The Romans were well established across England by the end of the first century and it became necessary to establish vineyards to supply their armies with wine. They couldn’t go thirsty after all! It is generally agreed that Romans brought the vines with them to Britain, leaving behind evidence of consumption and even vineyards on a commercial scale. Although Roman reign eventually came to an end after 400 years, their gift of wine had already begun to entangle its roots into British culture. Rarely drunk by the wider population, the Christian Church began to incorporate wine into their ceremonies and by the time the Romans left, the only vineyards that remained were those tied to the monasteries.
In the Christmas of 1085, William the Conquerer commissioned the writing of the Domesday Book recording a total of 46 vineyards across the country, 12 of which being tied to a monastery. Although the number of vineyards had grown considerably to 139 sizeable plots, that number started to decrease shortly after the reign of Henry VIII. Some put it down to the change in climate while others put it down to the dissolution of the monasteries, but the true reason remains under debate.
1662 marks the date of Christopher Merrett’s revolutionary work. As an English scientist and physician, Merrett discusses in his paper the first deliberate case of secondary fermentation. By adding additional sugar and molasses after the primary fermentation, Merrett discovered a secondary phase of fermentation was induced, allowing for the essential fizz of the sparkling wine to develop. Although accidental secondary fermentation was known to occur prior to Merrett’s paper, the weak wood-fired glass could not withstand the enormous pressure built up in the process (indeed, the pressure can build to 3 times that of a car tyre). The development of tougher, coal fired glass in 17th century England was crucial in the development of sparkling wines. The higher combustion rate in the coal furnaces strengthened the glass, allowing for the secondary fermentation process without the hazard of exploding. This adds an interesting dimension to the traditional assumption that Dom Pérignon invented sparkling wine in Champagne around 1697.
By the end of the First World War no vineyard existed in England at all. It fell to Ray Barrington Brock to dispel this myth creating a research station, developing a wealth of data that went on to become the backbone of wine growing knowledge. Brock’s work demonstrated the grape varietals and techniques that flourished in the mild British climate. This essential revelation revitalised England’s love for winemaking, leading to the planting of the first commercial English vineyards of the modern time in Hampshire in 1951, the first vineyard to be planted in Britain for the production of wine for sale since 1875.
From the 1950s onwards, Britain has not just been at the forefront of the production of sparkling wine, but also at the forefront of the consumption being the largest consumer of Champagne, Prosecco and more recently Cava. Perhaps it was Winston Churchill, perhaps the heady days of the 60s, or perhaps it is simply down to the English mood of celebration. Whatever the cause, our love of sparkling wines is well established. Nowadays, English sparkling wine is setting new global standards while remaining truly English.
Since the 1970s, there have been a huge number of plantings in Britain, and in 2016 there were over 500 commercial vineyards in the UK, totalling over 2,000ha and producing around 4 million bottles a year. In the last 10 years, hectarage of planted vines has more than doubled, and is set to grow by another 50% by 2020. Some of the larger producers have multiple vineyards, Nyetimber being the largest with seven separate sites covering 171-ha. Other large producers include Gusbourne 93-ha, Denbies 90-ha, and Chapel Down 78-ha. Many of the larger producers such as Chapel Down, Ridgeview, and Camel Valley also buy grapes from vineyards which are usually under long-term contract to them or with which they have grape supply agreements. Together, the largest 100 producers control around 75% of the UK’s wine production.
In general, the current climate is suited to growing grapes for sparkling wine production and approximately 66% of all wine made in the UK is sparkling, 24% still whites, and 10% red or rose. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier account for over 50% of varietal plantings in the UK. Bacchus, Seyval Blanc, Reichensteiner, Rondo, Ortega and Muller Thurgau are the other most planted varieties.
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Blog posted by Laura
(Look for the continuation of the British sparkling wine and discover more about the award winning estate Gusbourne)
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