The United Kingdom is a major consumer of wine, but a minor though growing producer. Wine production in the UK has historically been perceived as less than ideal due to the cold climate, but warmer summers have played a role in increasing investment and sale of wines. Most is English sparkling wine, from vineyards across Southern England and Wales where the climate is warmer than that of northern areas. Vineyards are becoming more commonplace in counties such as Essex, Sussex and Kent, where more varieties of wine can be produced due to the drier and warmer climate.
The chalk limestone soils of Sussex, Kent and other portions of southern England are suitable for growing the grapes used to produce sparkling wine, and particularly on south-facing slopes, the climate, at least in recent years, is warm enough. At the last official count, the Wine Standards Board reported that there were just over 450 vineyards producing wine throughout England. The largest of these is Chapel Down in Kent, as of mid-2018 when they became the largest winery and vineyard in England. "English wine" is also a common generic term used in India meaning "Western spirits". The most northerly commercially producing vineyard is in Leeds, Yorkshire.
Welsh vineyards were first planted by Romans, and in the 1970s, modern vineyards were planted in South Wales with the intention of creating Welsh wine. Despite a slow start, by 2005 Wales had 20 vineyards, producing 100,000 bottles a year, primarily white wines, but also a few reds. According to the Wine Standards Board, by September 2015, there were 22 operational vineyards in Wales.
In 2015 Scotland's first home-grown wine was produced by Christopher Trotter, in Fife at a vineyard started in 2012. One merchant described it as sherry-like with "nutty" notes, and thought that it might complement a "very strong cheese".
The term British wine is used to describe a drink made in Britain by the fermentation of grape (or any other fruit) juice or concentrate originating from anywhere in the world. It cannot be used for wine in the legal sense, which must be produced from freshly pressed grapes. The most common style is a medium or sweet high-strength wine that is similar to sherry, and was formerly known as British Sherry.
The Romans introduced winemaking to England, in a period with a relatively warm climate. Their vineyards were as far north as Northamptonshire and Lincolnshire, with others in Buckinghamshire and Cambridgeshire, and probably many other sites. The wines were most likely fruity and sweet, fermented with added honey, and drunk within six months. Winemaking continued at least down to the time of the Normans, with over 40 vineyards in England mentioned in the Domesday Book; much of it was communion wine for the Eucharist.
From the Middle Ages, the English market was the main customer of clarets from Bordeaux, France, helped by the Plantagenet kingdom, which included England and large provinces in France. When Henry VIII was crowned in 1509, 139 vineyards were recorded, 11 of which produced wine for the royal household. In the early 16th century, wine was expensive for most commoners, therefore an Act from 1536 decreed that wine imported from France would have a price ceiling, with those imported from Greece and especially Spain with an even higher maximum selling price, most likely due to its better perceived quality.
In the 18th century, the Methuen Treaty of 1703 imposed high duties on French wine. This led to the English becoming a main consumer of sweet fortified wines like sherry, port wine, and Madeira wine from Spain and Portugal. Fortified wine became popular because unlike regular wine, it did not spoil after the long journey from Portugal to England.
Just as English wine began to recover from the epidemics of phylloxera and powdery mildew in the mid-19th century, brought back by the explorers of New America, commercial English wine was dealt a heavy blow. In 1860 the government, under Lord Palmerston (Liberal), supported free trade and drastically cut the tax on imported wines from 1 shilling to twopence, a decrease of 83%. English wine was therefore outcompeted by superior foreign products that could be sold at a lower cost to the customer.
The twilight of British winemaking tradition was brought to an end with the onset of the First World War, as the need for crops and food, and the rationing of sugar, took priority over wine production. For the first time in 2000 years, English wines were no longer being produced in Britain.
In 1936, George Ordish planted vines in Wessex and the South of England. With many individuals keen to produce their own wines from home, and with equipment and methods becoming available, the government outlawed the production of homemade alcohol at the beginning of the 1960s, only to retract the law after five years as the homebrew fashion escalated considerably.
Other small commercial vineyards in Britain followed in the 1960s with growers such as Joy and Trevor Bates in Kent, Norman Cowderoy in West Sussex, Nigel Godden in Somerset, Gillian Pearkes in Devon and Philip Tyson-Woodcock in East Sussex. Wales also had George Jones, Lewis Mathias and Margaret Gore-Browne.
Viticulture was revived in the 1970s onwards, possibly helped by a rising local temperature due to global warming, making many parts of Hampshire, Sussex, Kent, Essex, Suffolk, Berkshire and Cambridgeshire dry and hot enough to grow grapes of high quality. The first English wines were influenced by the sweet German wines like Liebfraumilch and Hock that were popular in the 1970s and were blended white and red sweet wines, called "cream wine" (creams). The largest vineyard in England is Denbies Wine Estate in Surrey, which has 265 acres (1.07 km2) under vines.
From a peak of over 400 vineyards in the late 1980s, by 2000 one third of these had given up, but plantings have since accelerated, helped by the growing success of English sparkling wines. In 2004, a panel judging European sparkling wines awarded most of the top ten positions to English wines – the remaining positions going to French Champagnes. Similar results have encouraged an explosion of sparkling wine plantings. English still wines too have begun to pick up awards at big wine competitions, notably Decanter, and the IWSC.
Winemaking has spread from the South East and South West and also to the Midlands and North of England, with Yorkshire, Shropshire, Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Lancashire boasting at least one vineyard each as of 2007.
Significant plantings have been made across the south of the country, with a number of farmers contract growing vines for major English producers. Farmers are looking at the potential benefits of growing vines, as the return per tonne for grapes over more traditional crops is substantial. A field of wheat might yield 3 tonnes per acre at around £120 per tonne. Growing grapes could yield 3 to 4 tonnes per acre at around £950 to £1100 per tonne. One concern is that growers need to invest money for no initial return, as crops tend to come in the third or fourth year. Another concern is that grape production in the climate is highly variable: "In England, it is only in about 2 years in every 10 that grape production will be really good, 4 years will be average and 4 years poor or terrible – largely due to weather and/or disease exacerbated by weather." However English vineyards share in common European weather patterns, so 2006 was a bumper year, 2007 saw ripe grapes but low volumes, 2008 was very poor, but both 2009 and 2010 were good years. 2011 was average, 2012 dreadful, and 2013 good. Total British cereal production is not so variable.
Another explanation for the growth in viticulture in the UK is the local food movement, and the desire by consumers to cut the amount of food miles connected with the produce that they buy, including locally produced wine.
English wine was given added prestige when the Duchess of Cornwall became the new President of the United Kingdom Vineyards Association on 25 July 2011. In June 2012 there was also a boost for English wine during the celebration of the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II.
According to the English Wine Producers over 1300 ha had been planted by 2009, and with further major plantings of sparkling wine varieties the total was likely to be in excess of 1500 ha by 2012. As of 2004, Seyval blanc was the most grown variety, with Reichensteiner next, with Müller-Thurgau and then Bacchus following closely behind. However, Müller-Thurgau, which was one of the first to be grown during the 20th century renaissance (see below), has recently lost favour, dropping from 134.64 ha (1st) in 1996 to 81.1 ha (3rd) in 2004. Other widely grown varieties of white grape include Chardonnay, Madeleine Angevine, Schönburger, Huxelrebe and Ortega. Red varieties include Dornfelder, Pinot Meunier and Pinot noir, and a few others, but red grapes tend to be grown less often, with 20,184 hL of white wine and only 5,083 hL of red wine made in 2006.
Most of the wine consumed in Britain is imported from other countries, though consumption of English wine is increasing. Production doubled from 1.34 million bottles to 3.17 million from 2008 to 2009, and in 2010 4 million bottles of English wine were produced. By 2018 production had risen to 15.6 million bottles.
Protected Denomination of Origin (PDO) is the top category official category of wine in the UK. PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) is next and then varietal wine. PDO and PGI wines must have a full post bottling analysis and pass a tasting panel (or win an award at a recognised competition). These are established via the UK Vineyards Association (UKVA) and the UK Government's Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).
English sparkling wines are made from grapes grown close to the limit for viticulture. All vineyards are positioned at above 49.9 degrees north leading to long daylight hours in the growing season. The climate is temperate with few summer days above 30 °C. The diurnal temperature range is high.
These wines are made from the classic sparkling wine grape varieties. In England these varieties reach full phenolic ripeness at moderate sugar levels and with high acid levels. Wines from this PDO are made entirely from must containing only natural acid. These wines exhibit stronger aromatic flavours of the underlying grape varieties than wines from the same varieties grown at warmer latitudes.
The northerly latitude of the vineyards in this PDO creates the long growing season and long daylight hours that are key to the development of strong aromatic flavours. The moderate temperatures lead to the high acidity and low pH which is the backbone of fine sparkling wines.
English sparkling wines are made from the following vine varieties:
Where the conditions for the use of the terms "bottle-fermented", "traditional method" or "bottle fermented by the traditional method" have been met, the term "traditional" can be used on the label.
southern England has become a source of excellent sparkling wines, made in the illustrious mode of Champagne.