How wine prices have changed over the years..

  • Wednesday 1 April 2009

Berry Bros & Rudd’s reprint of its 1909 wine list is a fascinating insight
into our wine tastes a century ago. NICHOLAS FAITH goes back in time

Simon Berry, chairman of Britain’s oldest wine and spirit merchant (founded 1698) admits the firm’s reprint of its 1909 catalogue is a marketing stunt, albeit ‘the best we’ve done for a long time’. But it’s also a major socio-vinous history.

The tiny 12.7cm x 8.5cm list was designed to fit the waistcoat pocket of the then serior partner Francis Berry (Simon’s grandfather), and remained the same size until 1987. The 100-year anniversary list has been reproduced in the same format.

Berry’s received its Royal Warrant in 1903, probably for the special ‘King’s Ginger Liqueur’ supplied to Edward VII to keep him war m when being driven in an open motor car. In 1907 Henr y Berry – who had finally got rid of the grocery side of the business in 1896 – retired and was replaced by two young relatives, the aforementioned Francis and Charles.

Francis is best remembered for his reply to the lady who asked for a bottle of Napoleon Brandy: ‘Madam if you will only give me time to have the label printed, you shall have Julius Caesar Brandy’, while Charles is known for his extensive touring of wine regions, writing In Search of Wine in 1935.

Berry’s was fully aware of the selling power of impor tant names. It was of fering Wellington Madeira ‘laid down in 1861 at Stratfieldsaye’ – the Duke’s country house – as well as four ‘Famous Auslese wines from the Cabinet Cellar of the Duke of Nassau’. But this policy could backfire. It was still trying to sell Sherry ‘from the Royal Cellars’ a full seven years after an enormous quantity accumulated by Queen Victoria had been auctioned by Christie’s on the orders of her son Edward VII, who preferred Champagne, cocktails and liqueurs.

Bottled history

The 1909 prices are a matter of instructive nostalgia for modern readers. They ranged from 1s 6d (10p) for Imperial Chablis and 2s 6d (12.5p) for Good Ordinary Port up to 23s (£1.15) for Château d’Yquem and an astonishing 40s (£2) for a 1867 Tokai, an ‘Essence of Wine invaluable in cases of severe illness and for restorative purposes’. (It’s also labelled Austrian – for Hungary was then only one part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.)

These wines, though often cheaper than the liqueurs, were not such bargains once you multiply by up to a hundred for today’s equivalent values. In those days there were few brand names, with the noticeable exception ofChampagnes and vintage Ports. Only one whisky – Macallan Glenlivet – was not own-brand and only one of the 21 Sherries – Williams & Humberts Dry Sack – was not shipped in cask, a practice which continued until the 1970s.

But the most obvious difference in the list, apart from the fact that it is 18 rather than

today’s 64 pages, is the concentration on spirits and fortified wines, which occupy nearly half the 1909 version. Among the vintage Ports, Croft was as expensive as any, with only Graham’s of today’s top brands not available.

The galaxy of spirits included ‘a fine old Hollands gin’ sold in ‘cruchons’ (can any reader tell us what they/it were/ was?), as well as three pages of liqueurs which included ‘Independence Dry Martini-Style Cocktail’ imported from J Wagner & Sons of Philadelphia. One curiosity derived from French politics: a few years earlier the Carthusian monks had been expelled to Spain where they produced a green liqueur which Berrys called Pères Chartreux.

Fortunately they left behind what they proudly advertise as a stock of ‘Original and Genuine Liqueur de Grande Chartreuse – both Green and Yellow available’ - at nearly double the price of the Spanish version. The biggest section was Champagnes, 39 of them, mostly single vintages dating back to 1892.

Veuve Clicquot was the most expensive and one of the few described as dry – a description clearly different from Brut. Yet this was 30 years after dry Champagne became a feature of British wine lists and clearly most of Berry’s customers still stuck to sweeter fizz. An even bigger contrast was in the narrowness of the wines’ origins, virtually all French and German – the latter either Moselles or Hocks including a, intriguing ‘Sparkling Red Hock’.

But not a bottle of table wine from any of the nine other countries featured in Berry’s latest list. Even the French section was confined to Bordeaux and Burgundy, where the whites – all five of them - were lumped together as ‘Chablis etc’. By contrast, there were lots of red Burgundies on offer, only one of which (unsurprisingly, Romanée Conti), was an ‘estate bottling’.

The job lot of clarets did not include any from the Right Bank and only three (Haut Brion, La Mission Haut Brion and Rochemorin) from the Graves. Mouton fetched the same price as Latour, but only one wine – the 1869 Lafite - was described as château-bottled although for a lot less you could get another wine, named ‘Lafite, probably 1869’. Yquem was also château-bottled at double the price of the six other Sauternes which included ‘Rieussic’ and, for some reason, ‘Carbonnieux 1er cru Graves’.

Berry’s now offers a variety of services unavailable in 1909 but there is one they could do well to reintroduce. In 1909 the firm was happy to offer a duty-free service to customers wanting wines ‘for use on board their yachts’. Surely even in these straitened times Berry’s customers – and even some Decanter readers – would welcome such a service.

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