22 March 2021

Bronwen Batey  spoke about British wine. She was formerly the Marketing Director of the Marylebone Hotel and had helped the Club in various ways.   She had changed vocation and spent the last year studying wine at the World Spirits Education Trust in London, and had helped with a wine harvest in West Sussex.

Bronwen told us about the history of wine in the UK, starting with the Romans (what doesn't?), up to the present day. 

Wine had been made in the UK for 2,000 years (i.e. the Romans), but due to our 'Goldilocks' weather, and various annoying invasions, British wine has had some rocky history.  Along with a few other useful items, the Romans brought vines with them when they arrived around AD 43 - the climate was warmer then.  The wine at that time would have tasted quite different from now - very acidic, so would have been sweetened with honey - and as they drank it with every meal, definitely diluted!

From the fall of the Roman Empire to 1066 (and all that), the climate had cooled but the various invasions hadn't - undoing much of the Romans' 'civilised' lifestyle, including wine drinking.  But by the 6th century, Christianity had spread, and wine-making revived, although better-quality continental wines were preferred by those who could afford it.  Of course, when the Vikings invaded, they destroyed many monasteries, and with them, vineyards and wine-making skills.

William the Conqueror loved wine though, so when he invaded, wine-making again revived; two decades later, the Domesday Book records vineyards in 42 locations across the UK.  Most of these were about an acre in size, but only 12 attached to monasteries, and the rest owned by wealthy nobles and landowners growing grapes for their own consumption.

As the grapes were harvested in Sept./Oct. and there was no refrigeration or preservatives, the wines only lasted a few months and were considered winter drinks.  Hence, no-one drank wine in the summer!

The 12th and 13th centuries were considered the golden age of English viticulture - partly due to warmer summers having returned from about the 11th century.

After Henry II married Eleanor of Aquitaine (mid 12th century) - most of S.W. France, including Bordeaux, had become part of the English Crown, increasing wine imports. Thus started the creation of the commercial viniculture industry of France - the money from the British crown supporting Bordeaux and the growth of their vines.  Britain was renowned for its wine expertise, and had the ports to bring in the wine.

With the 'Little Ice Age' and Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries (and the loss of Bordeaux), viniculture declined in the country.  By the 1700-1800s, tastes were changing, with other drinks coming in, such as chocolate and tea.

By the 20th century, agriculturists and scientists experimented with German varieties of grape, which survived in cooler weather, to see if they could grow here.  The first commercial - family-run - vineyard was set up in Hambledon in the 1950s - just one acre - using the German grape varieties.

Bronwen asked who really created champagne?  Louis XIV loved wine made from champagne grapes but hated the fizzy froth caused by fermentation, which was still occurring on the wine.  So he sent this 'inferior' wine to the UK.  As we had started using coal, with higher temperatures, we could make thicker glass bottles that could withstand the greater pressure from the frothiness.  Scientist Christopher Merrett adapted the cider-making example for grapes.  Dom Perignon, 30 years later, also experimented, perfecting the technique - with the well-known result.  But we started it (even though we were using French grapes)!

The chalk soil in England is similar to that of Champagne, and with global warming, we are now producing wines similar to those of France and Germany, with no growing restrictions.  In fact, big French champagne houses are buying land here, as it is getting too warm there to make champagne!

In a 2018 blind taste test by international experts, English sparkling wines scored higher than French champagnes (just saying ...).  Although English sparkling wines go through the same process as French champagne, the price is easier to digest.

Bronwen told us there were some 770 vineyards here with nearly 200 wineries - predicted to produce 30 million bottles of wine in 2021, 72% of which will be sparkling, and only 10% of which will be exported, mainly to Scandinavia and the USA.

A number of comments and questions followed, after which Bronwen was thanked Bronwen for her excellent talk.