The British Isles has influenced certain wine styles more than any other nation. Julien Hitner looks back at the history of claret, Port and Champagne, and explores Britain’s enduring love for these styles.
With apologies to non-islanders, Britain has long played an unparalleled role in the historical development of more types of wine than any other nation. The reasons for this are quite fascinating. Thanks to a marginal climate for fine winegrowing and the nation’s emergence as a wealthy seafaring entity, the inhabitants of Britain have long been in a unique position to capitalise on their ferocious desire for fine wine to unrivalled extents.
But this is only part of the story. For hundreds of years, many specific types of wine have established a sort of tendrilled stranglehold on the British palate, particularly – though hardly exclusively – claret, Port and Champagne. Combined with its proximity to France and other prominent winegrowing nations, widespread British demand for such wines has arguably contributed more to their historic and present global successes than anything else.
As tea is to China, so inseparable is Britain’s affection for claret that one might be pardoned for thinking that Bordeaux was geographically part of the island. ‘Claret and the British have a shared tradition going back hundreds of years. What else should we drink with our roast beef?’ quipped London wine merchant Tony Laithwaite several years back.
Since the 13th century, claret has indeed been the red wine of choice for those who could afford it, with favourable trade privileges enabling merchants to ship their wine to Britain far in advance of neighbouring competitors.
Potential profits were massive. Records show that in just one year in the early 1300s, a staggering 900,000 hectolitres of wine were exported from Bordeaux to Britain – the largest shipping traffic in the world at the time.
By the late-17th century, such advantageous arrangements encouraged people like perfectionist vineyard owner Arnaud III de Pontac to set up a tavern in London and sell his wine directly to customers. Named The Pontack’s Head, the wine he sold was Haut-Brion. Around the same period, the marshlands of the Médoc were drained, exposing for the first time such acclaimed sites as those that would eventually comprise Châteaux Lafite, Latour and Margaux. Without the prospect of indefatigable British demand, the establishment and success of these ‘New French Clarets’ (later identified as estates) may have taken a very different direction.
At this point in history, it is also important to note that British and other foreign merchants were forbidden to establish their own operations within the city boundaries of Bordeaux. As a result, they turned to an area of marshlands just downstream of the city, here establishing the Quai des Chartrons.
In lavish apartments overlooking the Garonne (their warehouses in the rear), early négociants such as Scottish-born William Johnston played a key role in promulgating many of the most important technological advances of the 18th century, most of which are still in use today. These include the use of sulphur as a disinfectant (a Dutch invention), topping up, racking, using egg whites as a fining agent and using barriques for top wines. Only later did winegrowers in the region adopt these advancements directly.
Finally, the British were among the most responsible for the improvement of glass bottles. In 1615, King James I forbade the use of timber to manufacture glass in order to conserve forests, paving the way for entrepreneurs like Sir Robert Mansell and Sir Kenelm Digby to perfect the use of coal furnaces. By the end of the century, glass bottles were thicker, heavier, stronger, darker and much cheaper to purchase. More importantly, this meant that claret could be now aged in cellars for years, even decades. Truly, no other nation has provided so many building blocks towards ensuring claret’s most crucial developments.
Written by Julian Hitner
How Britain shaped the wine world: Port
Loading casks of Port onto barges
Compared to claret, the historical circumstances behind Britain’s affection for Port are even more potent. Ironically, it was a lack of claret that got the ball rolling. In the late-1600s, Britain and France were at war for the umpteenth time, prompting merchants to seek out alternatives.
Braving extremely hazardous terrain, one such individual, the son of a merchant named Job Bearsley (from whom Taylor Fladgate originates) journeyed up the Upper Douro in 1692. Here he happened upon a powerful wine made by Jesuits that seemed rather promising.
At least initially, this wine did not contain any brandy, though in the decades that followed it became customary to add a small amount of grape spirit after fermentation was finished – it was much later that neutral-tasting brandy would be added at the halfway point. The reason for this was insurance: it was a rough voyage down the river to Porto, from which Port gets its name, and an even longer journey to Britain. Paul Symington of Symington Family Estates (and Decanter Man of the Year 2013) concurs with this, in that ‘the addition of brandy was almost certainly the result of the English/Scottish merchants wanting to stabilise the wines on the long sea journey to the UK’.
Very quickly, Bearsley’s discovery, made concurrently by several other prospecting British merchants, became enormously popular, especially after the Methuen Treaty of 1703 granted special trading privileges between Britain and Portugal. Originating from Vila Nova de Gaia, across the river from Oporto, 18th-century Port shipments from houses such as Taylor’s or those later owned by the Symington family were colossal in size, as ‘three bottle’ men would engage in regular sittings for the sole purpose of inebriation. There was even word of a ‘six bottle’ league, a member of which was once asked if he had drunk three bottles one evening without assistance: ‘No Sir, I had the assistance of a bottle of Madeira.’
Recklessness aside, such enthusiasm had many positives. Of these, the conception of vintage versions is likely most noteworthy. According to Symington: ‘It was the British who first discovered the great quality of vintage Port,’ for which glassware played a key part. By the late-18th century, the shape of local glass bottles had evolved into a cylindrical, narrow-shouldered design. Like claret, it was quickly realised that the best Ports, especially those from a declared year, improved greatly with age. Before long, British cellars were adapted for ‘binning’ these cork-sealed bottles. Because of the enormous quantity of sediment they produced, decanters and corkscrews also made their appearance around this same period, along with all the rituals associated ever since with their use.
Lastly, as British demand for Port soared, tireless efforts – plus a mountain of gunpowder – were made by migrant Galician stoneworkers to carve out the first steep, schist-based terraces for which the magnificent Upper Douro is fêted today. ‘I have never lost the awe I felt when I first came here at the beauty of the region and at the extraordinary potential for producing quality wines,’ says Quinta do Noval’s Christian Seely. Talk about shaping the wine world in the most literal sense of the word.
How Britain shaped the wine world: Champagne
An 1846 Perrier-Jouet bottle
In contrast to claret and Port, British contributions to Champagne have been somewhat more recent. One of these, however, extends as far back as sparkling Champagne’s earliest days, and once again it involves British glass bottles.
In order for such a wine to exist as we know it today, strong enough bottles were required to withstand the enormous pressure formed from the build-up of carbon dioxide inside. Matters were greatly improved in 1675, when leading glassmaking expert George Ravenscroft perfected the use of lead oxide in its manufacture. Despite this, explosions would remain all too common until the final quarter of the 19th century, when bottles that were capable of withstanding an internal pressure of six atmospheres or more were finally perfected.
Speaking of the late-19th century, it may be surprising to learn that virtually all Champagne produced up to this point was essentially sweet. Granted, levels of sweetness varied from market to market (the Russians enjoyed particularly sugary versions); yet ‘dry’ Champagne as it is known today was practically non-existent.
Then in 1848, an enterprising London wine merchant named Burnes asked the unthinkable: to taste Perrier-Jouët’s 1846 vintage without a dosage of sugar. Though the producers were taken aback, Burnes argued that because Champagne had to compete with so many other sweet wines, would not a fundamentally dry version generate an entirely new market? Eventually, Perrier-Jouët agreed to send Burnes a small shipment of the 1846 vintage, where it was shared at a well-known military club.
It was a disaster. The wine was unappreciated, and Burnes was forced to send his remaining bottles back to France and exchange them for sweet ones. But not all was lost. In 1860, several firms, perhaps remembering the story of Burnes’ experiment, sent British merchants some Champagne from the 1857 vintage that was drier and more mature than usual. These were received very favourably, and it was not long before British merchants began to request increasingly drier wines. By the time the famous 1874 vintage was released, virtually all major houses were crafting dry examples, more or less in the ‘brut’ style, for the British Champagne market.
During these years, Champagne enthusiasts were initially divided into two distinct camps: those that favoured this new dry style and others that preferred the old one. Not dissimilar from today, it was a generational issue, as parents stuck with the sweet versions, while their offspring would opt for the dry style.
In Punch magazine, a drawing by John Leech depicted a dinner party at which a schoolboy (presumably of age) is offered some sweet Champagne by his uncle. ‘Now, George, my boy, there’s a glass of Champagne for you. Don’t get such stuff at school, eh?’ George’s reply: ‘Awfully sweet…. But I’ve arrived at a time of life when I confess I like my wine dry.’ This type of dry Champagne would ultimately emerge as the world’s most popular style, its beginnings pointing to a daring London wine merchant looking toward the future.
From countless angles, Britain’s thirsty inhabitants have achieved unequalled feats in influencing the historical trajectory of many wine types. Yet even today, the island continues to shape the wine world in innumerable ways.
Home to the Court of Master Sommeliers and the Institute of Masters of Wine, not to mention at least several magazines and books of global recognition, Britain has emerged in the 21st century as a leading nation for educational advancement and appreciation, with London at the top of the list for fine wine sales and overall selection.
Of course, this is not to suggest that other nations have been remiss in contributions, only that the British as a group always seem to have been a particularly parched pack of enthusiasts.