A French cook has informed us that there are precisely 131 different varieties of wine which a gentleman may put upon his table without a blush. Now, in the year 1854 – the last year from which the returns are at hand – it appears that Port, Sherry, and Marsala form, together, no less than 86 per cent. of the entire consumption of the British Islands.
In that year there were imported into this country precisely 6,775,858 gallons of wine, and the contributions of the various wine-growing countries stand, proportionally, as follows:
Spain … . 38-39 I Cape . . . 3-90
Portugal . 36-69 I The Rhine … .1-01
Sicily . .. …11-18 Madeira… ..0-60
France ….. 8-12 Canary .. … .0-16
An insignificant amount of wine “from other countries” is lumped in with the Sicilian contribution; in all other respects, the figures are exactly those of a dry official return.
We Englishmen stick to our Port and Sherry, despite the attractions of the secondary wines of France and Germany. France, pre-eminently the home of the vine, and the skilled manufacturer of the diviner drinks which alleviate the trials of suffering humanity, supplies us with a trifle more than eight per cent. of our entire consumption.
In other words, for every eight bottles of Claret and Champagne and Burgundy and Hermitage drunk in these islands, we uncork and consume about thirty-nine bottles of Sherry and thirty-seven bottles of Port. One is scarcely prepared for such a conclusion, for within the last twenty years there appears to have occurred a remarkable change in the character of the wines served at the houses of the opulent classes.
The absence of the claret-jug after dinner at the table of a professional man or merchant in London would now be remarked. Twenty years ago, its presence would have been regarded as a phenomenon, and as a proof of hidden opulence or of the recklessness of approaching bankruptcy.
How is this? Is the explanation beer? — origin? — or habit? — or tea and coffee? — or a damp climate? — or the duty of 5 s. 9d. per gallon? It is very much the fashion to attribute the result to the last cause, and to assume that if a duty of 1 s.were substituted for the 5 s. 9d. duty, we should all become drinkers of the lighter and cheaper wines of Germany and France. It is doubtful if this be so. The leading houses in the wine-trade have for the last half century over and over again made experiments as to the possibility of bringing the lighter wines of the continent into fashion, and these experiments have universally failed.
They have been compelled to re-export their ventures to the French ports – to Hamburg or elsewhere, and to put up with their losses as best they might. The danger in such cases is lest we argue from a limited experience. There are a few thousands of travelling English who wander about on the continent for a few months or weeks of every year, and return home with the most earnest desire to obtain the drink of their holiday for the drink of their working lives.
Would even this extremely limited section of the community persist in their exceptional appetencies when sucked back again into the monotonous British vortex of beer, sherry, and port? — or, if they did so in the dog-days, would they do so in the midst of the November fogs – the February snows – and the east winds of March? Could the Chancellor of the Exchequer depend upon their consistency? At present wine contributes no less a sum than£1,800,000 to the imperial revenue, and if a loss were incurred from this source, it must be made up from another.
How would English ladies — of course we are speaking only of the upper ten thousand take to Maconnais and the wines of Basse Bourgogne? From our own experience, we should say, not at all. At the dinner-table and at the buffet of the ballroom, they are not averse to one, it may be two, glasses of sparkling Clicquot, well iced; but the dear creatures invariably reject claret as “nasty sour stuff” – ay, were it the primest growth of Chateau Margaux or Laffitte. At their leg-of-mutton luncheons at 2 p.m., the seraphim appear to prefer pale ale or bottled stout. But the consumption of the ten or twenty thousand is nothing to the purpose.
The question is, what would the millions do? Would the sailor give up his rum and the cabman his beer? Would the hundreds of thousands of port-and-sherry families become drinkers of second-class French wines? The consumption of wines of the finer sort has little or nothing to do with the question, and would in all probability remain unchanged. When you give 84 s. a dozen for claret, the duty does not enter in any very obstructive manner into price.
The present consumption of foreign wine in these islands is about 6,500,000 gallons. It is therefore obvious that in order to retain the revenue from this source at its present amount – namely, £l,800,000 — you must stimulate consumption to the extent of 36,000,000 gallons, and even then the loss upon the Customs and Excise consequent upon the abandonment of beer and spirits has to be made up. It is a strange thing to say, but it really appears more than doubtful if the wine-growing countries of Europe could supply us with such a quantity of wine, such as Englishmen would look at.
The area of production of the finer growths is circumscribed within the narrowest limits. Sir J. Emerson Tennent, in his recent and most valuable work upon this subject, has collected the statistics of some of the more valuable growths. We venture to take a few of his figures. Clos Vougeot grows in a farm of eighty acres -Romanée Conti in one of six and a half. The Mont Rachet of the Cote d’Or is divided into three classes; one of which sells at one-third less than the other two.
One small valley in Madeira produces, or used to produce, the finest Malmsey. The red wines of Portugal, made in the Alto Douro, cannot be made in the adjoining provinces. The district of the Rheingau, between Rudesheim and Mayence, is about nine miles in length, and four-and-a-half in breadth. The south side of a little hill produces the far famed Johannisberg, and the Steinberg – its costly mate – is grown in the vineyard of a suppressed monastery.
All chemical and agricultural skill has broken down in the attempt to improve or extend the growth of the vines for wine-growing purposes. Bacchus will have nothing to do with guano. A solemn inquiry was made in the year 1849 in France upon this point, and here are the very words of the Report in answer:
“C’est un fait notoire, que généralement (aparté les plantes de premier choix) la vigne a dégénéré en France, qu’elle a perdu en délicatesse une partie de ce qu’on lui a fait gagner en fécondité; et que l’adoption des nouvelles méthodes de culture, l’invasion des races communes, l’abus des iumures et des engrais n’ont multiplié ses fruits qu’en altérant leur primitif saveur.”
This is a curious fact, but it finds its counterpart in the history of the tobacco-plant. The very finest leaf can only be procured from one gently sloping hill in the island of Cuba. The soil has been analysed, and, as far as human skill could do it, re-produced. The plants have been set under the same aspect, and submitted to the same thermometrical and hygrometrical conditions, but the result has been — invariable failure.
With regard to wines of a second-class, another fact must be borne in mind. When we assume that the consumption of wines in this country would be increased to any great extent, we assume also that their price would undergo a proportionate increase.
It would also be well to examine what is the result when the duty is next to nothing in amount. In Holland the population remain constant to their beer and their Hollands. In Belgium the duty is but one penny a gallon,and yet the Belgians consume but three bottles of wine a-head per annum. Beer, again. In Paris, on the other hand, the consumption is enormous; it is estimated at from 138 to 216 bottles per head; notwithstanding the octroi.
On the whole it is much to be apprehended that any reduction of duties, however large, would have but a slight effect upon the consumption of a country wedded to other habits and other drinks. The annual British consumption of Port and Sherry is about 2,500,000 gallons of each; of Sherry, perhaps, an approach to 3,000,000 gallons would be nearer the mark. To these two wines we are constant. They have become thoroughly naturalised.
Madeira has suffered from blight. The production of that imperial wine has fallen off from 300,295 gallons, in 1827, to 42,874 gallons in 1854; and even this limited quantity will probably be reduced in amount. The explanation must be sought for in the blight which fell upon the vineyards some seven or eight years ago; and to the fact, that the Madeira farmers have discovered that it answers their purpose better to grow the plants on which the cochineal insect finds its food.
Alas! for the lost Pleiad! Alas! for that royal wine! Our only consolation must be that there remains enough in stock for the use of men now of middle age. Posterity must take care of itself. Our descendants could never appreciate the pungency of our regret, or the extent of their own loss. It is something to have lived through the Madeira epoch of the world. Finally, it must have struck every London diner-out, how much Rhenish wine has disappeared from the table within the last few years. England now only takes 60,000 gallons of wine from the Rheingau, and from the bright Moselle – and Germany imports more wine for her own use than she exports for foreign consumption.
Take it all for all, the British Islands are not badly off in respect of drink. No Englishman of sane mind will speak lightly of such beer as can now be produced in this country. Our tea is better than can be found elsewhere out of China, Russia excepted; and in our coffee there is a marked improvement. If we regret that practical experience has shown that the finer sorts of Burgundy suffer from sea-sickness, in compensation we are obtaining far easier access to the Gironde, and the more delicate wines of Bordeaux.
There is, however, a striking deterioration in Port: the finer qualities ordered are almost beyond the reach of persons of moderate means; but Sherry, for ordinary purposes, is better, and more readily procurable than it used to be twenty years ago.Marsala is no bad substitute for the inferior sorts. Compare our happy condition with that of the ancients! who, having cut out blocks of the hardened nastiness which they called wine, melted them in hot water to stimulate their praises of these products of Asia or Arcadia.