Viticulture in the United Kingdom has traditionally been seen as difficult, due to its cold climate, though the English and Welsh wine industry has been helped over recent years by warmer summers and it is suggested global warming may improve further growth.
Historically the UK has been a major wine consumer, but only a very small producer, with English and Welsh wines combined accounting for around 1% of domestic purchases. Exciting news for this developing industry, in recent years English sparkling wines have started to receive a great deal of attention. UK Sparkling wines have beaten quality competition from Champagnes and top Sparkling wines to make the top tier of many recognised tastings and wine competitions, winning golds and trophies around the world.
It should be noted that Wales also had vineyards planted by the Romans, but it wasn’t until the 1970s, when modern vineyards were planted in South Wales with the intention of creating quality wine. As of September 2015, Wales has 22 vineyards, producing primarily white wines, but also a few reds. Growing grape vines in Scotland is slightly more difficult, though the cold weather is not the main problem, the lack of sunshine is the biggest issue.
Winemaking continued to the time of the Normans with over 40 vineyards in England mentioned in the Domesday Book. When Henry VIII came into power in 1509, 139 vineyards were recorded, 11 of which were Royal vineyards, dedicated to the monarchy.
Just as English wine began to recover in the 19th century, commercial English wine was dealt a heavy blow. In 1860 the government supported free trade and dramatically cut the tax on imported wines, a decrease of 80%. English wine was therefore overwhelmed by superior foreign products that could be sold at a lower cost. British winemaking was brought to a quick end with the onset of the First World War, as the need for crops and food took priority over wine production.
It was not until 1936, that George Ordish planted vines in Wessex in the South of England, bringing about a rediscovery of English winemaking. The start of what could be described as modern English winemaking can be traced to 1952 when English viticulture pioneer, John Edginton planted his first experimental commercial grape vines at Lackham College in Lacock, Wiltshire UK. These vines still exist today and are believed to be the oldest surviving commercial vines in the UK.
By 1962 Edginton had planted an experimental vineyard of just half an acre of new advanced hybrid varietals of Müller, Reichensteiner and Seyval, believed to be the oldest surviving examples in the UK. Later other small vineyards in Britain followed in the 1960s with growers in Kent, West Sussex, Somerset, Devon and in East Sussex and also in Wales.
These English wines of the time were influenced by the sweet German wines like Liebfraumilch and Hock that were popular in the 1970s, and were blended white and red sweet wines, called ‘cream’ wine. Winemaking spread from the South East and South West to the Midlands and to the north of England, with Yorkshire, Shropshire, Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Lancashire having at least one vineyard each as of 2007.
The regions limestone soils of southern England are suitable for growing varietals used to produce sparkling wine, and particularly on south-west facing slopes, in recent warmer years. A serious concern for all grape growers is that production in the climate is highly variable: As it is only every second sometimes third year when grapes are considered high quality, with many years being average to poor in quality - largely due to the weather, or vine diseases intensified by the weather. Though with global warming and better vine management, quality is improving each year. Another explanation for the growth in viticulture in the UK is the local food movement, and the desire by locals to cut the food miles connected with the produce they buy, including locally produced wine.
As of 2015 the UK has 503 commercial vineyards across England and Wales covering some 1884 hectares and producing sparkling and still wines. Of this number a third are a producing winery. In the same year the top 3 grapes varietals make up just over 50% of the vineyard area, which include: Chardonnay 23%, Pinot Noir 22% and Bacchus 8%. Over the past three years the average annual production - bottle equivalent, equals 5.27m bottles.
During the past 10 years the area of planted vines has more than doubled and is predicted to grow by another 50% by 2020. The current percentage mix of wine styles produced include: Sparkling Wines 66%, Still White Wines 24% and Red & Rosé wines making up 10%.
It should finally be noted that the production of late harvest/dessert wines - which there are an increasing number - is another develop segment of the UK wine industry. Varietals such as Huxelrebe, Ortega and Optima are susceptible to classic noble rot - as found in Sauternes & Barsac, given the right weather conditions. The relatively high levels of natural acidity balance superbly with the intense sweetness, so another UK wine to look out for.