Raise a glass to Essex wine
PUBLISHED: 20:23 02 April 2015 | UPDATED: 20:23 02 April 2015
Wine production in England has seen a renaissance in recent years and Essex has been very much at the heart of it. Darius Law explains more
A little over two decades ago barely anyone would have taken you seriously if you were to suggest England could produce internationally award-winning wine. But times have changed.
It’s generally agreed that the Romans introduced the vine to Britain. It has also been inferred that the climate in Britain was warmer back then. Archaeological investigations have uncovered evidence to suggest that vineyards were established on a commercial scale during the Roman occupation. Initial surveys at a 35-hectare Romano-British site in the Nene Valley revealed deposits of grape vine pollen dating from this time.
As the Romans began to leave at the end of the fourth century, Christianity became more widespread and wine drinking, playing as it did an important part in Christian ceremonies, was more accepted. We can’t be certain whether this was mostly local or imported wine, but if there were vineyards, then they were undoubtedly attached to religious institutions such as monasteries. The Dark Ages, which followed the Romans, destroyed much of the limited civilisation that the Romans had established during their 300 years of occupation. Warring tribes neither had the time nor the inclination to settle down and set up vineyards and whatever vines were left would have became neglected.
King Alfred, who defeated the Danes in the late ninth century, helped re-establish the Christian religion and, in doing so, encouraged the revival of viticulture. Documentary evidence from that time indicates that there were vineyards attached to monasteries, particularly in the West Country and central south regions. 1066 marked the start of an era of viticultural activity that would not be matched until the current revival. William the Conqueror brought French abbots and their monks who were experienced in wine production; along with soldiers and courtiers for whom wine was a daily requirement. In fact, the Domesday Book records vineyards in 42 definite locations.
Britain’s wine production took a set back with the arrival of The Black Death in 1348, but it was the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536 which is often cited as being the single event that destroyed winegrowing and winemaking in England. The new landowners who had been handed these religious assets proved reluctant to indulge in viticulture. It is also said that the British climate underwent some change at this time, becoming generally wetter, with cooler summers and milder winters, leading to less ripe grapes and more fungal diseases; both of which would have made commercial wine production problematic.
There are records of some vineyards in the 17th century. The great botanist John Tradescant planted 20,000 vines on his employer Lord Salisbury’s estate in Hertfordshire and Charles II’s gardener also planted vines at the Royal Garden in St James’s. The last great experiment into commercial viticulture — that is before the start of the modern revival — was that of Lord Bute, a wealthy landowner and industrialist. In 1873 he sent his gardener on a fact-finding mission to France. Vines were soon ordered and eventually his vineyard covered 11 acres. If it wasn’t for World War I, these vines might have survived until this day. From the 1950s, vineyards spread across the country, with new sites, training and pruning systems and, above all, grape varieties introduced. The development of the industry had been reborn once again.
The production of bottle-fermented sparkling wine is one of the major growth areas in UK wineries. Recently, vineyards such as Nyetimber and RidgeView Wine Estate, both in West Sussex, have been planted solely with grape varieties which are used to make Champagne (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier). The quality of the wines and their success in recent years in both national and international competitions and tastings has proven that a world class product can be produced in the UK. Other styles of English sparkling wines are also achieving success — from Cornwall to Kent and from Sussex to Suffolk.
And, of course, Essex has also seen a growth in the number of successful and award-winning vineyards. Nestled three miles north of historic Roman Colchester in 40 acres of glorious rolling English countryside on the edge of the Stour Valley, is the Dedham Vale Vineyard. The winery produces white, red, rose and sparkling wines, as well as fruit liqueurs and traditional cider. It is an estate with a difference, offering strolls through wildflower meadows, ancient hedgerows, lakes and woodland, nurturing a great variety of wildlife including kingfishers, doves and pheasants.
It is the vines though, which make this small patch of land stand out from the typical East Anglian yellow fields of rapeseed oil, wheat and barley. Dedham Vale Vineyard wine maker, Ben Bunting, and his son Tom are building on the early success of the vineyard, originally planted 25 years ago by International Wine Judge and renowned viticulturist, Mary Mudd. Over the next few years the plan is to double the acreage under cultivation and continue to serve the ever-growing demands for English wine. .
Sustainability and energy efficiency is also a priority for the Bunting family, with the vineyard itself boasting it’s own wind-powered electricity generator. Netting and pesticides aren’t used to scare away the birds as Tilly the family dog acts as a deterrent. Much like any crop, viticulture comes with several risks. Too much heat can literally fry the grapes while too little heat will prevent maturation and affect the overall sugar levels and acidity of the grapes, as well as the yield itself.
The UK wine industry as a whole is modernising and producing wines that are competitive in both style and price. One growth area is tourism as vineyards open their doors to visitors, allowing visitors to see how wine is grown and made, and perhaps buy their wine direct. There has also been increasing collaboration with regional food, which has been experiencing a resurgence of interest from an ever-increasing consumer demand for ‘local’ provenance.
As we approach the 2,000 year anniversary of the Roman invasion of Britain, it looks almost certain that the English wine industry is here to stay this time. So the next time you celebrate, forget ordering a bottle of French Champagne, ask for a bottle of English fizz instead. It was us, afterall, who invented the glass bottles for the French.