrs. Margaret Gore-Browne at Beaulieu, in Hampshire, which by 1960 expanded to almost 5 acres. The highest accolade to be awarded in the UK’s annual national competition is named ’The Gore-Browne Trophy and awarded for ‘Wine of the Year’.
Winemaking in those early days was, from all accounts, a fairly hit and miss affair. Both Salisbury-Jones and Gore-Browne built their own wineries and enlisted the help from Anton Massel, a young German who had come across to work for the Seitz Filter company and eventually opened his own laboratory. Massel introduced a number of modern winemaking practices, and better equipment.
The real expansion of vineyards in England and Wales started in the early to mid-1960s. Vineyards spread across the country, with new sites, training and pruning systems and above all, grape varieties introduced. The development of the industry had begun.
The real expansion of the vineyard area and the establishment of both sizeable vineyards and wineries started in earnest in the late 1960s and early 1970s. One of the features of English and Welsh viticulture is the diversity of backgrounds of those who plant vineyards. In other countries where new vineyards are being planted, one would expect to see existing landowners - most usually those with land in the vicinity of established vineyards - planting up, together with a smaller number of entrants with no experience of growing at all, but with serious funds, usually made in a completely unrelated industry. In the UK, those planting vineyards come from a much wide cross-section of the community.
Vineyards Established After 1976
The years between 1976 and 1995 saw a large number of vineyards planted, including some very sizeable ones.
Plantings in recent years have not been quite so frenzied and the rate of new plantings has certainly declined. Several factors are responsible. A rumoured vine planting ban in 1990/91 persuaded many growers that if they were going to plant it had better be soon and between 1992 and 1994 an abnormally large number of vines were planted. This sudden surge of planting resulted in larger national yields, with the 1996 being the largest on record.
Of course, not all vineyards planted since 1951 in England and Wales have survived. Some vineyards have disappeared through natural causes such as retirement, divorce and death. Vineyards which for whatever reason could not produce sufficient quality and/or quantity of wine to make the enterprise viable have been grubbed out, leaving those capable of producing commercially acceptable wines.
In the last couple of years more hectares have been planted – some 150 - which will be reflected in future statistics, and which shows a new growth in the modern industry, and, importantly, some serious, professional investment.
The nature of the wine business in the UK varies. Some vineyards have bypassed the challenge to produce their own wines and concentrate on growing grapes to sell on to other, mainly larger concerns. Some owners have leased their vineyards to other wine producers, thus reducing the overall number of players in the market
The UK wine industry is now modernizing and producing wines that are competitive in both style and price. One growth area is tourism: vineyards are opening their doors to visitors, introducing appropriate facilities, allowing visitors to see how wine is grown and made, and buy direct. This year VisitBritain has introduced a ‘Taste England’ campaign, encouraging the tourist trade and visitors to explore England’s regional food and drink. There has also been increasing collaboration with regional food, which has been experiencing a resurgence of interest and promotion, largely due to the work undertaken by Food from Britain and the regional food groups.
Official figures on vineyard planting and volumes produced have only been in existence since 1989, prior to which submission of data to then The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) was entirely voluntary. Since 1989, however the information is collected annually Department of Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and reflects the trends in the industry. The full data is available – press here.
The high point of planting was reached in 1993 when 1,065 ha (2,631 acres) was reached. Since then, the total area has declined with the latest (2003) figures showing 773 ha (1932.5 acres). In all cases, these figures refer to planted, not productive areas. The decline in non-productive hectares and the overall number of individual vineyards since 1989 is a sign of the growing maturity of the UK winegrowing industry.
The last 20 years has seen a marked change in wine styles and types sold in the UK. In the late 1960s and 1970s, when English wines started to appear on the market, the biggest selling wines in the UK were Liebfraumilches and other German and Germanic styles. Whilst there is no doubt that price played a great part, their popularity was also down to their easy, unpretentious style. In many respects the better English wines at the time were similar - light and fruity, with a little residual sugar and not too heavy in alcohol - and they met with the approval of many consumers. In the 1980s, the tastes of UK wine drinkers started to change to a preference in drier styles. Wines from Australia started making a big impact on consumers and gradually the liking for German style wines reduced. English and Welsh wines have reflected these changes in the market, and today very few growers bottle in tall German-style Hock and Mosel bottles, preferring to use the Burgundy and Bordeaux (in green or clear) bottles. Many growers also refrain from using the Germanic sounding varietal names such as Müller-Thurgau, Reichensteiner, Huxelrebe etc. and will now give their wines more descriptive names (Surrey Gold, Stanlake Park). Those using varieties such as Bacchus, Ortega and Pinot noir, which appear to be more acceptable to consumers, continue to do so.
The production of bottle-fermented sparkling wines is one of the major growth areas in UK wineries. In the mid-80s vineyards such as Carr Taylor and Lamberhurst proved that our native grape varieties could be used for producing good examples of this type of wine. More recently, vineyards such as Nyetimber and RidgeView Wine Estate, both in West Sussex, have been planted solely with Champagne varieties (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier) for the production of classic bottle-fermented sparkling wines. The quality of the wines and their success in recent years in both national and international competitions and tastings has proven that a world-class product can be produced in the UK, and sell at a premium price. Other styles of sparkling wines, produced either from a blend of traditional and non-traditional varieties, are achieving a sound success – Camel Valley Cornwall Brut and Chapel Down Brut are good examples of these styles.
Some 15% of all wine produced is sparkling, with this figure expecting to rise over the next years, as the popularity of this style continues to increase.
Winemakers in the UK have been making oak aged wines since the mid 1980s, using not only oak barrels, the traditional, but costly method of imparting oak flavour to wine, but also by using oak staves and oak chips in the fermentation and storage tanks. An increasingly popular style nowadays is rosé, which the UK produces well, from the red grape varieties grown in the UK. In the 2004 English & Welsh Wine of the Year Competition the rosé category proved to be the most popular of all the classes. The amount of red wine produced in the UK is small (an average 10% of total production), and there is a demand for them. There is a much greater understanding of which varieties perform well in the UK (Rondo, Dornfelder and Pinot Noir are the current favourites) and how to extract colour. Oak is also used quite widely in the maturation of red wines. Many English red wines accompany light meats and game extremely well. The production of late harvest/dessert wines - of which again there are an increasing number - is another remarkable aspect of the UK wine industry. Varieties such as Huxelrebe, Ortega and Optima are susceptible to the classic pourriture noble (as found in Sauternes or in German vineyards), given the right weather conditions. The relatively high levels of natural acidity balance superbly with the intense sweetness, and provide an ideal accompaniment to cheese.