The revels of Dionysus, as shown at the Eden Project, Cornwall
Grape vine cultivation represents one of the earliest partnerships between man and nature. Grape vines require pruning to give of their best, and the pruning knife became almost a mythic symbol. The ancient Greek wine god Dionysus was often portrayed holding such a knife. There are various myths explaining how the discovery of beneficial effect of pruning grape vines came about. My favourite involves a donkey who enjoyed eating grape vines, and whose eating habits inadvertently produced the same effect as pruning. Following the donkey's example, cultivators began to control the vine. Vine growing started to develop an association with peace. In the Iliad, Homer's epic story about the Greek siege of Troy, the Greek warrior Achilles has a vineyard depicted on his shield. Perhaps this is an ironic and rather touching view of the peace that he left behind at home.
During the relative peace and stability of the Roman period, vine growing became widespread in Europe. Then as Roman control began to unravel, the history of vine growing has a sad story acting as a harbinger of things to come. The Emperor Probus who ruled the Roman Empire between 276AD and 282AD, disliked warfare. He encouraged his legionnaires to engage in reconstruction work. This outraged the soldiers who were trained killers and wanted to stay that way. The end for Probus came when he was inspecting a legion he had ordered to set up a vineyard in Surmium, now in modern Serbia. Soldiers took this opportunity to attack Probus and kill him.
Probus died as the Roman Empire was beginning to decline, a period when any solider was to have as much fighting as he wanted. Years of war preceding and following the end of the Roman Empire saw a huge drop in acreage devoted to vine growing in Europe. In Africa there was a similar loss which coincided with the first forceful expansion of Islam. The prophet Mohammed expressly forbade his followers to drink wine. Perhaps wine was too strongly associated with a rival religion. Vine growers struggled on doggedly amidst the violence, replanting vines stripped of fruit or hacked down. It wasn't until 1000AD that the vine was beginning to recover its former territories, as a measure of order returned to Europe. In the early seventeenth century Shakespeare wrote of "pole clipt vineyards" in The Tempest, and those vineyards once again represented a beneficial order which gardeners and cultivators imposed. Today visit any vineyard and the atmosphere of industrious peace is as obvious as it must have been to Shakespeare.
Chapel Down Vineyard, Kent
The history of wine is a barometer of war and peace. It is also a rather more literal barometer of changes in British climate over the millennia, and consequent change in customs. The Romans who invaded in 43AD introduced vine growing and wine making to the British Isles. Grape vines of the original variety grown by Roman cultivators can still be seen at the Roman Palace of Fishbourne near Chichester. In Roman Britain, the weather was warmer than it is now, and this warmer climate allowed extensive vine growing, which continued into the medieval period. By 1086 when the Domesday survey was carried out there were thirty nine vineyards officially recorded in England, although the actual figure may have been much higher. Then temperatures began to drop in the second half of the sixteenth century causing a retreat of vine growing from the north and east of Europe. At this point beer offered more stable profits. Beer, made from barley, was more suited to a cooling climate. Into the seventeenth century, tea and coffee drinking began, using imported beans and leaves. Next time you have a glass of beer or make a cup of tea, you can listen out for a distant echo of chilly days in the mid sixteenth century.
With the recovery of temperatures in northern Europe from the late nineteenth century onwards, vine growing and wine making has been making a comeback in Britain. There are now over four hundred vineyards in Britain, the majority in southern England. The largest of the British vineyards is Denbies Wine Estate on the North Downs of Surrey. Many of the larger vineyards are orientated towards visitors. I have included a list of suggested visits below.
We can give the last word to Socrates, who had good advice about the enjoyment of wine:
"I feel that drinking to men is like the earth to plants. For even they cannot hold themselves upright if the heavens water them too heavily at one time; but they receive just so much to drink as does them good, then they will not only grow upright, but flourish and be fruitful. And so it shall be with us." (Quoted in Vivat Bacchus. by Rudolf Wenhold, p208)
(Quoted in Vivat Bacchus. by Rudolf Wenhold, p208)
Three Choirs Vineyards
If you are thinking of visiting a vineyard then Three Choirs in Gloucestershire seems particularly well organised to cater for you. There is a visitors' centre, a wine and gift shop, cookery courses, wine tasting, a nature trail, and daily winery tours at 11.30am. There is an award winning restaurant, open for dinner seven days a week,and for lunch six days a week - closed for lunch on Monday. Two night wine tasting breaks are available, accommodation provided at an on site hotel. There is also provision for conferences and weddings.
Three Choirs is on the B4215 two miles from Newent, Gloucestershire. Leave the M5 at junction 11A, or the M50 at junction 3.
telephone: 01531 890223
web site: www.threechoirs.com
Denbies Wine Estate
Denbies Wine Estate is the largest vineyard in Britain, covering over two hundred and sixty five acres of attractive North Downs countryside. There is a visitors' centre open all the year round, and a tour. Tastings are included in the charge for a tour. Contact the vineyard for details of tour availability.
Denbies is on London Road just outside Dorking in Surrey.
telephone: 01306 876616
web site: www.denbiesvineyard.co.uk
Carr Taylor Vineyards
Carr Taylor is an award winning vineyard offering a vineyard trail, free wine tastings in the shop, and guided tours for groups by prior arrangement. There is a tea shop, or you can picnic by the pond. A gift shop sells wines, preserves, hampers and gifts.
Carr Taylor Vineyards is at Westfield, just north of Hastings. In the centre of Westfield turn left at the crossroads by the Old Courthouse pub. Continue on for a mile, and the vineyards are on the left.
telephone: 01424 752591
Chapel Down Vineyard and Winery
The Chapel Down winery in Tenterden, Kent is England's largest producer of wines. Selected grapes from all over south east England are used to produce some of the country's best wines. There is also a vineyard on the site.
There is a wine and fine food shop. The wine bar and bistro has a pleasant balcony giving views over the vineyard and surrounding countryside. There are facilities for conferences and weddings. Tours are available in the summer months. It is always possible to go for a wander around the vineyard.
Chapel Down is a few miles south of Tenterden in Kent, off the B2082.
telephone: 01580 763033
web site: www.chapeldownwines.co.uk
One of the oldest gardens in Britain, eighteenth century Painshill Park in Surrey, has a vineyard, and the present restored garden contains descendents of Painshill's original vines.
Redhill Farm Estate
A 20 acre vineyard near Maidstone, Kent. This vineyard is not really set up for visitors, but is notable for its forward looking philosophy. The estate includes a monitoring station for the COSMOS-UK project to study soil moisture, has links with East Malling Research station, and avoids the use of pesticides wherever possible. Go to http://www.redhillestate.com/ for more information.