by Albert Cilia-Vincenti

“Wine…offers a greater range for enjoyment and appreciation than possibly any other purely sensory thing which may be purchased”
Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)

Bordeaux & London

This the first of a two part series on how the 18th and 19th century British middle classes shaped the wine industry.

The emergence of the cult of fine wine may be traced back to 10th April 1663, when Samuel Pepys, diarist and man-about-London, wrote how much he liked “a sort of French wine called Ho Bryan that hath a good and most particular taste that I never met with”. What he had experienced was Château Haut Brion of Bordeaux, and he tasted it at the Royall Oak Tavern in the heart of London. This was one of many such establishments that had sprung up after the return of exiled Kind Charles II three years earlier, and which offered such new delicacies as tea, coffee and fine wines.

The hedonistic atmosphere of those days was responsible for introducing not only “Ho Bryan” and other great wines from Bordeaux, but also port from Portugal’s Douro Valley, the sparkling wines from the Champagne region and a brandy from a small town north of Bordeaux, called Cognac.

As Pepys was introduced to “Ho Bryan”, big economic shifts were underway, with London beginning to replace Amsterdam as the world’s trade hub. Its merchants were growing in power, wealth and appetite for luxuries, including claret (as the British call red Bordeaux wine). By the 18th century Londoners were the world’s biggest consumers of good claret.

Previously royal connections had made drinks famous and popular. The Court of France’s Kind Louis XIV, who himself drank Burgundy wines, was the arbiter of alcoholic taste. Now, for the first time, a wider social group, including aristocrats and commoners, such as Pepys, with fashionable aspirations, were setting the tone.

The English had been drinking claret for five centuries before Pepys’s time, but it was poor stuff that was drunk very young before it turned to vinegar within months. Up to the end of the 17th century it continued to be drunk mainly by those using “claret to cool their port”, according to one observer. Fake wine was already well established and, someone calling himself “Satyrical Dick”, wrote how a “jolly wine-cooper” could blend a “pint of old port” with some rough Spanish wine and thus “could counterfeit claret the best of the sort”.

The producers of “Ho Bryan” were the Pontacs, the top winemaking family of their day. John Locke, the philosopher whose theory of the social contract inspired America’s revolutionaries, but who also had worldlier interests, identified the reasons for Ho Bryan’s superiority on a visit to the vineyard in 1667. He noted “a little rise of ground…white sand mixed with a little gravel; scarce fit to bear anything”. He added that “they say the wine in the next vineyard to it, tho’ seeming equal to me, is not so good”. Today that vineyard is still rated just below its neighbour.

Locke had discovered the concept of terroir, the combination of soil and subsoil types, drainage and microclimate which largely determine wine quality. Another connoisseur, the 18th century economist Adam Smith, noted that “the vine is more affected by the difference of soils than any other fruit tree. From some it derives a flavour which no culture or management can equal”.

Meanwhile the British appetite for their produce was steadily growing but, so too, the obstacles to getting hold of it. Britain, Portugal and their allies were at war with France and Spain. Portugal’s port was therefore considered the patriotic drink. Port was not only the more traditional drink, it also was far cheaper.

In parallel, claret was getting better and more popular. Drinking claret in the 18th century distinguished the rich from England’s port-sodden squirearchy. By the early 18th century, it was designed to be kept for years not months, notably by being carefully stored in oak casks, better corks allowing longer safe storage, and the production of bottles which could be laid down on their sides to mature. By Smith’s time the industry’s shape was established. Advertisements in the London Gazette noted wines for sale from four châteaux – Haut Brion, Latour, Lafite and Margaux, all on the gravel banks above the Gironde estuary in the Médoc, the peninsula north of Bordeaux. These four estates remain the greatest brands in wine to this very day. Their main competitors, then as now, are a handful of tiny vineyards in Burgundy.