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Drinking wine and making history

The Times Literary Supplement recently reminded me of British writer Hugh Johnson. I occasionally pull down one of his first books, simply called Wine (1966), and read it for pleasure. Since then Johnson has written a dozen volumes, and produced a popular public television series, “Vintage”, but I remain fondest of his first attempt, which includes a relaxed and informed description of the give-and-take between thirsty Brits and history. It has been updated and reissued.

Here is a taste of Hugh's classic:

During the three hundred years that Bordeaux belonged to England its wine was the everyday English drink. The discovery of Bordeaux by the English made a tremendous difference to that quiet province. Nothing like today’s vast acreage was planted with vines in those days. The whole of the Medoc, the district which is now the most important, was unplanted; production was, by present-day standards, minute. But the connection with England changed things completely. The English soon proved to have an unquenchable thirst for claret, which was what they christened the pale red wine that was Bordeaux’s principal produce. New vineyards sprang up everywhere – even on the corn-lands, causing a serious shortage of bread.

It is astonishing to think that in the fourteenth century more claret was being drunk in England than is today. The population was not a twentieth of today’s but the total gallonage of claret shipped was as high or higher. So important was the wine trade in medieval England that the size of all ships, whatever their cargo or purpose, was measured in the number of tuns of wine that they could carry.

A tun was a cask which held about two hundred and fifty gallons. In Froissart’s Chronicle there is a reference to the wine fleet of 1372 of ships from England, Wales and Scotland at Bordeaux. There were, he said, two hundred ships. According to Sir John Clapham, in his Concise Economic History of Britain, “the average tonnage of the time would be well over fifty, seeing that at Bristol rather later it was eight-eight.” Allowing sixty tuns to the ship, the total cargo of wine in 1372 was three million gallons; perhaps somewhere in the region of six bottles of claret per head for every man, woman and child in England, Wales and Scotland. Today, of all table wines, claret included, we barely drink the same amount.

. . .England lost Bordeaux in 1453. . .The people of Bordeaux, who were not necessarily any too pleased by their liberation, could not afford to stop selling their wine in its best market. Precautions had to be taken, though, to prevent the English wine fleet from singeing the King of France’s beard. For a time the English ships were compelled to heave to at the fortress of Blaye on the way up the Gironde and land their guns on the quay, like gunfighters going into a Dodge City saloon. They then sailed up to Bordeaux unmolested, checking out at Blaye on the way back.

What happened after that, how politics destroyed the English claret trade; how the cork turned the pale, short-lived claret into the brilliant, sensual, long-lived Bordeaux; how British palates were seduced by port and Madeira, which were invented by British wine-shippers; and much more can be found in Hugh’s book.

Writing in the 1960s Johnson noted there was no reason why wine should not be grown in England, as the climate equaled the Rhine vineyards of Germany. Only the predations of birds seemed a problem. Since the 1970s the “fistful” of British winemakers has expanded, and if only the EU can keep its hands off, may do very well. Sending an ominous signal, the EU has demanded a limit on British production levels, and derogatorily insists that all English wine be labeled ‘Table Wine’.

Defeating the EU is HERE.