The vineyards that existed in Castell Coch as part of a Bute family experiment

When you think of a vineyard, a Welsh hillside might not be exactly the first image that comes to mind. But the hills north of Cardiff were once home to vineyards that produced wine for one of the wealthiest men in the world at the time.

There are currently almost 30 vineyards in Wales producing top quality wines – but the UK’s first commercial vineyard was on the outskirts of Cardiff. The slopes of Castell Coch, to the north of the town, were once home to vineyards that produced thousands of bottles of wine.

Lord Bute was passionate about the medieval period, having previously had Castell Coch renovated and rebuilt into a typically medieval castle. Further inspired by his interest in the period, he asked his head gardener, Andrew Pettigrew, to plant a vineyard at the castle in 1873 – something that had not existed in Britain since the Middle Ages.

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Mr. Pettigrew, who helped found Bute Park, was commissioned to visit the best vineyards in Champagne and Medoc, where he set out to learn about vine growing and winemaking. The vineyard was planted in 1875, consisting of three acres of vines on the slope below Castell Coch.

The vines can be seen on the land in front of the chateau here

The first small harvest of 1877 yielded around 40 gallons of ‘Castell Coch’, attracting attention as the first wine produced in Britain since the Middle Ages. In 1886 the Marquess also ordered the establishment of a second vineyard at Swanbridge, near Sully in the Vale of Glamorgan.

Castell Coch was the only chateau involved in the winemaking process – the grapes were transported to Cardiff Castle to be pressed after being harvested from the vines. In 1887, during Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, Castell Coch produced 3,000 bottles of wine.

This increased in 1893, with the two vineyards producing 12,000 bottles. It had also become possible for vineyards to produce red wine in addition to the white wine they were already producing.

Vines were planted at Castell Coch in 1875 as part of a Bute family experiment
Vines were planted at Castell Coch in 1875 as part of a Bute family experiment

The land where the vines stood is now a golf course
The land where the vines stood is now a golf course

Mr Pettigrew explained to the Royal Horticultural Society in 1894: “The ripest and best fruit is picked first, placed in barrels with one end sticking out, and carried to the gardens of Cardiff Castle, where the grapes are reduced to pulp by a machine with wooden rollers, and put in a large vat for 24 hours to obtain the tannic properties of the skin of the grapes.

Originally sold at the Angel Hotel in Cardiff, the wine also became available from London wine merchants Messrs Hatch, Mansfield and Co in 1897, with a single bottle costing £15. Lord Bute and Mr Pettigrew died in the early 1900s, but the 4th Marquess of Bute continued to support the business after their deaths.

That was until 1914, when the vineyards died out at the start of the First World War and the sugar, needed for fermentation, became difficult to obtain. The Castell Coch vineyard was finally uprooted in 1920, and the land where it once stood is now a golf course.

The vineyards at Castell Coch, Swanbridge and another at Cowbridge were Britain’s only commercial vineyards from the late Middle Ages to the 1930s.

It will be many years before wine production returns to Wales, but now the country’s vineyards are producing wines that have won accolades in competitions around the world.

Welsh vineyards continue to expand and produce new vines, and there are many across the country you can visit, from the Vale of Glamorgan to Abergavenny.

About Michael Brafford

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