No single country has influenced the modern world of wine more than Britain. But how did an island nation that couldn’t grow decent wine impact how we all drink? Let’s investigate its history under Roman rule.
Rome had already invaded Europe by 43 AD when it conquered Britain, taking France and Bordeaux as prizes for its conquest. In order to facilitate trade with its new province, Rome viewed Bordeaux as a strategic port because of its location. The French region and its wine would be remembered hundreds of years later by the British, as they made use of the port to create the modern wine industry.
Henry, the Duke of Normandy, was crowned King of England two years after King Louis VII divorced Eleanor of Aquitaine. This included reign over the region of Bordeaux in the Duchy of Aquitaine, which Eleanor had ruled. As a result, Bordeaux became the cheapest source of wine in Britain due to politics, geography, and marriage. Later, a series of preferential tariffs meant that the city’s winegrowers were able to export a quarter of its products north, to London. By the 1300s, they were exporting the equivalent of nearly 30 million bottles of modern-day wine.
Bordeaux has a unique wine business because middlemen, called négociants, sit between winemakers and importers who buy the wine in bulk. The négociants set the price, and therefore hold great influence. By the 1300s, the British merchants gained such power that they could influence negotiators. Plus, there were many British merchants who went one step further by becoming négociants themselves and buying directly from the vineyards.
From the royal family to poor citizens in taverns, these merchants sold the wine they purchased in London. Since the British were the largest group of drinkers of Bordeaux wines, their taste dictated the style, which they called claret (originally clairet). It was a time when thin, sour wines were a thing of the past, and wine was actually made differently, with spices and other additives to appeal to our senses. Claret, as we know it today, was only developed after the Dutch drained the swamps of the Medoc, creating ideal conditions for high quality wine to grow.
In the meantime, the Hundred Years’ War, fought intermittently between 1337 and 1453, would temporarily halt British demand for Bordeaux wine. For the next 200 years, the Bordelais continued to grow wine, but little of it left the city, and even less made its way to Britain. Britain and Bordeaux would rekindle their romance after the war, but for the time the British had to find another source of wine.
THE BRITISH LOOK ELSEWHERE FOR THEIR WINE
The British are also responsible for the mainstream success of port, a fortified red wine produced in the Duoro region of Portugal. Britain entered the Methuen Treaty with Portugal in 1703 while at war with the French (among other countries during the War of the Spanish Succession). The treaty stipulated that wine imported from Portugal would be subject to a lower tariff than wine imported from France. British merchants moved to Porto as demand for Portuguese wine soared in the United Kingdom.
Lisbon, Portugal’s capital, and largest city was devastated by one of the deadliest earthquakes in recorded history in 1755. Within a year of Duoro Wine Company’s establishment, the Port business was monopolized by the government. UK merchants began to work closely with government officials. As Britain adopted fortified wine, which actually improved during the voyage to London, port exports to the country increased.
Further refinement took place in wooden barrels across the Duoro River in Vila Nova de Gaia, where more British merchants-built lodges. At this time, the process of producing Port was refined. As a result, neutral spirits would be added to wine casks after fermentation resulting in a wine that could survive the voyage at sea, but it did appeal to wine lovers. If instead the spirits are added during fermentation, they kill the yeast before they finish their work, resulting in a large number of residual sugars. The result was a sweet, smooth wine with high alcohol content.
THE NEW WORLD
When Britain established colonies around the world, the colonists brought their love of wine with them. In fact, the success of two of the world’s major wine-producing countries, both former British colonies, is due to the efforts of a single British man, James Busby. In 1788, the First Fleet brought vine cuttings from South Africa to Australia, but early attempts to grow wine were unsuccessful.
Change didn’t begin until 1824, when Busby moved to Australia. He began by teaching viticulture, but the school soon closed. Busby, on the other hand, persisted, moving from job to job and producing two viticulture books. In 1831, he returned to the United Kingdom on a trip throughout Europe, collecting hundreds of vine cuttings. These cuttings were shipped to Australia and planted, where they thrived.
Busby is renowned as the “Father” of Australian wine as a result of his efforts. His life took an intriguing turn after he became a British Resident in New Zealand. Through a series of political machinations combining the native Maoris and the French, he helped to formalize British rule over New Zealand, and while living there, he pursued his passion for wine by planting the country’s first vineyard. It was from this vineyard that wine was successfully grown on the island, and an industry was born.
This Day in Wine History
600s: The first vineyards are planted in the UK.
1720s: The first English wine exports begin.
1750s-1800s: Growing interest in English wine as a beverage for non-Germans, including Napoleon’s troops.
1800-1850s: Growth in winemaking and grape growing, with large modern wineries established throughout the country.