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Roman and Medieval Vineyards in Chilly Britain December 24, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Actualite, Ancient, Contemporary, Medieval, Modern , trackback

Let’s face it. If you want a good wine the last thing you will do is head off to the supermarket and buy an English brand. The idea is almost comic. French, Italian, yes. Australian, Californian, Hungarian, perhaps. But English grapes freezing their pips off on a vine in the Midlands, where not enough sun gets through, just don’t really do it for most of us, despite some heroic marketing on the part of British wine makers. Yes, Theale Vineyard Sparkling Chardonnay may be, for all you or I know, a cracker, but who honestly has heard of it? With global warming perhaps this will soon change. Beach recently tripped over a reference to a new (exciting sounding) Scottish wine so anything is possible.

And yet… and yet from the Romans to the nineteenth century English wine mattered. Indeed, we are told that the Romans brought the vine with them when they conquered Britain: or was it perhaps already there? Roman legislation from the end of the first century A.D. limits British, French and Spanish vineyards to defend the Italian market: the idea of the ancient version of Chianti being protected from Hampshire and Suffolk grapes is delightful AND documented, always the happiest combination. And these vineyards somehow survived the next dark centuries to reappear in Domesday Book, where forty six British vineyards were recorded as far north as Suffolk. In fact, it was only the arrival of better trade infrastructure and lower import taxes in the nineteenth century that finished off the British wine industry. British consumers could ship in bottles from France and Spain and suddenly the acid English bottles seemed less attractive.

Another interesting source for English wine-growing are placenames. Wintringham to the east of Malton in North Yorks may, for example, contain grape juice in its syllables. ‘Ham’ is the normal English name for a settlement – nothing strange there. But the most likely explanation of Wintring is that it derives from an antique word for ‘vineyard’ giving us, in chilly Ryedale, the Vineyard Village. However, Wintringham is one of the very few bits of proof we have for wine-growing in the middle regions of Britain. And given the lack of corroborating evidence, some have doubted the vineyard interpretation of Wintringham and suggested another, one that, whatever its linguistic merits, is better suited to the Ryedale climate: namely ‘the Village of the Winter People’. Other more modern examples of wino placenames include various Vine Streets and Vine Yards in British towns and cities.

Any other early British wine evidence: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

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24 Dec 2012: A characteristically entertaining piece from the Count: ‘It’s pretty well established that the British, and indeed the global climate in Roman times was a little bit warmer than it is today, though of course global warming is pushing it back there again. Britain, certainly the Southern half of it, was as good for growing grapes as France is now. Consider also the fact that the Vikings established settlements in Greenland because it seemed feasible at the time, and then literally froze to death a few centuries later. We are technically still in the last Ice Age (defined as any era when the EArth has permanent polar ice-caps, which isn’t the normal condition for this planet), and statistically we will very probably experience massive global cooling cooling within a few hundred years. Unless of course it’s offset by the global warming which, ironically, is merely re-establishing the status quo a wee bit early. There is a theory – it’s ages since I read it, so I can’t give you a reference, but I’m pretty sure it’s not some load of crankery – that the entire success of the Roman Empire hinged upon the warmer climate enabling the territories they controlled to produce enough grain to feed their armies.By the way, since the Romans controlled Italy and France, generally reckoned to be the world’s best wine-growing regions, before they invaded England, when it came to wine, they presumably knew what they were talking about. So when they claimed that it was feasible to produce rather good wine in England (or even Scotland, if we’re talking about the bottom half which they actually occupied), one has to assume that it was a prosaic statement of fact. If you doubt me, check out the current population of Greenland, a country two-thirds the size of India. This represents the total number of people who consider it possible to survive there in reasonable comfort, equipped with every technological way of keeping warm that modern science can provide. And then consider that the Vikings seriously attempted over a period of centuries to treat this as a normal country, and then suddenly gave up because, for reasons they couldn’t possibly understand, no human being without access to electric heating could possibly live there any more. Again, it’s been a long time so I can’t give you a reference, but I remember reading that the very last Greenland Viking settlement, which was very well preserved on account of the cold, featured a gaggle of corpses buried in the usual ceremonial way, plus one guy frozen solid in the permafrost with no frills because there was literally nobody left in the whole country to bury him! This being said, I shall have to try Scottish wine. After all, I live here, so it’s the least I can do. I am no wine snob – I find some Jewish vintages perfectly acceptable, having initially drunk them just because they were on the shelf and I wondered what Jewish wine tasted like. Though I have to disagree with the Japanese view that, if you haven’t discovered grapes yet, rice is a perfectly acceptable substitute. I think the Romans were being extremely prosaic, and if an area fulfills the basic requirement of being warm enough for grapes to ripen, there’s no reason why the local wine shouldn’t be excellent. Then again, local expertise fluctuates wildly. Consider beer. Ancient Egyptian beer, despite being a hugely popular beverage in an ancient and highly advanced civilization, was universally priced much lower than beer made in any other country. It was also described as being so lumpy that you had to drink it through a straw. And Egyptian tomb art exists of elegant upper-class people explicitly throwing up because they tried to drink too much of the filthy stuff. Clearly several different factors apply. But it would be unsafe to decry Roman wine just because it was brewed in the UK. Though it’s probably wise to politely decline traditional Egyptian beer. Especially if it’s lumpy.’ Thanks Count