by Charlie Leary

Pouring Politics

A recent article in Punch argued that we must re-inject politics into wine: “Without politics, terroir is just soil.” The article’s pretext was that some sort of ideological power play has occurred over the last 50 years in which wine discourse has been falsely and perhaps dangerously divorced from political considerations. It’s just “natural” that wine should be enjoyed, apolitically. And that ideology deserves deconstruction, the author argues.

Of course, politicised wine is not to everyone’s liking. Two of the periods and places possessing the most extreme politicisation of wine were 18th century Britain (then newly formed) and 21st century Spain, three centuries apart. Both pertained to consumption of a particular wine from a particular appellation by particular people, who expressed their political feelings, protest, and opposition through wine. Both involved one national territory embedded within another.

The Jacobites’ Wine

The story in Britain provides a fascinating example of political wine, most profoundly represented by Bordeaux claret. Taking for granted the whole history of Eleanor of Aquitaine and how claret conquered English taste, we jump forward to the 17th century when the Scots and the French became best buddies. Long sojourns and educational terms spent in France became de rigueur for elites. All Scots, even the Highlanders, consumed vast quantities of cheap, light claret. Scottish trade networks supplied the demand. Then, oversimplifying a bit, just before the so-called Glorious Revolution, Château Haut-Brion pioneered a new style of claret: stronger, more extracted and phenolic, with substantial tannins. In an event of marketing genius, they even opened a tavern in London, called Pontac’s Head, to serve the wine. English elites loved the new claret and all the winegrowers of Bordeaux began copying the style, which sounded the death knell for the previous, rosé-hued claret. Conquering the market with the new product took a few decades, during which time Scotland joined England in the Union of 1707, and a greater number of Scottish lords spent time in London. The love of what became known as the “new French claret” spread to Edinburgh and from there across Scotland.

Traders embraced the stronger red wine because it required ageing, could be blended, and thus created a wine that could be stored, sold year-round and shipped well, replacing the previous boom-bust cycle of wine sales based on the harvest, which usually resulted in a product that would soon turn to vinegar.

In the meantime, King James Stuart II and his court travelled in exile to Paris and then Rome. His most loyal followers were the Scottish Jacobites, and they loved claret. The British government instituted laws that effectively politicised French wine, and particularly claret from Bordeaux. This prominently included vastly higher customs duties on French compared to Spanish and Portuguese wine, which caused, in return, smuggling and systematically falsified customs declarations, a trade practice dominated by the Jacobites. More intriguingly for the topic here, the British criminalised toasting to the health of King James Stuart (II and III) and his family.

Wine toasting constituted a daily ritual, whether in taverns and coffee houses or at the family dinner table, with guests. It possessed nearly tangible cultural significance, providing a chance to express respect, political loyalties, and national identity. Several layers existed. First, the Scots toasted loudly with claret, produced by their friends the French. This demonstrated their undermining of the British attempt to snuff out French wine in the national market. Such toasting was nearly universal among patriotic Scots, whether Whig, Tory, Jacobite, or somewhere in between.

Second, the vast majority of this claret landed in Scotland via smuggling or customs fraud; it was what the Scots called “fair trade” wine. This supported the politicised Scottish wine trading network, with its base in Bordeaux, also involving various entrepôts in Guernsey, Amsterdam, Bilbao, and Boulogne-sur-Mer.

Third, the Tories and Jacobites toasted, again loudly, to the health of King James and his sons. This was a criminal act. Convictions for the loyal toast commonly resulted in 18-month to two-year sentences,  which, historian Murray Pittock points out, “in an 18th century  prison might well be a death sentence.” There were thousands, if not tens of thousands, of prosecutions in England as well as Scotland at the time. The most common Jacobite toast, accompanied by words or surreptitiously and silently, was to pass a glass filled with claret over a water glass, symbolising a toast to the “king over the water,” James III.

Fourth, claret toasting combined with advances in glassmaking, again in both England and Scotland, but Scotland excelled, relying on their friends across the water. Already by the 1630s, coal-fired glassworks in and near Edinburgh started producing strong, round green glass wine bottles (suitable for transporting ageable wine) but also wine glasses and, eventually decanters, initially using Venetian and French glass masters. By the time of the 1715 Jacobite rebellion — a major political event— Edinburgh’s fine wine glasses were etched with the words of Jacobite claret toasts. Pittock gives some 18th century examples: “The king” (the toast over water) or Lord Duff’s toast (‘ABC’ for ‘A Blessed Change’, ‘QRS’ for ‘Quickly Return, Stuart’) or the use of coded terms: King James III’s son “Bonnie Prince Charlie” as “an buachaillban” (the white-headed boy) or James as “an bricleir” (the bricklayer). One of my favorite Jacobite claret glasses was recently auctioned. It bears the symbolic Stuart thistle plus the words, “HANOVER TO THE DEVIL” and “DAMNATION TO THE UNION.” No subtlety there. Imagine imbibing a Bordeaux superior in such polarizing glassware.

Politics Crystalized

Many more phrases and symbols existed, skillfully etched onto Jacobite glass and crystal. Possessing such claret paraphernalia, was, of course, also criminalised. By the early 1720s, the French government was actively encouraging the smuggling and fraud involving Bordeaux wine, which added to general French prosperity, weakened Britain’s tax revenues, and enhanced both local and federal tax income under Louis XV. Jacobite glass also appeared in France.

Thus, political wine, as a species of opposition, invaded the spheres of international politics, taxation, trade, “modern” manufacturing, conspicuous consumption, and both written and verbal discourse. Bordeaux claret was infused with so many political facets it’s almost mind boggling. And sales prospered. Charles Ludington, whose history of wine politics is well worth reading, concluded that actual exports of Bordeaux claret to Edinburgh (technically Leith) were 55 times greater than official British import figures during the 18th century.

The criminalisation of claret toasting even drew the ire of the Bordeaux philosopher cum vigneron Charles de Montesquieu, who is viewed as the progenitor of modern liberal republicanism. He condemned Britain’s criminal statute as a sign of incipient despotism in his popular book on the ancient Romans in 1734. His words, in turn, were spurned by the Whig press in London. Of course, he was defending his own product.

The Cava Boycotts

Having briefly examined 18th century Britain’s political wine, there’s a little space for turning to Cava in our century. Cava, the sparkling wine, more than any other product, symbolised Catalonian identity. When Catalunya appeared close to self-declaring independence from Spain during two moments, around 2004-05 and 2014, drinking a particular wine (or not) again became an expressive political act. The parallels with 18th century Scotland and Britain are intriguing. Once again, the dominant power, the Spanish (as opposed to the Catalans), believed that suppressing consumption of a particular wine would harm their political opponent. In non-political times, the Spanish love Cava and generally drinks tons of it. But not when Catalunya threatened autonomy (2004) or, in fact, separation (2014). Hence, the Spanish Cava boycotts of those years.

I remember friends in Granada during Christmas 2004 refusing to buy Cava, the traditional Spanish drink of that season. The same friends in 2014 helped host Anthony Bourdain during his Granada visit, and again, no to Cava. He tried plenty of red Rioja and Ribera wine accompanying the city’s wonderful tapas, but of the fizzy stuff from San Sadurní d’Anoia, not a drop. I also remember the streets of Tarragona filled with Spanish national police waiting to suppress violent protests as the Catalonian independence leaders were being arrested for treason. The thing is, in the bars of that city as in Barcelona, plenty of Cava was served and proudly so. Just as with the Scottish Jacobites 300 years earlier, the Catalonians turned to their politicised wine with gusto.

Two economists studied the Cava boycotts and determined that, economically speaking, the 2004 boycott was a draw, or perhaps even helped Cava sales. “For the [Spanish] regions that suffered a negative impact, the boycott amounted to a drop of revenues from sales between 5.8 and 9.8% over the period 2004-2007, depending on the region. For the regions that enjoyed a positive impact [i.e. Catalunya], the increase in revenues is estimated to be between 7.3 and 8.4% over the same period.” Those figures are not quite as impressive as those for (illegal) Bordeaux imports to Edinburgh, but the same point is made.

Recently, the D.O. Cava governing board extended the sparkling wine appellation well beyond Catalunya to include places as far away as Extremadura. No one I know of has linked that to Cava’s politicisation and the boycotts, but it wouldn’t surprise me, this being an easy inference. Cava is now officially Spain’s “national” sparkling wine.

I enjoy Bordeaux reds and certainly Cava, which still mostly comes from Catalunya. Do we enjoy wines more for being political? Knowing the history certainly adds character to the drinking experience, another hue. In the end, politicising wine may actually spur sales, something the industry seems to be seeking.

Photo by Anca Gabriela Zosin on Unsplash

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