A BRIEF HISTORY OF ENGLISH WINE AND THE TRUE ORIGINS OF CHAMPAGNE

 

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A Brief History

 

In this part of the world the Romans started it all, introducing vines presumably somewhere before the first century - 55 BC, the Roman Invasion, was one of those dates everyone knew (maybe they still do - ask around!). We don't know much about what the Vikings, Saxons, and other invading hordes did for British viticulture but the Normans were keener on writing everything down. So we do know that by about 1086 there were around fifty vineyards worthy of note, three of them in Somerset. That takes care of the first millennium AD (with a bit of historic licence).

 

For three hundred years the industry flourished, until about 1350 when the Gulf Stream changed course and with it the weather. According to Gillian Pearkes (Wine Growing in Britain) production then started to dwindle, aided by various plagues which depopulated the countryside. Then Henry II married Eleanor of Aquitaine and gave the British access to the fine full-bodied wines of Bordeaux, sounding the death knell for the struggling national product. Finally Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries, many of which had their own vineyards, hammered the nail in the coffin of large-scale English wine production.

 

Isolated enthusiasts, however, kept some of the art and science of vine-growing alive, in gardens both grand and humble in the south of the country, and in greenhouses too. Samuel Pepys records his consumption of wines from several vineyards around London.

 

Between the two wars there is little evidence of commercial wine growing. However in 1945 two pioneers, Edward Hyams and Ray Barrington-Brock, laid the foundation for the English wine industry when they began trials in their own gardens of different grape varieties, published their results, and inspired others to follow. The first vineyard in the `English Wine Revival' was established in the 1950s in Hampshire.

 

On the threshold of the third millennium Jancis Robinson (Oxford Companion to Wine) contrasts the early vineyards run by ‘retired gentlefolk with little experience of viticulture’ with an industry which since the eighties had become ‘increasingly professional in its methods’.

 

The Night we Invented Champagne!

 

Well we didn't coin the word Champagne of course since this is the name of a region in France, but recently published research by the acclaimed Champagne expert Tom Stevenson proves the English did invent the process which turns a still wine, made from grapes grown in that region, into the most famous sparkling wine in the world, and the first mention of Sparkling Champagne was in English, not French. This was in 1676 by Sir George Etherege in The Man of the Mode:

 

    "...To the Mall and the Park where we love till 'tis dark,

 

   Then sparkling Champaign puts an end to their reign;

 

   It quickly recovers poor languishing lovers..."

 

This was two decades before even the French claim to have made their first sparkling Champagne, which was in a document produced in 1718, referring to the emergence of this type of wine some 20 years earlier (around 1695).

 

So how did this come about?  Many of you will know will know that the essential difference between a still wine and either Champagne or our own Special Reserve or Pink Sparklers, is that the bubbles arise from a second fermentation taking place in the bottle – for a description of the process see Sparkling Wine. The carbon dioxide produced by this second fermentation cannot escape and dissolves in the wine, to be released when the wine is drunk. The bottle is under high a pressure of 6 bar (90 lbs/sq.in.) and 16th century bottles and wooden bungs were inadequate to contain this pressure. This did not matter to the French who kept their wine in casks, but the English liked their wine in bottles, and any accidental second fermentation normally caused the bottle to fail. Still wines from Champagne were particularly prone to this problem because the wine was made in a cool climate and the initial fermentation often stopped prematurely, only to re-start in the warm taverns and houses where it ended up. However it was recognised that the sparkling effect much improved the otherwise mediocre wine from that region. The problem facing the English wine coopers was how to control the process.

 

It was the improvement in bottle technology that gave the English their lead, though it came about in a strange way. In 1615 Admiral Sir Robert Mansell, concerned by the diversion of wood to charcoal production rather than ship-building, persuaded King James I to issue a Royal Proclamation banning the use of wood-fired furnaces, thereby forcing the use of coal. The much higher temperatures achieved in coal-fired furnaces produced a stronger glass and this, coupled with the re-discovery of cork for making stoppers, provided the English with a wine bottle capable of withstanding the gas pressures produced by making the wine sparkling. It is of interest to note that Mansell later retired from the navy, built a glassworks, obtained a Royal Patent for the use of coal, and hence a monopoly on making the new glass. He also developed further improvements to strengthen it.

 

The English wine coopers now had what they needed for the sparkling method, and the first reference to it appears in a paper to the Royal Society by Christopher Merritt entitled ‘The Ordering of Wines’ which refers to making sparkling wine by English wine coopers as an established practice. This was over 30 years before the French made their first Sparkling Champagne, and 70 years before the first Champagne House was established. The French generally attribute the process to Dom Perignon, but there is no evidence he actually produced even a single bottle, indeed the only records of his work indicate that he spent his life trying to stop the wine fermenting in the bottle. So that is the historical record - the French perfected the process, and made Champagne famous, but they did not invent it - we did.

 

All that however relates to the history of sparkling wine and the making of that wine by the French in Champagne – the actual growing of grapes and making sparkling wine in England is a modern story which only goes back 20-30 years. Indeed Moorlynch was one of the early vineyards to make such wine – starting back in 1988. It is worth noting that Tom Stevenson in his recently published Encyclopaedia of Champagne and Sparkling Wines actually has a section headed ‘Great Britain’ and says ‘Britain is one of the few places on earth naturally suited to growing grapes for sparkling wine’. This is why we believe sparkling wine has a great future un England and Wales, so in producing such wines we are truly entitled to be ‘Reclaiming the Sparkle’!