The Effects of British Tariffs on the French Wine Industry (1700-1860)

France’s world dominance in the wine industry goes back to the 15th century. Wine production along with other exports was a significant source of income for the country, especially from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. France exported its wine to various countries, but the British have historically been the most enthusiastic fans of French wine – at least in certain moments in history.

But the volatility of the French and British relationship created ebbs and flows in trade between the two nations. Some moments in history saw almost no tariffs on French wines, making French wines extremely popular in Britain. And at other moments tariffs were raised and the popularity of the French wines wained.

The Rise of French Wines in Britain

The British love of French wine began in the 12th century with the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine and the future king of England, Henry Plantagenet. Eleanor came into the marriage with a sizable chunk of France under her power – much of the north and west of France. So when Henry became King Henry II, suddenly Eleanor’s French land fell under the British crown. Much of her land would be returned to the French kingdom within the next 100 years, but the southwest, including Bordeaux would remain under British control. Because this area remained British, the wines were taxed at a much lower level than wines coming from the rest of France. And Bordeaux with their already established port, suddenly became a perfect place to supply England’s thirst for wine. During this time Bordeaux wine exploded in popularity in Britain. The wine was cheap and plentiful and was consumed by even the lower classes in Britain. Although the majority of the wine shipped from France was bought and consumed by British nobility. This would last until the chaos of the Hundred Years’ War beginning in the 14th century.

The Hundred Years’ War resulted in the loss of much of England’s land in modern-day France, including the Bordeaux. Shortly after the war, King Edward IV actually put a ban on imported wine from Britain’s old territory including Bordeaux. Although, plenty of wine was still illegally brought into the country, and the ban was revoked by the end of the 15th century.

Introduction of British Tariffs on the French Wine

In the late 17th century, due to the Nine Years’ War and the War of the Spanish Succession, trade halted between France and England. But once the wars concluded in the early 18th century trade between the two countries resumed. However, a strong domestic brewing industry along with a thriving wine trade with Portugal put pressure to impose tariffs on French wine. The government complied and large tariffs were placed on all French wine, while Portuguese and Spanish wine had much lower tariff rates, and of course domestically produced beer had no tariffs.

The Effects of British Tariffs on the French Wine Industry (1700-1860)

British tariffs were applied on a fixed volumetric basis, raising duties even for even the cheapest French wines. As a result, affordable wines declined in the British market for most of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Expensive French wines were now only consumed by the wealthy, while the majority of the British switched to drinking domestically produced beer.

Overnight these new tariffs decimated many French winemakers, especially in Bordeaux. It is important to note that Britain was the largest importer of French wine before the tariffs and the halting of trade in the late 17th century.

Did You Know? From the start of the 18th century to the mid-19th century, only “the highest quality and highest priced French wines,”[2] such as red Bordeaux, were imported into the British market.

A Blessing in Disguise

Due to the fixed volumetric tariffs on French wine, virtually no cheap French wine was imported into Britain. The only French wines being imported were those consumed by the British elites and were exclusively high quality, expensive wines. This encouraged many French winemakers to start producing the “highest quality and highest priced wines.”[3]

New winemaking practices to increase quality were adopted such as extended cellaring. While British tariffs greatly reduced French wine exports to Britain, they also led to the adoption of new methods for producing high-quality wines in France. By the end of the 19th century, France had earned a reputation for producing the finest wines in the world. French vignerons innovated new winemaking practices to ensure high-quality wine production in the preceding years. These new winemaking practices would prove useful in later years after tariffs were eased.

Read: French Wine Production During the 1900s & First World War

On This Day in Wine History

December 27, 1703 – On this day, the Methuen Treaty was signed. Methuen Treaty was an agreement between Britain and Portugal formalizing the countries’ trade partnerships and economic dependence of Portugal on Britain. The treaty involved the exchange of English wool for Portuguese wine. “The English king, who ultimately had to approve the treaty, agreed as he also benefited. Eliminating French wine imports was politically palatable, and a treaty with Portugal also included Brazil, a large market for woolens.”[4]

February 6, 1715 – The War of the Spanish Succession ended, and France and Britain resumed trade. The two countries had halted trade during the previous war, the Nine Years’ War. This ban on trade had put a stop to French wine being exported into Britain.

January 23, 1860 – The Cobden-Chevalier Treaty was signed. This treaty moderated tariffs throughout Europe, ushering in a new era of free trade. As a result, the French wine exports to Britain steadily increased. The treaty led to improved living standards in France, and created a thriving French wine industry under Napoleon III.

Want to read more? Try these books!


  1. John V C Nye, War, Wine, and Taxes the Political Economy of Anglo-French Trade, 1689-1900 (Princeton University Press, 2018). P. 34
  2. Nye, p. 36
  3. Ibid, p. 36
  4. R. Warren Anderson, “Rent Seeking and the Treaty of Methuen,” Journal of Public Finance and Public Choice 32, no. 1 (April 1, 2014): 119,×15664520275066.
  5. John V C Nye, “The Myth of Free-Trade Britain,” Econlib, 2003,
  6. Estreicher, Stefan K. “Wine and France: A Brief History.” European Review 31, no. 2 (2023): 91–179. doi:10.1017/S1062798722000370.
Categories: 1701 CE to 1800 CE, Wine History PeriodTags: , , , By Published On: August 30, 2022Last Updated: September 5, 2023

Share This Story, Choose Your Platform!