Red Red Wine

Written by 'DP'.

Some while ago I saw a report about spending on wine exceeding spending on beer for the first time on record. It was one of those apparently innocent pieces that fill time and space in our media from time to time, light, fluffy, possibly even accurate. Most people would notice it, maybe discuss it in the pub, and then move on. However, I am made of more paranoid stuff. I could not shake the feeling that the whole thing had a deeper meaning.

“See? We spend more on wine than we do on beer, see how European we are?” They didn’t actually say this, but they may as well have done. It niggled me, being someone who is as likely to cull excess brain cells with Claret or Rioja as he is with Lager, Stout or Bitter; I felt instinctively that they had it wrong. The English taste in booze has always been broader than beer, wonderful though beer is.

I took to the books and peered drunkenly into our boozy history and was not disappointed. Beer has, of course, always played a big part in the English drinking life, but it struggled for centre stage with various imported wines for centuries. Today we often think of wine as a rather effete, foreign drink, our ancestors did not see it like that.

The great Dr. Johnson said “Claret is the liquor for boys, Port for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink Brandy.” And they don’t come much more English than Samuel Johnson. Wines were imported from all over Europe, but there are a few that came from areas with particular links to England that have become as much a part of the history of English drinking as beer.

The region of France where the old favourite Claret (red Bordeaux) is made was possessed by the Kings of England for some four centuries. When the French finally managed to capture Bordeaux in the mid 15th century the French speaking people of that city actually rebelled against the French king and, all too briefly, managed to restore English rule. They relied upon exports to England and did not relish being absorbed into a country where most regions made their own wine. The continued popularity of Claret in England is testament to its years being tuned to English tastes.

Another French wine region with a big following in England is Burgundy. During the French wars of the 14th and 15th centuries the Dukes of Burgundy were effectively independent and allied themselves to England against their theoretical overlord, the King of France. It is no surprise then, that wines from that region found a ready market in England, as they still do.

Before heading south, out of France, let’s look briefly at Brandy. The liquor for heroes is made close to the home of Claret, in a region that also came under English rule from time to time. It was also a region where the Huguenots (French Protestants, allied to England) were strong in the 16th century; politics and piss ups, hand in hand once more.

From Portugal comes a wine that has soaked deeply into the English psyche, Port. This magnificent fortified wine is very much part of the classic, English, formal dinner. After the toast to Her Majesty, when the cigars are being lit, the bottle of deep dark wine makes its way (always to the left) around the table, while the conversation turns to the uselessness of the government and the vileness of the French.

At the other end of the social spectrum is Port and Lemon. This has been a popular pub drink for many years and is especially connected to the great old battleaxes of English TV. From Ena Sharples and Peggy Mount to Eastenders matriarch Lou Beale, Port n’ Lemon fuelled them all.

During the French wars at the end of the 17th century English wine importers looked for an alternative source and they looked to Portugal, England’s oldest ally. The treaty of Windsor was signed in 1386 and remains the oldest active international treaty in the world. In 1580 Portugal was occupied by Spain and her excellent ships and sailors were pressed in the service of the Armada.

Drake and his fellows would always treat captured Portuguese sailors well and they often took up the chance to change sides. In the Peninsular campaign against Napoleon’s armies, Portuguese troops fought alongside Wellington’s “scum of the earth” and slowly drove the French from Portugal, across Spain and across the Pyrenees into France.

In war and peace ships have made journeys from the ports of Western Europe, legally and illegally, to keep England supplied with her favourite drinks for hundreds of years.

So, next time you hear someone try to prove that “we’re all Europeans now” just because we’re drinking more wine than we did in the 20th century, you can tell them that we are merely reverting back to the behaviour of our robust, warlike ancestors.