Blame the Italians for our love affair with wine. Evidence of wine-soaked Roman soirees can be found in wine jugs, mugs, and a pip or two across the country.
So, wine making in Britain may be over 2,000 years old but making great wine may have eluded even the mighty Romans. From the fall of their Empire to the Battle of Hastings it was a lot cooler, and with various factions fighting for a piece of the British pie, there wasn’t much time for wine making.
After King Alfred defeated the Danes, Christianity spread, and winemaking skills improved along with the weather. Post 1066, vineyards sprouted up across the country, further buoyed by William the Conqueror’s thirsty court. The Domesday Book records 42 vineyards, probably small, mostly owned by nobles, and (unlike today) producing wine that was thin and sour, mercifully pacified by honey.
The 12th and 13th centuries are considered the first golden age of English winemaking with vineyards reaching as far north as Yorkshire, matched by our new love for Bordeaux, thanks to Henry II’s marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine. For 300 years the Crown had its own vineyards, if from afar; prompting our expertise in importing, bottling, (and much consuming) of wine.
When Henry VIII ascended the throne, there were approximately 140 vineyards in England and Wales. However, the return of poor weather and the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536 saw the mighty grape side-lined for a century in favour of exotic coffee, chocolate, tea, hoppy beer, and distilled spirits.
From 1660, Charles II made all things French fashionable again. England didn’t make much wine but continued to import it, with London merchants securing the finer international varieties, influencing the style and quality of wines gracing dinner tables at home and abroad.
This continued for 300 years, with quality viticulture only returning to Britain by the mid-20th Century. In the early 1950s, the birthplace of cricket delivered the first contemporary, commercial vineyard: a whole acre of a south-facing chalky slope near Hambledon in Hampshire.