Hedonism and claret
Dec 17th 2009 From The Economist print edition
THE birth of the cult of fine wine can be dated precisely. On April 10th 1663, Samuel Pepys, diarist and man-about-London, noted that he had enjoyed “a sort of French wine called Ho Bryan that hath a good and most particular taste that I never met with”. He drank what is now called Château Haut Brion at the Royall Oak Tavern in the heart of London, one of many such establishments that had sprung up after the return from exile of King Charles II three years earlier and which offered such new delicacies as tea, coffee and classy wines. The hedonistic atmosphere of the times was responsible for the introduction not only of “Ho Bryan” and the other great wines of Bordeaux, but also of port from the Douro Valley in Portugal, the sparkling wines of Champagne and the brandy from a little town called Cognac, north of Bordeaux. As Pepys was savouring his tipple, big economic shifts were under way. London was on the rise, starting to replace Amsterdam as the hub of world trade. Its merchants were growing in power, wealth and appetite —for, amongst other luxuries, claret. By the 18th century Londoners were the world’s biggest consumers of good claret. Previously drinks became famous and popular because of their royal connections. The court of France’s King Louis XIV, who himself drank Burgundy and the still wines of Champagne, was the arbiter of most alcoholic taste. Now, for the first time, a wider social group, including both aristocrats and commoners such as Pepys with fashionable aspirations, set the tone. The English had been drinking claret for five centuries before Pepys’s time; but it was poor stuff, shipped immediately after the harvest and drunk quickly before it turned to vinegar the following spring. As late as the end of the 17th century it continued to be drunk mostly by those who wanted “claret to cool their port” in the words of one observer. Much of it was fake. A poet calling himself Satyrical Dick
wrote how a “jolly wine-cooper” could combine a “pint of old port” with some rough Spanish wine and thus “could counterfeit claret the best of the sort”. The owners of Ho Bryan were the Pontacs. They were the top winemaking family of their day, and founded a fashionable restaurant, called Pontack’s Head, in London, in 1663. John Locke, the philosopher whose theory of the social contract inspired America’s revolutionaries, but who had worldlier interests too, spotted the reasons for the superiority of Ho Bryan on a visit to the vineyard in 1667. He found “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 seized on the essential concept of terroir, the combination of soil, subsoil, drainage and microclimate which provide the conditions for the production of fine wine. 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.” Claret was getting more popular partly because it was getting better. The craft of claret-making had developed. By the early 18th century, the wine was designed to be kept for years not months, notably by being carefully stored in oak casks. Better corks allowed wine to be stored longer and more safely. Bottles were produced that could be “binned”—laid down on their sides to mature. By Smith’s time the shape of the industry was established for centuries to come. Advertisements in theLondon Gazette at the time noted the sale of wines from four châteaux: Haut Brion, today a green oasis in Bordeaux’s suburbs, and Latour, Lafite and Margaux, all on the gravel banks above the Gironde estuary in the Médoc, the peninsula north of Bordeaux. The four estates remain the greatest brands in wine. Their main competitors, then as now, are a handful of tiny vineyards in Burgundy. British appetite for their produce was growing; but so, too, were the obstacles to getting hold of it. Britain, Portugal and their allies were at war with France and Spain. Port (from Portugal) was therefore
considered the patriotic drink. In a comedy called “The Winder”, staged in 1714, one character protested that “I have been drinking Claret and Champaign and Burgundy and other French wines, Sir, but I love my country for all that.” The vendors in the 1707 sales, and many others, claimed that their supplies were captured by British ships in the fighting; but they probably weren’t. In the 18th century drinking claret helped the rich to distinguish themselves from England’s port-sodden squirearchy. Port was not only the more traditional drink, but also—because it attracted much lower duties—far cheaper. John Hervey, the first Earl of Bristol, spent four times as much on claret as on port, whereas the lusty trenchermen who gathered in the Barbers Hall in the City of London spent a mere £2 on claret as against £850 on port. When Britain made peace with France in 1713, claret became more accessible and the wine trade flourished. Claret was pricey but rich Londoners, who were also by then big spenders on theatres, spas and music produced by fashionable immigrants, such as Handel, consumed conspicuous quantities. Sir Robert Walpole, Britain’s first prime minister, used navy ships to smuggle his favourite wines from France. The most expensive one he bought was old burgundy, but that—as now—was available only in tiny quantities. So he relied largely on claret, buying four hogsheads of 24 dozen bottles of Margaux and one hogshead of Lafite every three months. In a single year his wine bill amounted to over £1,200 (£100,000 today). British consumers bought the best stuff and paid top prices. By the time of the French revolution, the British were paying five times as much for their claret as the wine’s other main customers, the notoriously parsimonious Dutch, who preferred the cheaper, lower-grade stuff.
The wines were no longer drunk, or even bought, when young: in 1714 Walpole was buying bottles of the 1706 vintage of the classier wines. His sophistication was echoed by that of his clerk, who was notable at the time for his ability to spell all four estates correctly. In the 18thcentury accounts Lafite rarely had only a single f and t, Margaux was spelt Margoose, Margose, and Margon, and the O’Brian variation on
Haut Brion led to constant speculation over the years that the owner was Irish. Claret was still largely for the prosperous well into the 19th century. In “Every Man His Own Butler,” published in 1839, Cyrus Redding, a wine merchant and author, wrote “claret for a bishop, port for a rector, currant for a curate and gin for the clerk”. The fine-wine merchant was an unusually respectable figure—for a tradesman. In a newspaper article Anthony Trollope described one of them, “Mr Prettyman”, as “a handsome old gentleman with grey hair, always well-dressed”. Three of his contemporaries survive today—Corney & Barrow in the City of London, Justerini & Brooks and Berry Bros & Rudd in St James’s Street, just down the road from The Economist.
But claret was beginning to flow down the social hierarchy. A freetrade treaty between Britain and France in 1860 drastically reduced the duty on French wines, thus encouraging the British middle classes to ape their social superiors; and in that year the chancellor of the exchequer, William Gladstone, keen to stiffen the nation’s moral spine, cut the duty on table wines to 40% of that on more intoxicating fortified wines such as port and sherry. The following year came the Single Bottle Act, allowing grocers to sell wine by the bottle. A much-despised, enormously popular drink called “grocers’ claret” was born, with the result that, between 1859 and 1878, sales of French wines, largely from Bordeaux, rose sixfold to 36m bottles. The Gilbey family, one of the most remarkable commercial dynasties of Victorian England, franchised 2,000 grocers licensed to sell wine, largely claret. Their business grew so fast that by 1875 they were able to buy Château Loudenne in the Médoc to hold their gigantic stocks of claret. As the middle classes turned to claret, so the upper classes abandoned this increasingly common tipple in favour of hock and champagne. Then the fortunes of the claret business turned. In the late 1870s and 1880s an attack of mildew tainted the wines: the reputation of Lafite, for instance, was ruined when the 1884 vintage turned mouldy after
only a couple of years in bottle. At the same time, the phylloxera bug began to devastate Bordeaux’s vineyards. Claret came back into its own in 1960 when the splendid 1959 vintage coincided with the arrival of big American buyers. Its popularity has risen steadily since. London remains at the centre of the fine-wine business—home of organisations such as the Institute of Masters of Wine, of Decanter and World of Fine Wine magazines, and of most of the world’s biggest wine auctions. Liv-Ex, the world’s first stockmarket for fine wine, is based in London; and its figures show that nine-tenths of the wine trade is still in “classed growth” (leading) clarets. Newcomers from vineyards in a dozen countries trying to launch their finest wines on the world market come to London first for validation. Yet though London may still have much of the knowledge and the market, as consumers the British may be past their best. This year, 57% of the fine wine that Sotheby’s sold globally, by value, was bought by Asians; four-fifths of those buyers were from China and Hong Kong.