There are well over 500 different vineyards currently operating in the UK. Most of them focus on Sparkling Wine production. English Sparkling wine makes up nearly 60% of all British wine production (Wine Standards official figures for 2018 – Wine GB), with some competing against French Champagne – and winning!
With the continuous rise in quality year on year, we are looking ahead at a golden age for wine production in the UK.
Many might think that wine production in the UK is a recent thing, but no, that would be a common misthought. Wine has been produced on the British Isles since the Romans invaded the territory just over 2000 years ago now, and part of what they brought with them, apart from their dedicated construction of straight roads and some rather lovely baths (located in Bath), was the knowledge of wine production.
Fast forward to 1066 and we get to the start of the Norman occupation of England. The Normans (like the Romans) brought many things with them from mainland Europe, including their love of wine. It was during this time that monasteries started cropping up throughout England & Wales and it was the monks who made most of the wines during the Dark Ages. Over 40 vineyards were mentioned in the 1086 Doomsday Book.
The Black Death arrived on the shores of England around 1340, and with nearly two thirds of the population in Europe dead from the pandemic, a number of vineyards were ploughed up due to shortage of labour. In 1538 Henry VIII took all of the wealth from the monasteries – which meant that wine production effectively came to a halt in Britain.
Fun-fact: Sir Kenelm Digby managed to develop and create a brand-new type of bottle in the 1630’s, that would ultimately become the prototype for the modern wine bottles we all know. This bottle was very different to what had been seen before – it was global in shape, with a long neck and with coloured glass to protect the wine from sunlight.
The 19th century saw the Napoleonic Wars, which effectively stopped all wine trade from France to Britain. As a result, a few country houses started growing vines again in their greenhouses, but not on any large scale.
In the early 20th century, the Marquess of Bute planted vines at Castell Coch in South Wales – about 63,000 vines in total. Both the World Wars stopped wine production again.
It was only in 1955, when Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones planted a vineyard at Hambledon in Hampshire and began selling wines, that England’s first commercial vineyard came into being.
This is a very exciting time for the UK wine industry, with an increasing number of producers and expanding vineyard area. British wines are attracting international attention, sweeping awards, with many champagne houses (such as Taittinger and Pommery) having even bought vineyards in the south of England.
Due to the cold climate and significant disease pressure as a result of the very British humidity, the England has been a perfect testbed for hybrid resistant varieties.
Climate change and better viticultural practices have however made it easier to farm traditional Champagne varieties. And with a terroir similar to that of Champagne it would be a missed opportunity not to!
White – Bacchus, Chardonnay, Ortega, Seyval Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc
Main Regions to know
Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire,
Bedfordshire & Hertfordshire
Devon, Cornwall & Somerset, Gloucestershire,
Worcestershire & Herefordshire
Surrey, West Sussex, East Sussex & Kent
Dorset, Wiltshire & Hampshire
Classification & Labelling
The UK doesn’t (yet) have a classification system as such, like they do in say France or Spain.
There is however something called The Great British Classic Method. Essentially this is the production method known as ‘Traditional’. The wines go through a second fermentation in bottle, spend time on the lees (dead yeasts) before being disgorged, receive a dosage and then released to market. The process is identical to that of Champagne, and it’s widely acknowledged that English Sparkling Wine has just as much quality as the iconic French fizz – if not better in some cases.
The Great British Classic Method. has been designated a PDO (Protected Designated of Origin) and producers can apply for its stamp, provided they follow the criteria below:
– Grapes grown in England & Wales
– Second fermentation in bottle
– Aged on lees before release
This is a mark of quality and commitment to ensure that what the producer says on the label is in the bottle.
Another movement that has come about recently is the Sustainable Wines of Great Britain. Many wineries are doing their bit to reduce their carbon footprint and produce wines of incredible quality and in a more sustainable way.
In order to achieve this accolade, the wineries must follow the following guidelines, and go through a process of auditing.
– Protect vineyard soils, conserve the environment, and promote biodiversity.
– Manage vineyards sustainably, with minimal pesticide and fertiliser inputs.
– Reduce water and non-renewable energy consumption and minimise carbon footprint.
For more info check Sustainability Certification Mark – WINEGB
Country overview by
Charles Carron Brown
Sommelier at Henrock by Simon Rogan and editor of thenaturalsommelier.com
With information and data from
‘UK Vineyards Guide 2010’ by Stephen Skelton MW
‘English Wine, From Still to Sparkling – The Newest New World Wine Country’ by Oz Clarke
‘Grape Britain, A Tour of Britain’s Vineyards’ by David Harvey