Empire & vine

New Zealand’s Church Road winery was founded in 1897
New Zealand’s Church Road winery was founded in 1897.

The debate around the legacies of British imperialism continues to rage, yet few of us stop to consider the pivotal role that empire played in creating the modern wine market.

To be sure, there are several drinks commonly associated with European imperialism. The gin and tonic rose to popularity in British colonial India as a refreshing way to consume quinine, which helped to ward off malaria. The hoppy India Pale Ale style of beer, now a staple of craft microbreweries, was developed in the early 19th century because it could withstand travelling long distances on British naval vessels – the hops acted as a natural preservative to keep beer fresh.

But it turns out that wine, too, was buoyed by the mass movements of people and goods throughout European empires. Britain was especially important in building wine industries in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, and in trading wine of all countries of origin across its vast global networks. British consumers at home and abroad were thirsty for wine, and entrepreneurial colonial settlers were keen to make and sell wine to quench that thirst.

Wine’s New World got its start as European colonies

The New World of wine is not all that new. People in what are now Argentina, Chile and the western United States started making wine in the 1500s, in South Africa in the 1650s, in Australia in the 1780s, and in New Zealand by the 1840s. In all of these cases, the winemakers were European colonists – Spanish, Dutch and British – who
had arrived by sea and settled there.

In fact, as I show in my book, Imperial Wine, planting a vineyard was a priority for British settlers on arrival in a new land, and ships that carried settlers also carried vine cuttings to plant on arrival. European vines did not survive in British North America, but they took hold in many parts of the southern hemisphere, beginning a tradition of winemaking that continues to this day.

Grape-growing was viewed as a good strategy for adding value to land. Colonisers hoped that making wine would be lucrative and would also allow British people to drink ‘British’ wine, rather than importing it from imperial rivals.

Colonies taught Brits they could like wine

Wine barrels unloaded from ships in the London Docks, Stepney, in the late 19th century. Credit: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

The determination to produce wine in British colonies might surprise us: not only did Britain not produce wine domestically during the colonial period, but ordinary British people had a reputation for preferring beer and hard spirits. Many historians have noted that French wine was expensive and out of reach for most ordinary people, and that overall per-capita wine consumption was low.

While it is true that beer sales far outstripped wine sales in Britain throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, a closer look at the historical evidence shows a robust trade in colonial wines, and that this wine was relatively cheap and probably consumed by middle- and working-class people. In early Victorian Britain (from the late 1830s onwards), there was as much wine imported from South Africa as there was from France.

If historians start from the assumption that only posh people drank wine, they tend to look for historical evidence of posh people drinking wine. It’s clear that wealthy Victorian consumers preferred French wines to South African ones. But for lots of ordinary drinkers in the 1800s and early 1900s, colonial wines were an affordable introduction to wine. During the two world wars, sometimes the only wines available to purchase in Britain were from South Africa or French colonial Algeria, leaving consumers with no choice but to buy colonial wine.

Vineyards in British colonies attracted European wine talent

The British role in building colonial wine industries seems particularly improbable as British settlers had no experience of growing grapes or making…

Source : https://www.decanter.com/wine/empire-vine-497755/

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