Viticulture in Great Britain

In our new MW Perspectives essay,  explores the main challenges facing growers in Great Britain. Read an excerpt below, and find the whole thing in our MW Perspectives section.

Grapevines are not native to the British Isles, and there are no wild examples. It is claimed that the Romans introduced them, although the archaeological evidence for this is almost non-existent. After the Romans left around 400 CE, over six centuries passed before the next invaders, the Normans, landed near Hastings in 1066. We know with certainty that at this time, vineyards were planted, grapes harvested, and wine made, albeit in small quantities. However, despite these vineyards and several others that followed over the decades and centuries, none survived. Why? The climate. It was simply not warm enough to produce grapes that were sufficiently ripe, in terms of both natural sugar levels and acid levels, to make palatable wine consistently. In addition, yield levels were not high enough to make the establishment of a vineyard a commercial enterprise. Of course, the grape varieties available before the 1950s were only suitable for growing in the (much warmer) traditional winegrowing regions of the world, and without modern pesticides, growers found that keeping mildews and rots off their precious crops was an impossible task. Viticulture has now taken off in Great Britain, but significant challenges remain, tied to these initial struggles with climate.

The vine is a plant whose modus operandi of survival is to produce grapes sweet enough for birds and wild animals to put on the menu, thus spreading the seeds of future generations. In Britain, until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, neither the actual climate nor the social climate made wine production from home-grown grapes a commercially viable enterprise, despite numerous attempts. The last great experiment in viticulture—before the current revival—was by the Marquess of Bute at Castell Coch in South Wales, where between 1875 and 1920, the incredibly wealthy marquess planted (at maximum) a total of 13 acres of vines, with wine being made at Cardiff Castle. This experiment ended during the First World War, when sugar became unavailable. The marquess’s gardener, Mr. Pettigrew, said that in 45 years, the grapes only fully ripened in 7 years.

The modern revival began at the end of the Second World War, when one intrepid soul, Raymond Brock, attempting to grow non-native fruits that had stopped being imported during the war, set out to grow grapes for both the table and wine. Brock was a businessman running a firm of scientific instrument makers, and he set out to collect samples of grape varieties growing in Britain in gardens, in “vineries” (greenhouses), and against open walls. To supplement this collection, and once the war was over, Brock’s searches extended to the European mainland, where he gathered further varieties from German, French, and Swiss nurseries as well as from research establishments. He started publishing the results and by 1950 had identified two varieties he thought stood a chance of ripening in Britain: Müller-Thurgau (then known in its Swiss homeland as Riesling Sylvaner) and a French-American hybrid, Seyve Villard 5-276, now typically known as Seyval Blanc. It was these two varieties that formed the basis of most of the first few commercial vineyards to be planted in Britain. The first, Hambledon Vineyard in Hampshire, was planted in 1952 and by 1955 was harvesting its initial crop, the first English wine of the modern era. Within a few years, two more vineyards had been planted, and these three formed the testbed that persuaded others to follow.