There is certainly no shortage of endlessly fascinating topics automatically associated with the culture of the UK – a rich, regal history, iconic literature, fine gardens, impressive architecture…the list goes on. But for most people, however, wine rarely make the list. Considering that the British have long been avid wine drinkers for centuries – and the UK currently ranks 6th in the world for wine consumption – this dismissal is something of a mystery. Add in the fact that winemaking in the region dates as far back as the Roman Conquest. Luckily, whether it is due to a newfound appreciation for winemaking, the effects of global warming, or simply a case of history repeating itself, winemaking is experiencing a spirited comeback in the United Kingdom, and the good news is that the rest of the world is taking notice.
Like most European countries, the UK was first introduced to the vine by the Romans. Along with their plantings, these new
Due to its notoriously cool and rainy climate, England’s modern wine regions are located across the country’s southern border, from Cornwall to Kent, where the weather is a bit warmer and drier. The three most notable regions are Sussex, Kent and Surrey. As one of the brightest and sunniest spots in the country, Sussex offers the driest environment of the three, although vintners must still be attentive to frigid temperatures and potential rot due to periodic bouts with excessive rain. The region itself is divided into two separate counties – West Sussex and East Sussex – with both actively developing larger and larger vineyards. The region’s South Downs, a range of chalky hills that extend across the southeastern counties, are representative of the landscape as a whole. Soils predominantly comprised of limestone chalk are standard fare in Sussex, and much like the soil in France’s Champagne region, foster an ideal environment for the kinds of varietals used for sparkling wine production, one of England’s most accomplished exports which, with other still whites, accounts for over 80% of the country’s total production. These varietals include Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier for sparkling wines as well as Bacchus, a highly aromatic German crossing of Silvaner x Riesling and Muller-Thurgaü.
East of Sussex is Kent, one of England’s most identifiable region’s due to the emblematic and stunning White Cliffs of Dover. Situated directly across the English Channel from Calais, this coastal region enjoys a climate similar to Sussex, making successful wine growing possible. Kent’s optimal vineyards are those that face towards the south, as they receive the most consistent warmth and sunlight. The area’s soils are also predominantly limestone. The main varietals grown in Kent are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for sparkling wine production as well as Bacchus and Ortega, another German crossing known for its fruity overtones. Ortega is generally reserved for sweet wines. All of Kent’s offerings have a similar mineral quality to those from Sussex, again as a result of the soil; however, many of the region’s vineyards produce grapes with a more noticeable hint of gentle apples and pears, lending them a pleasant acidity. Last, it must be noted that in 2020, French Champagne house Taittinger announced that it will be building an expansive winery in Kent with the intention of producing close to 400,000 bottles of sparkling wine annually. While renowned English producer Nyetimber already has three sites in the region, this is the first full-cycle collaboration with an elite, top-tier French house. Taittinger already purchased 550 acres of land in 2015 and first planted Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier in 2017; under this new agreement, the vineyard is preparing for its inaugural release in 2024. Taittinger’s decision to take these steps further acknowledges England’s growing reputation as a formidable presence in the sparkling wine production arena.
England’s third most notable wine region is Surrey. With similar soil, topography and climate to both Kent and Sussex, it is no surprise that Pommery, another elite Champagne house, has established a partnership with Surrey’s Hattingley Valley to produce sparkling wines. Along with this honor, Surrey is also the site of Denbie Estate, England’s largest wine producer, and it largest vineyard, Denbie’s Vineyard.
Although England is leading the pack in wine production in the UK, Wales and Scotland are also attempting to contribute to its wine revival. Like England, Wales was introduced to viticulture by the Romans; however, the country never displayed the same level of subsequent interest in wine farming. It wasn’t until the latter 19th century that Wales decided to create a genuinely Welsh wine. Locals with a background in viticulture began planting vineyards, and by the early 2000s, had launched over 20 local vineyards yielding a minimum of 100,000 bottles annually. Wales generally produces white wines, but has begun experimenting with reds as well. Scotland, on the other hand, has had less luck than Wales, but continues its efforts. The most well-known attempts at modern winemaking have been made by Christopher Trotter, a local chef who was determined to start a winery. He chose a site in the Fife region of Edinburgh and planted hybrids which could survive the country’s climate, and in 2015, released his first vintage. While deemed undrinkable, it nonetheless proved to Trotter than grapes can indeed grow amidst the severe Scottish climate. As the saying goes, hope springs eternal. Finally, it is worth mentioning that “British wine” is not the same as “English wine.” The former is a sweet, value-driven drink made from imported grape concentrates, and has a flavor more akin to an average sherry or port.
The future of winemaking in the UK looks, well, sparkling! England’s sparkling wines, all produced using the methodé traditionelle, continue to garner attention, and the many accolades and international awards they have earned over recent years have inspired a global excitement that is increasing exponentially. The country’s success has also sparked an interest among producers to tap their creativity and expand their viticulture horizons. Time will tell what these producers will bring to the table next, but the journey is certain to be an interesting one.