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Wines of England
Domesday & Middle Ages
Eighteenth & nineteenth century experimenters
Twentieth century gap
A mature industry?
An un-level playing field?
Re-positioning English wine
A peculiarly "British" confusion
Less means better?
A reading list
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 is 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 lesser grown, with 20184 hL of white wine and only 5083 hL of red wine made in 2006.
The Main Grape Varieties Growing In The UK
Valued for its low acidity and produces exciting and long lasting wines if yields are kept low. It adds ‘body’ to blended wines. Also grown in Alsace, where it is usually blended into ‘Edelzwicker’, and found in Luxembourg, Burgundy, Canada, New Zealand and USA. As a neutral Pinot Blanc/Chardonnay style variety it is also useful for barrel ageing or as a sparkling wine base.
(Silvaner x Riesling) x Müller-Thurgau
Its grapes have a strong and distinctive aromatic flavour, with high sugar content. It is regularly made into a single varietal wine and although common in Germany it is also very successful in this country. Some wines produced from this grape develop good New World Sauvignon Blanc characters. When riper, tends towards Sancerre. Well made Bacchus wines age well and develop interesting flavours. This is one of the UK’s better varieties, capable of producing world-class wines. Third most widely planted variety in UK (2003).
Grown largely as a fundamental ingredient of the finest sparkling wines, with plantings on the increase, along with Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, for production of sparkling wine. There also occasionally some gems when produced into still wine.
Pinot Blanc x Müller-Thurgau
Not extensively planted in this country but seems to blend well with Müller-Thurgau. It develops good must weight and, in Germany, can qualify for ‘spätlese’ status. Produces wines that are very fruity with crisp acidity.
Chasselas x Courtillier Musqué
Bred in 1927 in Germany. Has a rather ‘muscat’ style and is a good cropper with good sugar levels. It needs careful management and can be used for dessert wines because of its susceptibility to ‘noble rot’. It has a high natural acidity and strong aromas of elderflowers, producing very fruity wines that age well.
Trollinger (Black Hamburg) x Riesling
Bred in 1929, this is a very successful grape that ripens reliably and produces excellent fruit. It has a style similar to Riesling and is popular in Germany. It may well have a good future in England. A variant, ‘Kernling’ ripens earlier than Kerner but produces virtually identical grapes, with wines that are fruity in a steely, Riesling style.
Madeleine Angevine (or Madeleine x Angevine 7672)
Designed for northern planting, it flowers late is an early, reliable cropper. It is useful for blending since it ages well and its relative low acidity will blend well with higher acid varieties. On its own it produces wines that are light and fruity with a pronounced muscatty bouquet.
Müller-Thurgau (also known as Rivaner)
Uncertain parentage, though now generally thought to be Riesling x Riesling
Bred in 1882. The main grape in Liebfraumilch, and was used in Germany to restore the fortunes of their vineyards after the war but is now seen as bland. This grape was among the first planted in the U.K when grape growing resumed and was the single most widely grown variety for many years. It is now less popular being seen as a producer of unstylish wines. It is popular in central and eastern Europe. A vigorous early ripening variety, but can be a poor cropper.
(Silvaner x Riesling) x Müller-Thurgau
First registered in the early 1970’s. An early ripening variety that achieves high must weights, and therefore suitable for ‘late harvest’ wines.
Hybrid. Optima x Seyve Villard 12-375 (Villard Blanc)
Crossing in Germany first registered in 1984. One of a new generation of hybrid varieties bred both for wine quality and disease resistance. Being a recent introduction to the UK it is currently too early to tell whether it has a future. Early reports are encouraging and wines can be fruity and quite aromatic. The increase in area shows that it is achieving some limited popularity. One to watch with interest.
Müller-Thurgau x Siegerrebe
First introduced to the UK in 1971. This vine suits our climate, although is prone to disease, and is planted widely. It produces very full flavours and high natural sugars and has been used for late harvest wines. When ripe it produces wines that are rich and zesty with good balance. Good for blending with more neutral varieties.
Hybrid. Bacchus x Seyve Villard 12-375 (Villard Blanc)
A recent cross and one of a new generation of hybrid varieties bred for quality and disease resistance. Currently planted in a few vineyards, but one to watch. Wines from Phoenix are also quite Bacchus-like, sometimes Sauvignon Blanc in character.
This is a mutation of Pinot Gris (see below). There are various strains of this grape. The wine has a strong nose and, where planted, seems to ripen its fruit well and produces wine with good and full fruit flavours and crisp acidity. It crops heavily in most years. Can produce a style similar to Chardonnay.
Widely grown in France, where its main home is Alsace and known there as Tokay Pinot Gris. It is also grown in Germany, Italy and Switzerland and known by various names including Rülander, Malvoisie and Pinot Beurot. It is not widely planted in the UK, and does not produce such exceptional flavours as found in other countries.
Müller-Thurgau x (Madeleine Angevine x Calabreser Fröhlich)
A popular variety in the UK – currently the second most widely grown variety after Seyval Blanc (2002). It ripens early and performs reliably, and is capable of producing large crops of relatively neutral grapes, high in natural sugars. It is reliable but a little bland and is often used for blending in both still and sparkling wines, having good sugar levels.
Luglienca Bianca x Early Gamay
Proves itself capable of good yields, ripens early with good sugars and relatively low acids – in short an ideal candidate for our climate! Wine quality can be excellent.
Rivaner Another name for Müller-Thurgau (see above)
Rülander The German name for Pinot Gris.
Pinot Noir x (Chasselas Rosé x Muscat Hamburg)
This grape is very successful in the UK, producing white wines with low acidity but high sugar levels and good Muscat tones (some resembling a less powerful version of Gewürztraminer). When fully ripe it has a pink tinge. Its wines are distinctive, full-bodied and delicately flavoured.
Seibel 5656 x Seibel 4986
Developed in the 1920’s in France. Now the most widely grown variety in the UK (2002). It crops heavily in this country, even producing good crops in cooler years, and has effective disease resistance. It is a good ‘all rounder’ - often used for blending, and is well suited to oak aging and used for still or sparkling wines. Single varietal wines offer crisp acidity, with quite neutral flavours.
A small berried and intensely aromatic variety. One of its parents was the famously spicy Gewürztraminer grape. It ripens sometimes to excessive levels and has a very dominating flavour. It is often used to bolster blended wines and a few growers use it as a varietal in its own right – some for late harvest and dessert wines.
Müller-Thurgau x Gewürztraminer
This crossing was developed in 1932. It is not widely planted. An early ripening variety that does not carry a heavy crop and produces quite strong, spicey flavours. It has low disease resistance.
Medieval warmth and English wine
Never let it be said that we at RealClimate don’t work for our readers. Since a commenter mentioned the medieval vineyards in England, I’ve been engaged on a quixotic quest to discover the truth about the oft-cited, but seldom thought through, claim that the existence of said vineyards a thousand years ago implies that a ‘Medieval Warm Period‘ was obviously warmer than the current climate (and by implication that human-caused global warming is not occuring). This claim comes up pretty frequently, and examples come from many of the usual suspects e.g. Singer (2005), and Baliunas (in 2003). The basic idea is that i) vineyards are a good proxy for temperature, ii) there were vineyards in England in medieval times, iii) everyone knows you don’t get English wine these days, iv) therefore England was warmer back then, and v) therefore increasing greenhouse gases have no radiative effect. I’ll examine each of these propositions in turn (but I’ll admit the logic of the last step escapes me). I’ll use two principle sources, the excellent (and cheap) “Winelands of Britain” by geologist Richard C. Selley and the website of the English Wine Producers.
Are vineyards a good temperature proxy? While climate clearly does impact viticulture through the the amount of sunshine, rainfall amounts, the number of frost free days in the spring and fall, etc., there a number of confounding factors that make it less than ideal as a long term proxy. These range from changing agricultural practices, changing grape varieties, changing social factors and the wider trade environment. For instance, much early winemaking in England was conducted in Benedictine monasteries for religious purposes – changing rites and the treatment of the monasteries by the crown (Henry VIII in particular) clearly impacted wine production there. Societal factors range from the devastating (the Black Death) to the trivial (working class preferences for beer over wine). The wider trade environment is also a big factor i.e. how easy was it to get better, cheaper wine from the continent? The marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine and the English King in 1152 apparently allowed better access to the vineyards of Bordeaux, and however good medieval English wine was, it probably wasn’t a match for that!
However, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that climate is actually the dominant control – so what does the history of English vineyards show?
The earliest documentation that is better than anecdotal is from the Domesday Book (1087) – an early census that the new Norman king commissioned to assess his new English dominions, including the size of farms, population etc. Being relatively ‘frenchified’, the Normans (who had originally come from Viking stock) were quite keen on wine drinking (rather than mead or ale) and so made special note of existing vineyards and where the many new vines were being planted. Sources differ a little on how many vineyards are included in the book: Selley quotes Unwin (J. Wine Research, 1990 (subscription)) who records 46 vineyards across Southern England (42 unambiguous sites, 4 less direct), but other claims (unsourced) range up to 52. Lamb’s 1977 book has a few more from other various sources and anecdotally there are more still, and so clearly this is a minimum number.
Of the Domesday vineyards, all appear to lie below a line from Ely (Cambridgeshire) to Gloucestershire. Since the Book covers all of England up to the river Tees (north of Yorkshire), there is therefore reason to think that there weren’t many vineyards north of that line. Lamb reports two vineyards to the north (Lincoln and Leeds, Yorkshire) at some point between 1000 and 1300 AD, and Selley even reports a Scottish vineyard operating in the 12th Century. However, it’s probably not sensible to rely too much on these single reports since they don’t necessarily come with evidence for successful or sustained wine production. Indeed, there is one lone vineyard reported in Derbyshire (further north than any Domesday vineyard) in the 16th Century when all other reports were restricted to the South-east of England.
Wine making never completely died out in England, there were always a few die-hard viticulturists willing to give it a go, but production clearly declined after the 13th Century, had a brief resurgence in the 17th and 18th Centuries, only to decline to historic lows in the 19th Century when only 8 vineyards are recorded. Contemporary popular sentiment towards English (and Welsh) wine can be well judged by a comment in ‘Punch’ (a satirical magazine) that the wine would require 4 people to drink it – one victim, two to hold him down, and one other to pour the wine down his throat.
Unremarked by most oenophiles though, English and Welsh wine production started to have a renaissance in the 1950s. By 1977, there were 124 reasonable-sized vineyards in production – more than at any other time over the previous millennium. This resurgence was also unremarked upon by Lamb, who wrote in that same year that the English climate (the average of 1921-1950 to be precise) remained about a degree too cold for wine production. Thus the myth of the non-existant English wine industry was born and thrust headlong into the climate change debate…
Since 1977, a further 200 or so vineyards have opened (currently 400 and counting) and they cover a much more extensive area than the recorded medieval vineyards, extending out to Cornwall, and up to Lancashire and Yorkshire where the (currently) most northerly commercial vineyard sits. So with the sole exception of one ‘rather improbably’ located 12th Century Scottish vineyard (and strictly speaking that doesn’t count, it not being in England ‘n’ all…), English vineyards have almost certainly exceeded the extent of medieval cultivation. And I hear (from normally reliable sources) they are actually producing a pretty decent selection of white wines.
So what should one conclude from this? Well, one shouldn’t be too dogmatic that English temperatures are now obviously above a medieval peak – the impact of confounding factors in wine production precludes such a clear conclusion (and I am pretty agnostic with regards to the rest of the evidence of whether northern Europe was warmer 1000 years than today). However, one can conclude that those who are using the medieval English vineyards as a ‘counter-proof’ to the idea of present day global warming are just blowing smoke (or possibly drinking too much Californian). If they are a good proxy, then England is warmer now, and if they are not…. well, why talk about them in this context at all?
There is a bigger issue of course. For the sake of argument, let’s accept that medieval times were as warm in England as they are today, and even that global temperatures were similar (that’s a much bigger leap, but no mind). What would that imply for our attribution of current climate changes to human causes? ……. Nothing. Nowt. Zero. Zip.
Why? Well, warm periods have occured in the past, and if not the medieval period, then probably the last interglacial (120,000 years ago), certainly the Pliocene (3 million years ago), without question the (Eocene 50 million years), and in particular the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (55 million years ago), and so on. Current theories of climate change do not rely on whether today’s temperatures are ‘unprecedented’. Instead they examine the physical causes of climate change and match up what we know about their physical effects and time history and see which of the multiple drivers or combination can best explain the observations. For the last few decades, that is quite clearly the rise in greenhouse gases, punctuated by the occasional volcano and mitigated slightly by the concomittant rise in particulate pollution.
Understanding past climate changes are of course also very interesting – they provide test cases for climate models and can have profound implications for the history of human society. However, uncertainties (as recently outlined in the NAS report) increase as you go back in time, and that applies to our knowledge of the climate drivers as well as to temperatures. So much so that even a medieval period a couple of tenths of a degree warmer than today would still be consistent with what we know about solar forcing and climate sensitivity within the commonly accepted uncertainties.
My oenological research project has not then lead me to any profound insights into climate change in the past, but it has given me a little more respect for the dedication of my winemaking compatriots. So next time I’m in the area, I’ll drink to that!