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History of Winemaking in the UK | The Middle Ages to the 20th Century

The history of the English and Welsh wine industry from the middle ages through to the 20th century

This long 600 year period marks change and gradual decline in English viticulture. Why it did not really become a viable alternative to other crops, as it did in other countries where monastic viticulture was common, is open to debate, but commercial and practical considerations have to be important.

Before the Black Death arrived, the religious orders had prospered, reliant upon a pliable and available workforce. However, finding their manpower depleted by the plague, they took to leasing their land, rather than working it themselves and their new tenants, dependent upon short-term cash crops to pay the rent, did not want to grow vines, which then, as now, can only be grown on a long-term basis. The Black Death itself, which lasted from 1348 until the 1370s, not only cut the population dramatically, but forced changes in agriculture which had far-reaching social and demographic effects.

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Although the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536 is often cited as being the single event that destroyed winegrowing and winemaking in England, it would appear that by this time, many monasteries had given up. The new landowners who had been handed these religious assets, proved reluctant to indulge in viticulture.

 

It is also said that the British climate underwent some change at this time, becoming generally wetter, with cooler summers and milder winters, leading to less ripe grapes and more fungal diseases, both of which would have been disincentives to profitable winemaking.

 

Wine had been coming into the country from Bordeaux since Henry II (1154–89) became King of England. Transport conditions and speeds improved and the importation of wine (and other goods) became cheaper. Also, as techniques of preserving wine for long journeys improved, imported wines arrived in better condition. Home produced wines faced, as they do today, considerable competition from imported wines.

From the mid-1300s, Great Britain became renowned for its expertise in selecting, importing, bottling and cellaring wine and much of the finest wine came into ports like London, Bristol and Leith. Wines such as Claret, Port, Madeira, Sherry, Hock and Mosel were, if not invented, then refined, nurtured and made more famous by their association with Britain.

With these disadvantages, it is perhaps not surprising that commercial viticulture suffered and vineyard owners, unless they were prepared to support their efforts out of funds from other sources, found more profitable uses for their land. However, despite these problems, vineyards were planted and wines were made.

There are records of some vineyards in the 17th century. The great botanist John Tradescant planted 20,000 vines on his employer Lord Salisbury’s estate in Hertfordshire and the vineyards became well-renowned. In 1666, John Rose, Gardener to Charles II at His Royal Garden in St. James’s, wrote a treatise on the cultivation of vines in this country called “The English Vineyard Vindicated”, in which he discussed the question of site selection, vine varieties, pruning and training and care of the vines up to the harvest.

Painshill_Vineyard.jpgOne of the most famous vineyards of this era was that at Painshill Place, Cobham, Surrey, which was planted by the Hon Charles Hamilton in 1740, who was clearly ahead of his time. The property still has a producing vineyard to this day. Painshill’s vineyard however died out at the end of the 1800s and although there were others, the story was much the same. After the initial enthusiasm of the owners (mainly gentlemen of property and considerable income), the uncertainty of the climate and the variability of the crops in terms of both quality and quantity took their toll and the vineyards were abandoned. Tastes and fashions in wines also changed. Sweet, heavy, fortified wines from Australia and South Africa were popular at that time and home-grown wines could never match these.

The last great experiment into commercial viticulture - that is before the start of the modern revival - was that of Lord Bute at Castel Coch (which is its Welsh name - it is more usually called Castle Coch). The third Marquess of Bute was a wealthy landowner and industrialist, who had the wherewithal to indulge his visions and fantasies. In 1873 he sent his head gardener, Mr. Andrew Pettigrew, to France to see how vines should be grown. Following his visit, vines were ordered and in 1875 three acres were planted at the castle. Over the next 35 years, the original site was expanded and a further two sites were planted and in the end totalled over 11 acres.

The Marquess died in 1900 and was succeeded by his 19 year old son, who was equally as enthusiastic. Pettigrew was himself succeeded by his own son (also called Andrew) who continued his father's work.
1911 appears to have been the last successful vintage and the vineyard was grubbed up, just after the First World War, in 1920. It was not until the 1950’s when new vineyards were planted and the modern commercial wine industry was born.