English vineyard tours and wines – myth or reality?

Friday, May 20, 2016 Food and drinks by Elina Pedersen

When I saw an English vineyard tour online to say I was surprised is an understatement.

Immediately I realised I was thinking of a fruit wine, like apple or cherry desert “wine”.

I was wrong; it was a tour through a real grape growth to visit English vineyard located in West Sussex.

I never thought there is wine produced in England, not even to mention that grapes are grown here.

Come on, in our wet and relatively cold climate?

I started thinking about it a little more…

Germany popped into my mind straight away.

German wine is not a surprise and there are plenty on every shop shelf, so why shouldn’t England have some of its own wine?

I started digging a little deeper.

History of English vineyards and wine

Apparently, Romans produced first wine in England at the end of the first century AD.

Ongoing debate exists in regards to whether there was any wine produced in England before the Romans.

It is however known that the Celts preferred beer and mead instead of wine.

During the Roman time the climate in England was much warmer, nonetheless the Roman writer Tacitus in one of his records concluded that the English climate is rather “objectionable” for wine growing.

Recent archaeological findings provide evidence that there were commercial vineyards established in Northampton during the Roman times.

English vineyard in Sussex

When Romans left at the end of fourth century, Christianity became more widespread and wine started to play an important role in Christian rituals.

It’s important to mention that with every invasion England was losing its wine making skills every other century and had to regain it every time the invaders left.

Undoubtedly, every time Christianity returned to England wine tradition and wine making returned with it.

By the 10th century English vineyards existed in monasteries throughout the Central and Western regions.

With William the Conqueror French Abbots arrived to the country.

The Doomsday Book has a record of 42 definite locations of English vineyards across the country.

Wines were mostly made after harvest and consumed during winter, as warm summer days caused wine to oxidize and turn into vinegar.

Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536 is considered to be the next major event that stopped wine growing in England.

It seems that at this time English climate went through some changes making it generally wetter and colder.

However, there are a few records of English vineyards existent in the 17th century.

John Tradescant a renowned botanist and gardener at the time planted 20’000 on Lord Salisbury’s estate in Hertfordshire.

Lord Salisbury’s wines were very well appreciated and known at the time.

The most famous English vineyard of the 18th century was Painshill Place in Cobham, Surrey and it was planted by Hon Charles Hamilton. The vineyard died out at the beginning of 19th century as sweet and heavy imported wines became more popular.

Nowadays, this property has a new producing vineyard.

The last revival of wine cultivation before the modern revival happened in the end of 19th century with a help of Lord Bute at his Castel Coch estate.

Marquess of Bute was fascinated with French wine growing and his vision was to bring wines to Britain.

1911 seems to be the last year when vineyards were recorded in England until 1950’s when the modern commercial English wine industry began.

Modern English vineyards and wines

There is currently 6.3m bottles of wine produced in England each year and the number is growing. This photo shows a small wine bottling machine.

Wine bottling machine

Interestingly, this number only amounts for half-week of English wine consumption.

It’s surprising, but on average we manage to drink as much as 12m bottles a week. Thus, English wine industry has a huge potential.

Altogether, there are 470 English and Welsh vineyards and 135 English wineries registered in the commercial register. Some of the vineyards focus on producing organic wines only.

You can find the full list of vineyards by visiting UK Vineyard Registry section of the UK Food Standard Agency website.

Very often you may find a local farmhouse producing some wine for their own use, however usually they would produce “fruit wine” and the traditional wine.

Wine distiller

The main counties where English wine is produced are: East Sussex, West Sussex, Kent, East Yorkshire, West Yorkshire, Worcestershire, Herefordshire, Hants, Devon, Somerset, Vale of Glamorgan, Norfolk, Essex, Dorset and some in Nottinghamshire, Gloucestershire and Leicestershire.

Most of the vineyards are located in East and West Sussex and the more you go to the South the more vineyards you discover.

It is very usual for those wineries to not only sell wines they produce, but also to do an introductory “visit English vineyard” and wine tasting with or without lunch tours.

Most of the English vineyard tour operators and producers used to be small farms, which decided to convert their farmland to vineyards.

English vineyard farmhouse

You will be able to notice straightaway an earthy taste if the grapes are grown on the land that was previously used as a farmland. This type of “earthy” wine is most suitable for consumption with fish and seafood.

I almost forgot to mention that most of the English wines are white wines. With approximately 65% being sparkling wines, 25% white wines and only 10% of red and rose wines.

Some of the English bubblies won numerous European awards.

For example Nyetimber Brut Classic Cuvée, Ridgeview Blanc de Noir 2010, Pebblebed Sparkling White and Knightor Sparkling Rosé can easily compete with some of the well-known champs.

The most popular grapes grown in England are:

  • Chardonnay 24%
  • Pinot Noir 23%
  • Bacchus 9%
  • Seyval Blan 6%
  • Pinot Meunier 6%
  • Reichensteiner 5%.

I started this article by mentioning that I have recently visited a vineyard in West Sussex.

It was a very fun, informative and delicious activity and I would love to share it with you!

Visit English vineyard tours

The tour itself doesn’t take much time and if you are driving somewhere on a smaller road you might notice a brown sign with grapes and the vineyards name.

The tour will most likely start with a walking trail around the vineyard with signs and information about different grape types and how they are cultivated.

English vineyard tour in Sussex

The English vineyard tours I looked at were about £25 per person and included some sort of wine tasting and food after the walk.

After we explored the main vineyards we went to walk through the woods that are currently sprinkled with Blue Bells.

Vineyard forest trail

The vineyard we have visited was an organic vineyard, meaning that the vineyard can only use Biodynamic compost.

Biodynamic compost is usually made out of Cow Horn Manure and Horn Silica, which is not vegan in anyway.

Both types of compost made by filling cow horns with either cow manure or silica and burying them under ground for several months.

Biodynamic compost

When the compost is ready it is sprayed on the plants in accordance with the biodynamic calendar.

Before we started tasting wines we were offered a tasting platter with cheese, meat, pate, tomatoes, olives, grapes and vegetables.

English vineyard food

It was also possible to get a glass of wine with the food or some other soft drinks.

We were offered 5 different types of wine to try. Of which one was sparkling, one was rose and one other was a cherry desert wine, the rest were white wines.

Frankly, from whites I only like Chablis and a few different Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc that I am used to, hence I am not a wine expert at all.

Therefore, it is really difficult for me to judge the quality of the wine we tasted.

Nonetheless, after this experience I wouldn’t mind to have a glass of English wine with my dinner next time I am at a restaurant that has English wine on the menu.

The last wine we tried was a cherry desert wine, which I really liked. It was called Seadlescomb Organic Black Cherry wine, which only costs £12.95 a bottle.

Personally, I am not a desert wine type, thus I was pleasantly surprised. If you are into sweet fruit wines you will love to try this delicious liquor.

After the wine tasting you are offered to buy any of the wines you like.

My husband and I don’t drink much and when we do we are very specific about what we want to have. Thus, we left empty handed, but our friends bought a few bottles.

I think next time I need to give someone a special and unusual gift, I will definitely consider buying a bottle of English wine or perhaps an English vineyard tour.

Living in England, visiting friends or having a business trip I strongly recommend you support English vineyards and English wine producers by at least trying a glass when you have a chance.

Alcohol lovers or not do visit English vineyards, trust me – they are worth it!

Is it wine o’clock yet?

wine o'clock postcard

Stay curious and drink responsibly!

P.S I just spoke to Kate and apparently English wine is currently a big thing in New York…I guess trend is your friend on that one.

Elina