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History of Winemaking in the UK | Roman Britain

The history of the English wine industry during Pre-Roman and Roman times

TektasAmphora.jpgPre Roman Britain

Whether or not vines were grown and wine made in Britain before the arrival of the Romans is open to debate as there are no reliable records pointing one way or the other. Wine amphorae, dating from before the Roman conquest, have been discovered on sites in southern England, which could indicate that wine drinking was prevalent. This was probably adopted by the Belgae, who had established themselves in the east and south of Britain prior to the Roman invasion, and who had a liking for wine. The native Celts seem to have preferred beer and mead, which used local indigenous ingredients. Archaeological discoveries from that time include a 4' high Roman amphora and a silver wine cup, both recovered from the British tombs of Belgic Chieftains of the 1st Century BC. Strong trading links with France and Italy allowed wine to be imported relatively easily and it would therefore seem unlikely that there was any need to establish vineyards in this country.

Roman Britain

It is generally agreed that the Romans introduced the vine to Britain. It has also been inferred that the climate in Britain at that time was warmer. At the end of the first century AD, however, the writer Tacitus declared that our climate was “objectionable”, and not at all suitable for growing vines, which could suggest that someone had at least tried to establish vines, even if they had been unsuccessful.

Bacchus-Roman-God-of-Wine-web.jpgThe Romans liked their wine - whether home grown or imported. After invading Britain in AD 43, wine drinking became more commonplace and whenever Roman villas, houses and garrisons have been excavated, there is nearly always archaeological evidence of wine amphorae and drinking cups, and occasionally grape pips and stems of bunches of grapes.

 

 

Recent archaeological investigations in Northamptonshire have uncovered evidence to suggest that vineyards were established on a commercial scale during the Roman occupation. Initial surveys at a 35-hectare Romano-British site at Wollaston in the Nene Valley (near Wellingborough), has revealed deposits of grape vine pollen dating from this time

By the time the Romans began to leave at the end of the fourth century, Christianity became more widespread and wine drinking, playing as it did an important part in Christian ceremonies, was more accepted. Whether this was of local or imported wine, it is hard to say. If there were vineyards, then they were undoubtedly attached to religious institutions such as monasteries.

The Dark Ages followed the Romans. Invasions by the Jutes, the Angles and the Saxons destroyed much of the limited civilisation that the Romans had established during their 300 years of occupation. These warring tribes neither had the time nor the inclination to settle down and set up vineyards, and whatever vineyards there had been undoubtedly became neglected. The early Christians, fleeing from these tribal disturbances, retreated to the corners of these islands, in many cases settling in areas that were unsuitable for vineyards.

With the spread of Christianity in the sixth century to the south and east of the county, old skills were revived and there is some evidence that vineyards were established. However, trade with mainland Europe also increased, including that in wine, which is well documented, and vinegrowing in this country would therefore have been limited.

The Viking invasion in the late eighth century destroyed many monasteries and with that once again vinegrowing and winemaking skills were lost.

King Alfred, who defeated the Danes in the late ninth century, helped re-establish the Christian religion, and in doing so, undoubtedly encouraged the revival of viticulture. By the 10th century, vineyards did exist and wine was made. Documentary evidence from that time indicates that there were vineyards attached to monasteries, particularly in the West country and Central south regions.