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Friday, September 15, 2017

The Country that Shaped the Wine World: ENGLAND !


Many of you may be scratching your head regarding how England could have played such an unparalleled role in the historical development of wine.  Indeed, Bordeaux, Champagne, Port, Marsala, and Madeira wines all owe their existence today to the English.  The reasons for this are intriguing and encompass royal kingdoms, dowries, shipping fortunes, and wars. 

Southwest France becomes part of the British Empire

                           Eleanor of Aquataine's dowry gave England control of Bordeaux

Let’s start with how profound the English influence has been in the Bordeaux wine business.  Queen Eleanor (wife of France’s King Louis VII) was one of the most powerful and wealthiest women in Europe during the 12th century.  She later married King Henry II of England.  Her dowry comprised all of Southwestern France, including Bordeaux.  This royal union of France and England produced many things, including one of Europe’s most famous monarchs (Richard the Lion-hearted, Eleanor and Henry’s son), as well as the English love affair with Bordeaux wines.

As the entire region of Bordeaux came under English rule, King Henry extended favorable trade privileges to Bordeaux's merchants to ship their wines to England.  This allowed Britain to receive Bordeaux wines far in advance of other European countries, and at far better rates.  While Bordeaux wine wasn’t cheap, it was the preferred beverage of the English upper class and monarchy.  Profits were massive as volume was extraordinary.  Records from the early 1300’s show that wine shipments between Bordeaux and England accounted for the largest shipping traffic in the world at the time. 

The English birthed the Port wine industry 

            Port was shipped downstream on small boats for loading on England-bound ships

Then, came the Hundred Year War between England and France.  By now the English were smitten with Bordeaux’s red wines which essentially became unavailable during the war.  English importers sailed further south to the northern part of Portugal for their red wines.   As the shipping journey was considerably longer than from Bordeaux, alcohol was added to prevent spoilage during the lengthy journey.  As British demand for Port (fortified wine with alcohol) grew, London merchants and their families moved to Portugal to oversee their empires and control their costs.  Interestingly, many of these original English families still control the Port industry today (e.g. Croft, Dow, Graham, Symington and Taylor).

The Brits put the bubbles in Champagne

                                     2 absolutely profound elements were added by the Brits

Now, let’s fast forward from Portugal to the Champagne district of Northern France.  In the 1600’s the wine produced in the Champagne countryside was “still” wine….there were no bubbles.  An English physician and scientist by the name of Christopher Merret was the first to discover how to make sparkling wine.  (This fact is often incorrectly attributed to the French monk Dom Perignon).   The Brits further played another role in the groundwork for the Champagne industry.  It was England’s Royal Navy that invented the thicker glass bottles to prevent Champagne bottles from exploding under the higher pressures.  Without these two important English contributions, Champagne as we know it today wouldn’t exist.

English merchants promoted Madeira

                                            The Brits had a love affair with Madeira island 

Next, there’s Madeira wine.  Like Bordeaux, Port and Champagne, the English played a pivotal role in the Madeira wine business, especially in the shipping of these wines to the rest of the world.  One of their most popular routes was to the British Colonies in America.  Madeira was considered to be the most important wine of the colonists.   In fact, it was so popular that George Washington used Madeira to celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Marsala’s Origin is English

                    While Marsala can be an aperitif or dessert wine, it is also used in cooking

Marsala is another wine that owes its global success to the English.   A fortified wine, like Madeira and Port, Marsala is credited to a British merchant in the mid-1700’s who first added distilled spirits to the local wines surrounding the city of Marsala in Sicily.   This fortification with brandy was used to keep the wines from spoiling during their voyage on the ship back to England.  Marsala became so popular in England that British merchants soon descended on Sicily to increase production and commercialization of the beverage.

The Brits seed the New World

                 The British Empire in the 18th century reached nearly every corner of the globe

In addition to promoting wines in the American colonies, the Brits were also influencing wine habits in their Empire.  Settlers from Britain immigrated to South Africa, Australia and New Zealand and with them they brought vines for making wine. Centuries later, while no longer a part of the British Empire, these countries are known for producing quality wine.  And, their wines are widely exported back to England.

England is finally making its own wines

                    Churchill would be thrilled with England's new-found sparkling wine fame

Today, after more than 900 years of influencing the development of the modern wine business, England is finally producing its own wines.  While production is still relatively small, English wines have captured the attention of the wine world by winning competitions and acing out many of the globe's most prestigious brands. England's sparkling wines have been getting lots of traction, beating out in blind tastings famous Champagne houses such as Veueve Clicquot, Tattinger and even Winston Churchill's favorite Champagne, Pol Roger.


In summary, more than any other nation in the world, England has influenced throughout history the course of wine.  Wine-Knows will be visiting England in June 2019.  Join us to learn about England’s impressive new lineup of wines, in addition to Stilton cheese and Bombay Gin.  The trip is detailed at www.WineKnowsTravel.com.


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