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History of Wine in 100 Bottles: The Birth of Claret

For our second extract from Oz Clarke's new book, The History of Wine in 100 Bottles, read about the birth of claret, dating back to the 12th century.

So often in our history, it’s politics, not taste, that decides what our favourite tipple is going to be. One of our lot marries the King of Spain’s daughter, so suddenly we’re all drinking sherry. A Dutch prince suddenly turns up on the English throne, so suddenly we’re all drinking gin. And it’s the same with Bordeaux and its wine, which for hundreds of years became known as the Englishman’s drink – claret, or the light red wine of Bordeaux.

Chateau TalbotBordeaux had been settled by the Romans, but not with the objective of planting vineyards. It was because the Gironde estuary with Bordeaux at its bend is the biggest natural harbour in western Europe. A perfect place for a trading post, because if you look at a map the best shortcut between the Mediterranean and the sea routes to the markets of northern Europe is across southwest France from Narbonne to Bordeaux. The Romans did plant vines – particularly around Blaye, Bourg and Saint-Émilion on the right side of the Gironde – but when their empire collapsed, Bordeaux’s trade went with it. By the Middle Ages, the young port of La Rochelle to the north was far more prosperous, initially for its salt exports, but pretty quickly for its wine too. Again, it wasn’t that the wine was good, but that the ships needed filling. Trade not taste.

In 1151, Henry Plantagenet, the future Henry II of England, married Eleanor of Aquitaine – and with her came the massive dowry of Aquitaine. The kingdom of France didn’t cover all of modern France in those days, and Aquitaine was a powerful independent dukedom covering the whole of southwest France, including La Rochelle and Bordeaux. Aquitaine now became English. La Claret 1645Rochelle continued to prosper until the King of France attacked Aquitaine; La Rochelle surrendered, while Bordeaux pledged eternal loyalty to the English crown, and from then on a deep, special relationship developed between Bordeaux and England, with wine at its heart. To be honest, the local Bordeaux wines were a bit insipid and needed beefing up with wines from places like Cahors and Gaillac inland, but by the 14th century Bordeaux merchants – an increasing number of them British – were shipping casks equivalent to 110 million bottles of wine from the quays of Bordeaux each year.

Vines were planted all round the city walls and particularly in the Graves, though not in the Médoc to the north, which would eventually become Bordeaux’s most famous region – but until the Dutch drained it in the 17th century it was a swamp. Great convoys of 200 or more ships at a time would arrive in Bordeaux each autumn and each spring to load up with Bordeaux ‘claret’ and head for English and Scottish ports such as Bristol, London, Leith and Dumbarton. By the 14th century some estimates reckon Bordeaux was sending Britain enough wine for every man, woman and child to have six bottles each. Bliss.

But it couldn’t last. France wanted Aquitaine back. England wanted to keep it, and in 1337 the Hundred Years’ War broke out. It ended in 1453 with Sir John Talbot of the English side being defeated at the Battle of Castillon. Some said he’d had too much to drink for lunch. No matter. The British taste for Bordeaux red wines was established, and remains to this day.


This extract was taken from The History of Wine in 100 Bottles by Oz Clarke.

Oz Clarke, History of Wine





More reading:

How Britain shaped the wine world

The British Isles has influenced certain wine styles more than any other nation. Julien Hitner looks back at the history

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