Wine of the times: Appreciation in the 19th century

Luncheon of the Boating Party by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1881
Luncheon of the Boating Party by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1881.

A dinner scene in HG Wells’ The Time Machine depicts the sombre Time Traveller making ‘a motion towards the wine’. Offered ‘a glass of Champagne’, he drinks. ‘It seemed to do him good,’ writes Wells, ‘and the ghost of his old smile flickered across his face.’ Boarding the time machine to Wells’ 19th-century Britain, what would today’s wine lover encounter? And would it make you smile?

Innovations of the 19th century included bottles instead of casks, wine available at the grocer’s shop (in addition to the wine merchant), and expanding opportunities for women to partake in wine tasting amid polite society. Overall, wine quality improved, and some trends seem uncannily familiar, such as the natural wine movement, investing in wine, and steadily increasing diversity of wine styles, with myriad food pairings. So, was the world of wine really so different in the 19th century?

Grocery, wines and women

…In many ways, yes. Popping into the equivalent of Tesco or Sainsbury’s to buy a few bottles alongside some bread and cheese wasn’t so easy. Shopping involved visiting ‘the baker, the grocer, the wine merchant over the way’, according to the 1861 Temple Bar: A London Magazine for Town and Country Readers. In fact, the latest fad of allowing grocers to sell individual bottles of wine provoked great controversy in 1870s Britain. ‘This retail sale of wine is opposed,’ noted one commentary, ‘by the wine merchants and by the publicans’ afraid of losing business, but not only that.

‘It is alleged by teetotallers, and by many others’ that bottled wine so easily for sale on grocers’ shelves ‘greatly encourages intemperance’. An evil lurked behind ‘obtaining wine at such innocent-looking places as grocers’ shops’. Women, the argument went, now ‘indulge in secret drinking’, which could easily demoralise ‘great numbers of them’.

Indeed, women and wine did not go together at the century’s commencement. In finer homes, while women could participate in ‘the pleasures of the table’ with the ‘gentlemen’, after supper, ‘when the bottles, filled with Madeira, Burgundy, claret, or Port wine, begin to circulate briskly’ the ladies had to ‘retire to their own apartments’, explained the 1800 Lady’s Magazine. This custom waned. By 1865, the optimistically titled book Wine, as it is Drank in England: And as it Should Be, Pure, Wholesome and Refreshing remarked that ‘happily, the practice of soaking, “after the ladies have left the room”, is nearly extinct’. Women with wine knowledge became apropos.

Robert Druitt, a practising medic and popular writer, including on ‘cheap’ quality wines, even published ‘notes of what I think would be a useful lecture to ladies, should they desire to learn the elements of oenology’.

Wine quality

Luncheon Still Life by John F Francis, c.1860. Credit: Shawshots / Alamy Stock Photo

Maybe the ladies in 1800 were fortunate. For much of the century, the quality of newfangled, bottled retail ‘wine’ left much to be desired. There were ‘English wines’ and then there were ‘foreign wines’. One widely read guide offered instructions for making the ‘English’ styles, including claret, ‘Frontigniac’, Champagne and Port. Claret-making, for example, followed a straightforward recipe. ‘Take six gallons of water, two gallons of cyder, and eight pounds of Malaga raisins bruised; put them all together, and let them stand close covered in a warm place for a fortnight.’ Next, they added ‘a quart of barberries, a pint of the juice of raspberries, and a pint of the juice of black cherries’ plus ‘a little mustard seed’. Lacking a legal definition of wine, such preparations inundated the market.

Yet, with increasing wine knowledge and lower costs for a cascade of new imported wines, people began to avoid such concoctions. What did the middle classes at…

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Wine of the times: Appreciation in the 19th century Wine of the times: Appreciation in the 19th century *Wine of the times: Appreciation in the 19th century