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Feature: The Vine Inspiration

The 16th century was not a good time to be a vintner in england. It was not just the competition from France, whose wines outsold the homegrown variety; it was also the weather, which was becoming colder. That much the British could tell, because their growing seasons were becoming increasingly shorter. They did not know, however, that they had entered an era that would become known as the Little Ice Age, a phenomenon that would alter the climate of western Europe for the next 300 years. It did not totally spare France, where vintners saw some years pass without any harvest at all, but it was devastating for their British counterparts. By the middle of the 1700s, the vineyards that had once abounded throughout southern England had vanished.

Paradoxically, this very dearth of vineyards, combined with the more sanguine circumstances of economic and military might, would buttress Britain’s emergence as the preeminent influence in the world of wine. Without a Cabernet Sauvignon, Chianti, Riesling, or so much as a Liebfraumilch to call its own, Great Britain—for centuries, the richest country in the world, upon whose empire the sun never set—either plundered or bought up the most elegant of other nations’ vintages. In the process of stocking their own cellars, the British set the tone for oenophiles the world over while making London the world capital of fine wine.

The French, of course, do not wholeheartedly endorse this interpretation of history. “Zee Breeteesh? I nev-airr hear of such a thing,” says Georges Perrier, whose Le Bec-Fin in Philadelphia has been called the finest French restaurant in the United States. “How can zees be true? Have you ev-airr eaten English food?”


To be sure, this is the same England of blood pudding, steak and kidney pie, soused hog’s face, and toad-in-the-hole (sausages baked in a custard). A popular delicacy at British feasts is hung woodcock, a game bird strung up by its neck until it rots and the body falls off. Such cuisine hardly suggests a nation of refined palates. Nonetheless, say some wine historians, only through satisfying British tastes have winemakers achieved the zenith of their art.

It may be no coincidence that the preeminent figure in literary and historic wine writing is a Brit, Hugh Johnson, the author of Vintage: A History of Wine and coauthor of The World Atlas of Wine and The Art and Science of Wine. One of the world’s most widely read wine writers, he is the very picture of the British connoisseur, a stocky sixtyish man with reddish hair and formidable eyebrows who exudes an air of quiet authority with bonhomie. Tonight, Johnson is sitting at what may be the epicenter of taste for oenophiles, Foliage, the peach-toned, Michelin-starred restaurant at London’s Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park.

The restaurant’s wine steward is Philippe Marques, London’s Sommelier of the Year in 2001. Oenophiles at nearby tables watch ever so discreetly as Marques approaches Johnson with the wine list. Who knows what might emerge from this rencontre—perhaps some new wine, trend, or presentation? The onlookers will not be disappointed.

After a moment of consultation, the author and the sommelier agree on a Chablis Premier Cru, 1998, and as Marques departs, Johnson returns to his theme. “It’s quite simple,” he says. “Great markets make great wines. It isn’t the other way around. It’s fun to tease the French about it. They fume and argue, but the truth is, they don’t have a leg to stand on.”

Perhaps left to their own devices the French still could be drinking wine long before its time, their Champagne might be cloying and flat, and they may never have discovered the dulcet pleasures of port, a drink the French adopted from the British that is now more popular in France than in England.

Even the most ardent francophile cannot deny that the seminal moment in French viticulture was the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine, former queen of France, to England’s King Henry II in 1152. Eleanor’s dowry included most of western France, and as a result, the fertile vineyards of Bordeaux were officially British soil for the next 300 years.

This historical vignette is beloved by wine bores, who will toss off this little nugget as if Britain were awash with Grand Crus overnight. But it was a half-century before any significant volume of Bordeaux was brought into England. Even then, it was not the wine’s bouquet or raspberry overtones that prompted the eventual demand, but rather politics. In 1205, a year after Eleanor died, the king of Castile laid claim to the territory surrounding Bordeaux, whose people resisted and survived a siege. Their English ruler, now King John, expressed his thanks by placing the royal household’s first order for Bordeaux. With this token gesture, the floodgates opened. By 1244, three-quarters of the wine consumed in the English royal palace came from Bordeaux, and toward the end of the 13th century so much gold was being sent out of the country to pay for claret—as the English called the most desirable wines from Bordeaux—that Parliament complained.

However popular among England’s medieval smart set, the claret of the 13th century bore little resemblance to that deep red elixir whose body, nose, and legs we so admire today. Though fruitier and stronger than wines from the north of France, it was a light red wine, closer to vin rosé than Cabernet Sauvignon. No less significantly, it was not a luxury item so much as a commodity and, along with the reds and whites of the times, copiously consumed by men, women, and children alike. After all, wine was far safer to drink than water, which, in light of the crude sewage systems, could be harmful to one’s health. In this context, moderation was relative; as 16th-century records from England’s Battle Abbey show, a monk’s daily ration was one gallon of wine per day, and more if he was sick. Nobody cautioned against drinking too much.

They did, however, caution against drinking too late. Bottles were not yet being used, and in their absence there were no airtight methods for preserving wine. As a result, it had to be sold and consumed as quickly as possible, invariably before fermentation was completed. An “aged” wine had all the appeal of sour milk; as soon as one year’s squeezings arrived on the market, the previous year’s wines were sold at half price.

Three centuries of British rule had done little to improve on this state of affairs when, in 1453, the French army, led by King Louis XI, defeated a combined force of English and Bordelais soldiers, and Bordeaux reverted to France. The wine trade between England and Bordeaux had survived numerous other wars, insurrections, and intrigues, and it would survive this one, too. For the next two and a half centuries, French vintners continued producing much of the same wine they had been making for a thousand years, confident of the demand in England. When this finally changed, it was not because of war, or economics, or the climate, which remained gelid for nearly another two centuries and had, by 1650, destroyed all of the British vineyards. Rather, it was because the British found something better. The discovery and exploration of the New World introduced Europeans to an array of exciting flavors and sensations—richer and more intense than anything they had known—that ultimately spawned some of their own new social institutions. In the 1650s, chocolate houses were all the rage in Paris, Amsterdam, and London. Even more popular were the coffeehouses that followed a few years later.

These were not the only new libations coming onto the scene. Sack, the forerunner of today’s sherry, was a sweet, flavorful wine made from late-harvest grapes dried in the sun before fermentation and eventual fortification with brandy. It took London by storm after Sir Francis Drake returned home with 2,900 barrels that he had plundered from the Spanish in 1587. In the late 17th century, a national mania for gin developed. First concocted in Holland around 1650, gin quickly became the favorite drink of London’s poor, but it also gave rise to fancy gin palaces, with mirrors, chandeliers, and lavish upholstery.

Against the backdrop of social and gustatory ferment, however, claret remained the London gentleman’s beverage of choice. It might have stayed that way if France’s Sun King, Louis XIV, had not invaded the Rhineland in 1688. In response, England, Spain, and Holland blockaded France, thereby beginning the Nine Years War. French winegrowers, who had experienced this type of inconvenience before, waited patiently for hostilities to cease and business to resume.

In 1697 the embargo was lifted, and the flow of claret into Britain resumed. Only this time, things had changed. Claret carried high British excise taxes and could no longer compete with Spanish and Portuguese wines in the commodity market. Even worse, few of those who could afford to drink French wines cared to do so; during Bordeaux’s nine-year hiatus, the British Upper Crust had developed a passion for something new that was dark, rich, fiery, and best of all, a British creation: port.

Since the 1660s, English vintners had been making port from a variety of grapes at their feitorias, or factories, in Oporto on Portugal’s Douro River. Port was similar to sherry; both were fortified with brandy to arrest fermentation, but port’s alcohol content was higher—usually 18 percent to 22 percent, compared to 13 percent to 18 percent for sherry—and its grapes did not require sun-drying before fermentation.

By the time the Nine Years War was over, the feitorias were blending a wine that was big and tannic, with lots of kick. By contrast, the vin rosé from Bordeaux was weak tea, indeed. Now the French winegrowers had but one alternative if they were to survive: They had to make a better wine.

For four centuries the stone manse of the Haut-Brion estate has stood in the town of Graves. Its medieval turrets, spires, and steeply pitched slate roofs are encircled by a wall bearing the name Château Haut-Brion, almost giving it the look of a theme park. But if you inquire politely at the main office, someone will appear with a key and lead the way to the cellars, where row after row of casks are set one atop another. Within each, the most fortuitous of alchemies is taking place, what the French call the élevage, or the “upbringing,” a process of aging and interaction with the wood of the barrel, and the key to a particular estate’s characteristics and individuality.

But until the late 17th century there was no élevage to speak of. As long as a wine was fresh, little thought was given to terroir, or the estate of origin. Faced with the possible loss of the English market, however, the French began to gradually improve their winemaking and cellaring techniques. The most meticulous estate owners matched the oldest, or “noble,” vines to the finest gravel, substituting frequent pruning for manure, thereby sacrificing volume for quality. Cellarmasters began sterilizing their casks with burnt sulfur to control fermentation, and for the first time, French wines were allowed to mature.

London merchants were quick to catch on to the marketing potential of these higher-quality wines, and the first examples of branding occurred in 1702. Records of that time show sales of wines from garden-variety estates labeled simply New Growth Claret. Far more costly were the wines identified as coming from the noble vines of specific Bordeaux estates: Haut-Brion, Margaux, Latour, and Lafite. The British Upper Crust gave them a warm welcome, and the French now had a wine to compete with port.

But they did not have the bottles. Without an airtight container it would be impossible for wine to age, to transcend the bounds of mere physical sensation to become an emotional experience. While it was no trick at all to blow glass for windowpanes and wineglasses, the French did not possess the expertise to economically produce the strong, thick walls and long, tapering neck required of a wine bottle. Fortunately for all concerned, the British did. Sometime during the 1630s, an English courtier, alchemist, and part-time pirate named Sir Kenelm Digby began making bottles that were thicker and stronger than any before. Others have claimed authorship to the process, but in 1662 Parliament acknowledged Digby as the inventor.

Once British glassmakers began producing wine bottles, a new debate arose: How best to stopper them? This was not an issue to be addressed lightly. It was the fashion of the time to plug vessels of various sorts with ground glass stoppers. Vintners were dubious of cork, which was seemingly porous, leading to fears that air might reach the wine and spoil it. Eventually, after a sufficient number of wine bottles had been broken in efforts to remove the glass stopper, the cork became the state of the art. With that, the popularity of the corkscrew, which the British had invented some 20 years earlier to remove bullets from rifles, was guaranteed.

Now that England had supplied the impetus for the new Grand Crus, and the technology to exploit them, British merchants of the early 1700s set to marketing the new clarets under the names of their estates, thereby linking them forever in the minds of the general public and connoisseurs alike.

At about this same time, the French aristocracy was developing a taste for another British concoction: Champagne. In legend, the friar Dom Pérignon, cellarmaster at the Abbey of Hautvillers, tried using cork instead of cotton wadding to prevent bottles of the local wine from popping in warm weather, when a second fermentation would set in. After taking his first sip of the potion so produced, he exclaimed, “Come quickly, brothers, I am drinking stars!”

In actuality, Londoners were drinking Champagne long before 1668, when the good friar was appointed to his post. The bubbly elixir was the handiwork of London merchants who immediately bottled the wine from casks arriving from the region of Champagne. By adding sugar or molasses they started the fermentation process all over again. Though immediately popular in England, it took more time for the bubbly to gain cachet in France. By the end of the 18th century, though, Champagne was le dernier cri among European aristocrats and, like all matters of taste, a source of controversy. The English liked Champagne the way they liked their wit: very dry. The Russians, who consumed vast amounts of Champagne, took their bubbles sweet, even dousing it with white Chartreuse to make it even more saccharine. In Paris, they did not like it quite that sweet, but they certainly did not understand the English penchant for dryness.

This uneasy détente prevailed for two centuries, into the early 1900s, when the burgeoning age of the tycoon coincided with the final, supernova phase of the European aristocracy. The unprecedented richesse whetted appetites for Champagne, most for the sweet variety favored in France but scorned in England. By the 1920s, however, the tides of history had washed across Europe, transforming not only nations but also tastes in Champagne. Gone was the court of the Romanovs. Gone, too, were the monarchies of Germany and Austria-Hungary. The United States, which formerly held such promise as a marker for Champagne, dried up during Prohibition. The only remaining market for the bubbly was the British Isles, and its inhabitants still liked their Champagne dry. The French sighed and set about accommodating what was, to them, a most bizarre taste. The result is Champagne—dry and crisp—as we know it today.

In the earliest years of the new millennium, the British continue to influence the world of wine on a magnitude disproportionate to their numbers. Ten or 15 years ago, it seemed the only people with an interest in vintage Champagnes were a small number of English aficionados. By the late 1990s, auctions in this country and elsewhere showed that the allure of aging bubbly was spreading far beyond Britain’s shores.

And if this evening at Foliage is any omen, more trends are on their way from London. As the second course, foie gras in three variations, arrives on our table, our som-melier surprises us with a middinner tasting of sherries. We begin with the very dry Manzanilla Pasada de Sanlucar, move on to the rounder, more flavorful Amon-tillado del Puerto, and conclude with an extremely dense, rich Oloroso Viejo Dulce Solera 1842, so named because it has been blended with a minute amount of sherry from that year. Johnson is delighted. “I’m impressed to see a French somme-lier who knows how to serve sherry,” he says.

This is not all that Marques has up his sleeve tonight. After the turbot and a Chablis Premier Cru Vaillon 1997, and rack of lamb and Crozes-Hermitage 1990, Domaine de Thalabert, it is finally time for dessert, a hot chocolate fondant with white chocolate cigarettes and whiskey ice cream. To accompany this, says Marques, perhaps we might enjoy a 1993 Tokaji Aszu Essencia from the Royal Tokaji Wine Co.

“Tokaji?” The author is exultant. This, he proclaims, is going to be the next big thing in wine. The favorite libation of the Austro-Hungarian Imperial Court, Tokaji is a syrupy, amber potion made from shriveled Aszu grapes and left in caves to oxidize beneath a film of yeast. “It produces a wine of almost unlimited aging potential,” says Johnson. After it virtually disappeared during Communist rule, Hungarian vintners are once again producing Tokaji, no small thanks to Johnson, who is one of the owners of the Royal Tokaji Co. Whether his enthusiasm is a function of his stake in the treacly, retro-chic wine or the other way around, its presence on the wine list affirms its growing popularity. “It’s becoming very big among the British,” says Johnson.

If Tokaji does become more widely available, it will be one more reason for the British to preen in their self-appointed roles as tastemakers to the wine-loving world. And who can blame them? At the very least, there is no denying that the libations they have inspired have been a source of pleasure for centuries.

So the least we can do, when hoisting a glass of Château Lafite-Rothschild, Veuve Clicquot, or even Robert Mondavi Opus One, is, every now and then, instead of À Votre Santé! say Cheers!

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