“A nation of French Wine Shop-keepers”

If Britain is, as Napoleon pejoratively dubbed us, “a nation of shopkeepers”, then a considerable proportion of our time has been spent selling French wine. In doing so, Britain should surely take credit for the emergence of French Wine as the world’s benchmark.

An integral part of the French modus vivendi, wine is as fundamental to the national identity as conceptions of liberalité, fraternité and egalité. However, such an interaction between wine and culture is by no means exclusive to France. All the way across the Mediterranean, from Portugal to Greece and beyond, wine has played an integral part in day to day life ever since Roman times. What marks France out as different? Why is French wine celebrated in the world’s top restaurants and the cellars of the globe’s richest individuals, in a way that Croatian wine, for example, is not? French vignerons, with considerable justification, would argue that their success is thanks to the quality of the French terroir, and the excellence of the wine making.

However, I would suppose that it was Britain’s political and commercial power from the 12th Century onwards, combined with their taste for French wine that established France as the world’s preeminent wine region – a prosaic hypothesis that may well rile our Gallic neighbours.

The British love affair with French wine dates back to the early Middle Ages, and more specifically Henry II of England’s marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine. The ease with which the wines of the region could be shipped from Bordeaux to court in London, at first directly, and then via Middleburg in the Netherlands following England’s loss of Aquitaine in 1453, ensured that production could grow to match demand. The English taste for French wine was well established; as was that of the Scots, recipients of shipments following the Auld Alliance of 1295.

Bubbles in the wines of the Champagne region were long considered faulty by the locals – indeed the famous Dom Pérignon spent his life trying to remove them. However, when epicurean poet Charles de Saint-Évremond introduced these fizzy wines to London they were instantly popular. Indeed, it was the British invention of ever heavier bottles to cope with the high pressure inside that ensured their commercial success, and guaranteed their place from Paris to Saint-Petersburg as harbingers of celebration.

Published on 14/12/2015 / By Robbie Toothill / Tags: en, Fine, French, primeur, wine