WINE & VINE
My interest in wine arises, at least partly, from a document which had been passed down through our family. This, the Catalogue of the Household Furniture, Plate, China, Glass, Linen, Wines, Books, and Other Effects of John Walter, Esquire, Deceased was compiled in August 1826 by Finnis & Ronalds, auctioneers of the New Romney estate of my great-great-great-great-great uncle.
John Walter, baptised on 22nd March 1745, had been a gentleman grazier on Romney Marsh. His wife Eleanor had died in 1818, and their daughter Eleanor had lived only for a few days in the summer of 1786; when John was buried on 6th July 1826, therefore, he had no heirs. But he did leave a detailed will, written in 1822 with a codicil of 1825, which contributes greatly to our knowledge of his relationship with his siblings and their families.
The auction catalogue is a fascinating read. The house was large, and had outbuildings which included a well-equipped brewhouse: clearly, John had made his own ale. In the house-cellar was a surprising variety of wine. There were six bottles 'containing Madeira, Champaign [sic], Lisbon, claret, mountain, and mead'; seventeen bottles of 'Cape'; three bottles of Calcavella [a sweet Portuguese wine]; nine bottles of sherry; and no fewer than 68 bottles of port.
The cellar reflected the English wine trade of the immediate post-Napoleonic period—reliant almost entirely on imports, and with very little enthusiasm for anything else. A swingeing tax imposed in 1693 by William III still restricted the flow of wines from France, but there was wine to be had from the Iberian peninsula, Italy, Germany and even Cape Colony, where viticulture had been established in the middle of the seventeenth century by the Dutch.
Wine was widely made from fruit such as elderberries and blackberries, but very little truly English viticulture survived in 1826. Many of the vineyards which had once prospered in Kent had been lost: some unable to compete with better-quality imports from Bordeaux in mediaeval times, some given over to cherries and apples (which promised better and more reliable crops), some destroyed when Henry VIII seized the assets of the monasteries in the 1530s, and others compromised by the cold winters of the seventeenth century.
But none of this would have troubled John Walter of Romney Marsh as he enjoyed the pleasures of his well-stocked cellar (and, indeed, an extensive library), but the catalogue of his worldly goods provides an indispensable snapshot of his life.
The English climate has always been able to support viticulture, but only if the grape varieties and the ways in which they were husbanded were carefully chosen. Writing in the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society in 1899/1900, H.M. Tod proposed in 'Vines in the Open Air' that only too little skill and attention divided English failure and French success, and that the northern limit for the exploitation of wine-grapes, then generally accepted as latitude 51°N, could be extended to 53° if care was taken.
It is still often claimed that 52°N marks the northern limit of viable viticulture, defined by a line drawn in England and Wales through Fishguard, Tewkesbury, Milton Keynes and Ipswich. Even though ancient commentators sometimes proposed Paris (latitude: 48°51'N) as the northern limit, the Roman vineyard at Wollaston in Northamptonshire is sited about 52°N and mediaeval monks were able to grow vines successfully as far north as Askham in Cumbria (latitude: 54°33'N). Of course, any attempt to use latitude as the one-and-only arbiter is doomed to fail: 52°N also passes between Calgary and Edmonton in Alberta…each of which has recorded temperatures below –45°C. There is much more to be considered.
In addition, in the 1980s, I became fascinated by the French-made Éolienne Bollée largely because one surviving wind engine of this type then stood in grounds of the Carthusian monastery at Shermanbury, near Cowfold in Sussex (it was dismantled in 2003 and is apparently still in store). Éoliennes Bollée were purchased by several vignobles in Bordeaux, and by some of the winemaking communes in Burgundy at a time when the wine industry was being threatened by the phylloxera louse. Inundation was one way of eliminating the pests, but required more water than many estates could readily provide. Wind engines and associated pumps were often the easiest answer.
The more I investigated, the more I became interested in wine and, particularly, in the manufacturing process as it changed from small- to large-scale production. Interest in the labels themselves was partly due to the differing printing processes they used. This alone suited labels to consideration by students of the University of Brighton/British Engineerium's Conservation of Industrial Heritage Course, as did the many and varied elements of design—from the simplest typesetting to artwork commissioned from Chagall and Picasso.
A book looking at the fascinating history of the modern French wine-bottle label was going to be available in the summer of 2016, but no publisher considered it to be worthwhile (too much colour to print cheaply!), and so I decided to investigate self-publication. However, the recent wholesale reorganisation of the French administrative regions makes changes essential before the next stage is taken. So watch this space!
Meanwhile, if you're interested in the book (likely to be priced at £15.95), please e-mail me: