Choosing whether or not to drink imported wine was once a political decision. With Brexit looming, it becomes one once againby Barry Smith / December 8, 2017 / Leave a comment
Once the world’s biggest wine import market, the wine trade in the British Isles exerted a hidden hand on the planting and decision making of wine growers in France and Portugal. Bordeaux supplied the almost insatiable demand for Claret—the name the British gave to the red wines of the region, although the word almost certainly derives from Clairet, a pale, rose-like wine.
When England and France were engaged in interminable wars, the canny Scots became France’s major ally against the Auld Enemy and the Auld Alliance was born. As a result of its help in driving the English out of the southwest of France, Scotland was offered privileged trading relations with France, and between the 15th and 17th centuries Scottish ships sailed up the Gironde to the heart of Bordeaux to buy each new vintage at a good price. The English, meanwhile, had to surrender their arms and apply for passports at the mouth of the river.
The Scots prospered in the wine trade and even sold wines to London merchants during the worst of the Anglo-French hostilities. The port of Leith was the most important destination for ships laden with barrels, and in Billy Kay’s memorable phrase, Edinburgh was knee deep in Claret. Ordinary folk in Scotland drank Bordeaux as their regular tipple—it was only during the phylloxera crisis in the 19th century that whisky became the national drink.
At that time, when England put an embargo on wines from France, people had to make do with substitutes from Portugal. What were they like? By all accounts, not very agreeable: thin, astringent and fiercely acidic; a considerable departure from the prized wines of Bordeaux. This is probably why some people took the risk of smuggling in French wines in barrels that purportedly came from Porto.
There was, however, a stronger, sweeter alterative to these unpromising reds—port, a favourite in England but disdained in Scotland. Choosing what to drink was a political act: Jacobites stuck to Claret.
In Port, the English finally had a replacement for Claret that satisfied them—fortified, of course, with brandy—and together with their Protestant allies, the Dutch, English shippers helped to develop the reputation of these Duoro Valley wines.
Then there is Champagne, a sparkling wine made by bottle fermentation, a technique invented by the English as reported by Christopher Merret at a meeting of the Royal Society in 1662. Before that the wines were still and rather tart. We know the méthode champenoise was first practiced in England—much to the chagrin of the French who attribute it to Dom Pérignon—because at that time the thicker, stronger glass needed to withstand the pressure of fermentation in the bottles was only available in England. And having had a hand in the creation of this iconic wine, the English continued to consume it in great volume.
Again, until recently, the UK was the largest importer of Champagne, consuming around 34m bottles a year in recent times. So even those diehard patriots who hope to replace French wines with home-grown alternatives are out of luck. In a good year, producers of English sparkling wines will produce around five million bottles. There is simply no way to make up the shortfall. Rather like their ancestors faced with a shortage of Claret, they must either give up the habit, or turn to cheaper alternatives. Not a sparkling future.
So what will we be drinking in a post-Brexit UK? If the Union fractures we may find Scotland turning once again to its European neighbours. Will Edinburgh be once again knee deep in Claret? Will Scotland produce its own wines in an overheating world? Whatever happens, we’ll all need a drink.