Wine Opinion

Wine Opinion: Britain deserves credit for quality of France's finer products

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 August, 2014, 4:58am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 April, 2015, 11:18am

If you buy wine regularly in Hong Kong, you are probably aware of the British origins of merchants such as Berry Bros, Armit, Fine & Rare and Farr Vintners. Less well known is that Britain is the second-largest supplier of wines to the city after France, accounting for US$110 million worth, followed by Australia's US$89 million and US$65 million from the US.

These figures come from both auction sales and bottle imports, but you can guarantee the Brits are not sending over purely home-grown stuff. Anecdotally, almost as much high-end French wine comes via British merchants as it does from Bordeaux and Burgundy.

Once upon a time, the British kept most of it back home. They have been the major market for French wines for close to 900 years, and were instrumental in setting up the trading system in some of its most celebrated regions. The French might not be overjoyed to hear this, but most of their iconic wines, from First Growth Bordeaux to the top Cognacs, were developed in reaction to consumer demand from overseas - usually from Britain (and, at various times, from the Netherlands and northern Europe). Champagne and Burgundy may have developed their best wines to satisfy Paris first, but London came a close second.

English tastes ran to high-end goods, and the world's wine regions were only too happy to oblige

A quick look at export figures tells you that while French producers might be focused on the mainland and the US, Britain remains the single biggest market for wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhone and Champagne. And usually this is by a pretty big margin: for champagne alone, England takes around about 10 per cent of overall production and accounts for 72 per cent more bottles than nearest rival, the US.

Part of the reason is geography. Products from the Atlantic coast - cognac, Madeira, sherry, Bordeaux and port - crossed the Channel during the many centuries when ships were the safest and easiest way to deliver goods. And amid all that traffic, conversations among producers, distributors and consumers resulted in many of the wines that we buy today.

Partly, it's due to politics. From the 12th to 15th centuries, following Eleanor of Aquitaine's marriage to the future Henry II of England, southwest France became English soil. In fact for most of the 1300s, Bordeaux was the second-largest city under English rule after London. By the time the English left, in 1453, the current system of wine brokers and merchants selling wine produced by the chateaux was up and running.

Even after Bordeaux was back in French hands, and right up to the 18th century, England sent ships every two or three months to load up with wine. When wars led to blockades of French goods, ships travelled to northern Spain or Portugal, loaded Bordeaux wine into port pipes or Spanish wine barrels, and returned home through the back door. In 1675, import figures showed that 62 per cent of wines in England were French, and on the day of the Restoration of the English monarchy in 1660 during the coronation of Charles II, according to John Evelyn's diary, the public fountains of London and on High Street in Edinburgh ran with French wine.

But the real interest for those who love French wine lies not in what the English bought from France but in what they gave back. Even the high taxes imposed on French wine by the protectionist 17th century parliament had an impact, as ambitious producers developed premium wines that people were prepared to pay extra for. Arnaud III de Pontac - of Chateau Haut-Brion, southwest of the city of Bordeaux - was one of these men, and his belief in the English market led to the creation of the First Growths. Haut-Brion was first served at the English court in 1660.

In 1662 (six years before Dom Perignon began making his own version), English scientist Christopher Merret sent a report to the Royal Society in London documenting how the addition of sugar to bottled wine would start a second fermentation and create bubbles. English merchants were almost certainly buying wine from Champagne and creating the bubbles themselves before it became common practice in France. Later, while the Parisians preferred sweet champagne, it was in London that the taste for brut styles developed. In 1846, Perrier-Jouet decided not to sweeten its wines that were bound for London, and the other houses soon followed suit.

The Champagne houses - later joined by the Bordeaux, Cognac and Burgundy producers - were doing this because London was then the most cosmopolitan city in Europe, with a constant demand for new products and innovations. English tastes ran to high-end goods, and the world's wine regions were only too happy to oblige.

Hong Kong import figures show that the Brits have gone from being consumers in the 19th century to merchants, just as they were when loading barrels onto boats back in the Duchy of Aquitaine in the 1100s. Jane Anson is a Bordeaux-based wine and travel writer