We meet Martin Fowke, winemaker at the Gloucestershire vineyard, Three Choirs, to find out about the history of English wine ahead of English Wine Week.
Can you tell us a little about the history of English wine?
English wine has been around for quite a long time. There are lots of cases in history of when it’s been prolific. The monasteries grew a lot of wine – I think there’s even a mention of wine in the Doomsday Book. The Romans are supposed to have planted vines in this area – there’s a hill not far from here in the next valley called Viney Hill so vines have been grown in this area for a long time. But in more recent history, the English wine industry has been through some troubled times as well. When King Henry II married Eleanor of Aquitaine of France one of the conditions was that all of the wine that was drunk in the UK had to come from Bordeaux, so all the English wines almost disappeared. The Dissolution of the Monasteries later caused a lot of problems because they stopped producing wine and so it all disappeared from the country.
All of these things kind of put the industry back a bit and then the wars got in the way so the industry only really got started in the 1970s. Three Choirs Vineyard started in 1973 – it planted the first vines. Theres now over 400 commercial vineyards in the country. We’re still one of the largest but the industry has changed a lot. There’s now an awful lot of sparkling wine being produced and a lot of money being invested in larger vineyards so it is growing.
How did the Three Choirs Vineyard begin?
It was initially a fruit farm growing apples and blackcurrants. But they just decided one day in 1973 to plant an acre to see how it would work. It takes three years from planting the vine to getting the first crop and so they got their first crop in 1976, which was one of the hottest, driest summers on record and in true British fashion everybody thought ‘well that’s how its going to be from now on so we’ll plant up a load more’. So that’s really how it all started. We’ve still got some of the bottles from the summer of 1976 down in our cellar but I haven’t tried one for a long time – I daren’t open it!
The name Three Choirs came about as we’re situated midway between Gloucester, Hereford and Worcester. There are the three cathedrals – each with their own choir – and there is actually a choral festival in the area called Three Choirs, which happens in August each year, although we don’t have any association with the festival really, apart from supplying them with a bit of wine to help them sing.
What do you think about the reputation of English wine?
English wines are not the cheapest on the shelves, but I do think people have an unfair perception of the cost of them. English wines are all from estate-grown, boutique wineries really and if you compare the price that they are sold for in comparison to the boutique wineries in other parts of the world it’s not very different.
What have been some of the biggest achievements for the English wine industry?
The Duchess of Cornwall becoming president of the United Kingdom Vineyards Association was a pretty big deal for the industry. Here at Three Choirs, we won a gold medal in an international competition in the 1980s in France, which was really fantastic.
What is your role here?
I’m the winemaking director at Three Choirs. I also get to do a little bit of winemaking in other countries which is really good because it keeps everything in perspective – there’s different ways of doing things and actually a lot of what we do here I take to other parts of the world instead of the other way round. I actually think that’s quite rewarding when it happens.
What advice would you give someone looking to learn about English wine?
For people in this country, there’s no excuse if you want English wine as you can always get hold of a bottle. Every Waitrose supermarket in the country has all of the local wines in it. Most vineyards are open to the public and you can usually order online so it’s never been as accessible as it is now.
What would you tell someone to expect if they were trying English wine for the first time?
In general, English wines are light, crisp, fresh and drunk fairly young. They are mostly on the drier side and they are subtle. They are good wines to have on a nice summer’s day as an aperitif. But there are alo some very good red wines being produced now, some very powerful, aromatic styles that stand up very well to food.
If you want to try a typical English wine, try a Bacchus – that’s the sort of character that we’re really known for.
Read more about English Wine Week here.
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