Thursday 4 July 2013

Gullible's Travels – 58 Guineas Claret

There are still some of us, it seems, who aspire to some fantasy notion of Olde English aristocracy. A “worlde” created by marketers, wherein we dine, attired in our vestments, upon provender accompanied by trucklements. And, of course, imbibing our libations. While we watch the telly. 

The Georgians were big on luxury claret. It was an 18th century signifier of wealth, power and good taste. Might something of that, from a label like this, rub off upon the 21st century? Let’s try it, thought “the biggest AOC wine group in France”  After all, the only thing Georgian this market probably encounters in modern life is the Metropolitan Police.

And so, here it all is – hogsheads, guineas, claret, George III coins, our first Prime Minister and an old wine merchant, shovelled on to one label, with all the historical inaccuracy a gullible public might swallow with their wine. Oh, and untroubled by the idea that naming a wine with its price is unspeakably vulgar.

Let us consider this pseudo-Georgian world, in which we buy our claret by the hogshead. This is a measure probably alien to Messrs Majestic, to whom a hogshead is something you would buy from a butcher’s. But our wine is supplied from the substantial-looking premises of C Chevalier, Wine Merchant. Judging by the architecture, and the customers, commercial success clearly took the business well into the subsequent century. 

Yet surprisingly, I couldn’t find a record of C Chevalier, Wine Merchant. Perhaps the business is now hiding its light under a bushel. Or a hogshead. 

But its substantial-looking building does however strangely resemble the premises of one Call & Tuttle, Furnishing Goods and Merchant Tailors, of Boston. There seems to be an extraordinary similarity, not only in the architecture, but even in the clientele. It would be so easy to confuse the two; I do hope there is no confusion about our handsome order of claret.

Equally troubling is the version of history projected by the rest of this label. 

When Britain made peace with France in 1713, claret was a pricey (and fashionable) commodity, especially with the wealthy London set,” the label tells us. “One such connoisseur was Sir Robert Walpole (First Lord of the Treasury at the time) who used his contacts in the navy to smuggle in his favourite clarets from France. It is said that he purchased up to twenty hogsheads in a year to satisfy the British tastes for claret at a price of around 58 Guineas per hogshead.

For one thing, “when Britain made peace with France in 1713”, with the Treaty of Utrecht, Queen Anne was on the throne – not George III, whose numismatically attractive coins are depicted on the label. George III wasn’t crowned until 1760. 

And Sir Robert Walpole was not “First Lord of the Treasury at the time”; he first gained that title in 1715, under George I, and properly in 1721. Never mind hogsheads, this is hogwash.

Is there any connection between this claret and that which Walpole bought? The name, perhaps? Er, no – because, of course, the word claret does not exist in French, so they would never have put it on a label themselves. 

And surprisingly little is recorded about Walpole’s struggles with the closure. “Your Majesty, I continue to be concerned about the South Sea Trading Company, to say nothing of these wretched screwcaps which the merchant Chevalier has put upon my claret…”

However, Walpole did, at the peak of his career decades later, get through up to 20 hogsheads of claret a year. In the fascinating book, The Politics of Wine in Britain: A New Cultural History, Charles Ludington explains that “At the height of his power in 1733 [nb], Walpole spent over £1,150 on wine, a sum that amounted to more than the annual income of a prosperous country gentleman like his father…Specifically, Walpole purchased seven hogsheads of Margaux, three of Lafite, one of Haut Brion…Taken together, Walpole’s purchases of luxury claret in 1733 amounted to approximately 234 bottles per month, or nearly eight bottles per day.”

But much as I would respect such an heroic level of drinking, Walpole did not negotiate the Anglo-Austrian alliance under the personal influence of eight bottles of claret. He hosted wine-fuelled political gatherings, “little snug parties of thirty-odd”, at his Houghton Hall. I would therefore draw attention to the difference between purchase and consumption, as I’m sure Walpole had to do to his own spouse.

And would Sir Robert, drinker of Margaux, Lafite and Haut Brion, have ordered hogsheads of this blended contemporary brew for Houghton Hall? Hardly. This is a light, easy-drinking Bordeaux, with a relatively bright nose, thinnish in the mouth with a certain earthy quality. Oh, it’s drinkable, but it’s not as interesting or special as it should be for £8.79. As if it’s a good thing, they declare cheerfully at the end of their label description that there is “No need to decant!”. No, none indeed. 

There is, of course, an issue as to how closely one might really wish to emulate that “connoisseur”, Walpole. Swift was among those who criticised the venality of his government, and of “upstart monied men” like him. Thanks to his profligate lifestyle, Bob Booty, as he was lampooned, weighed 20 stone, and was described as “inelegant in his manners, loose in his morals” by the Earl of Chesterfield.

But, Chesterfield also said that “He degraded himself by the vice of drinking.” Not all bad, then.


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