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The United Kingdom has been contributing to the world of wines and spirits since the Roman era. The Romans had wine with them wherever they went forth and conquered, and stumbling upon ancient wine chalices are nothing new. There is evidence of a Roman era vineyard at Wollaston in the Nene Valley, England with deposits of vine pollen dating back to this time. This suggests there were attempts at grape-growing, though it’s not known if this succeeded.
The Romans were gone by the 4th century AD, and wine production was limited to Christian orders for sacramental purposes. The land was otherwise unstable due to nearly constant wars between factions such as the Angles, Saxons and Jutes. Most of the Christians who had planted small vineyards retreated to the islands, which weren’t suitable for grape-growing. By the 6th century, they returned to the mainland and vineyards were once again planted, but trade with other parts of Europe also increased. Higher quality wines could be obtained, and there was little interest in the local productions for anything other than ceremonial use.
Monastic viticulture picked up after the Battle of Hastings in 1066, when William the Conqueror led the Norman-French to defeat the Saxons, and France became a closer ally. French abbots came to the English countryside and consulted local orders on viticulture. Vineyards were established around Somerset, Gloucestshire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire and wine-making efforts stepped up.
The climate was said to be much warmer and drier during this time, and increasingly became colder and wetter. During the 1300s, trade with France, Spain and Portugal saw the import of fine wines, especially the first Ports and Madeira into England, which were preferred by the nobility over country wines. In 1536, Henry VIII, unable to obtain papal dispensation to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, broke with the Roman Catholic Church and established himself as head of the Church of England. He dissolved all the Catholic monasteries in the countryside, seized their holdings and the new owners left the sacramental vineyards to take up whisky distillation.
In the 17th century, botanist John Tradescant planted 20,000 vines on Lord Salisbury’s estate in Herefordshire. Other vineyards began to crop up along the countryside. In the 19th century, the Welsh Marquess of Bute sent envoys to France to learn proper viticulture and attempt to plan accordingly at home at Castle Coch. Several successful vintages were cultivated, and the vineyard lasted until 1911, halting with the First World War.
Peace was once again established in the 1950s. Three horticulturalist-wine enthusiasts Ray Brock, Edward Hyams, and George Ordish each set out to plant vineyards, examine British horticulture, and write books promoting local viticulture. Taking their lead, vineyards were planted throughout England and Wales, with serious efforts set forth in the 1960s and 70s.
In England, the most successful areas for viticulture have been Cornwall, Kent and Sussex to the south. Champagne varietals such as Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay fair well in the climate and soils, producing acclaimed bottlings of sparkling wines in the Methode Traditionelle. In England, Wales, and Jersey island, German varietals and hybrid grapes such as Dornfelder, Müller-Thurgau, Seyval Blanc, Rondo, Huxelrebe, Bacchus, Ortega and Optima have all been prosperous. Because the climate conditions are so similar to certain parts of Germany and Austria, wineries have been experimenting with using equivalent cool-climate viticultural methods for wines with residual sugar and late harvest dessert wines.
But wine is not the only story here. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all count as part of the United Kingdom, and of course, their contribution is whisky (spelled here without an “e”). Usquebaugh, or Aqua vitae (“water of life”) made from fermented cereals has been produced in these lands for centuries, at least since the late 1400s. Geography, climate and terroir all have the same effect on whisky as they do wine, producing whiskies with specific characteristics. The water is of particular importance, and many distilleries pride themselves on the source and freshness of the water used to make the whisky. Coastal locations often have a slightly saline aspect to the water, while inland the water can take on the fragrance of the meadow heather flowers and other environmental nuances. Producers have also been experimenting with different barrel finishes, opting for specific wine or fortified wine characteristics, sometimes aging the whisky more than once in different barrels. More than 2,500 different whiskies are now produced throughout the United Kingdom. For more information on Scotch, whisky production, and styles (such as single malts and blended Scotches), please see Scotland’s regional page
. ~Amanda Schuster
– Description from
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