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English wine: nothing to be sniffed at?

Who is responsible for the death of English wine?

27.10.2013 - 20:42

Two royal weddings ended with a funeral: the sad demise of English wine. Politics also had a hand in it! 

A few years ago, a winery in England captured first prize in an international competition for its “Champagne”. The local media hailed the award as a sign of the English wine industry’s recovery.   Even though it might sound odd to many people today, England had a thriving wine industry in medieval times. The British even insist they were the first to discover Champagne - a sparkling wine that was made famous by its namesake region in France. What is more, the British today are proud of the fact that the best French wine and the best French cuisine can actually be found in London.

But England’s winemaking tradition ended when King Henry VIII clashed with the Roman Catholic Church (he is known for his role in the separation of the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church). 

In fact, the production of wine in England started in Roman times. Evangelism and the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 led the systematic production.

The Normans were ordinal and methodical, keeping records of nearly everything. Thanks to these records, plenty of useful information about the Middle Ages is known to us today. From the Normans we have learned about the systematic production of wine in southern England. 

Especially favourable weather conditions during the Middle Ages helped the English maintain and develop viticulture practices. All this information is listed in the famous Doomsday Book, which was the ledger recording of the large inventory ordered by William the Conqueror, King of England and Duke of Normandy, in 1085. From this, we have learned about the existence of more than 40 wine-producing regions, most of which are located to the west of London.

The nobles and Catholic monasteries undertook the development of wine production. Since the year 1000, there was a rapid increase in the population across Europe. Wine, because it was necessary for communion was protected by the Church. As a dietary supplement, it was marketed everywhere in England.

But a number of factors determined the fate and sour demise of English wine. One is in the mid-12th century, when King Henry II married Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was 13 years his senior. Eleanor’s Aquitaine included Bordeaux (a region famous for the quality and quantity of wines since the time of the Romans), which became an English dominion. Not only did this marriage secure for England political and diplomatic benefits, it also meant plenty of cheap wine imported duty-free. This was a serious blow to the English wines. Changes in the weather also played a role. Many historians argue that when the warm Gulf Stream changed course in 1350, viticulture was affected.  But perhaps this was not so, considering there were as many as 140 large vineyards in England during the reign of King Henry VIII. Most of them belonged to the throne and the nobles and the main production of wine was made by the monasteries. 

But then, in the mid-16th century, King Henry II decided to remarry and the Pope annulled his marriage with Eleanor of Aquitaine. Then, as we know, the Anglican Church was founded and King Henry II ended up marrying a total of six times. The first year of the conflict with the Roman Catholic Church, everything that reminded of the Church of Rome was persecuted. The monasteries were closed - many were looted, and their vineyards torched. When they opened again shortly after, the damage was so great it was unprofitable to rebuild their monastic vineyards.

In the years that followed, the economic policy prevented at every opportunity the resurgence of English wine. When, for example, England lost the Aquitaine and duties on French wine had increased, wine was imported from Portugal’s Madeira and from Spain. 

But the people of England longed to revive their tradition of winemaking. And so, Champagne was invented by the English in 1676, some 30 years before the French. 

Leading up to this, a Royal Decree in 1615 replaced wood with coal for fuel. This allowed the production of resistant glass bottles, which in turn made possible the creation of English Champagne.  After the Second World War, and particularly since 1952, the English launched a more concerted and persistent production effort. 

In 2004, English Champagne won an international competition beating the French. Since then, the small producers in South England are hopeful about the future. Even the weather conditions are on their side, as the climate is changing and becoming warmer.

Although it is still relatively expensive for broad consumption, there are signs that English wine has a future once again.

Epicure