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When Harry wed Ellie

by Philippe Boucheron, 08/02

We all enjoy an opportunity of dressing up and going out to share a good dinner with some like-minded friends. Last year it was the 50th anniversary of the first publication of Elizabeth David's seminal book on French Country Cooking. This year we have to go back much further; to a day some 850 years ago, to the 18th May 1152 to be precise, and the Romanesque cathedral of Poitiers, when a stocky youth of 19 married a tall, sophisticated, beautiful auburn haired woman of 30.

He was Henry Plantagenet and she was Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine, Countess of Poitou and the former Queen of Louis VII of France. Between them they would found a kingdom, based in Chinon, and encompassing all of Aquitaine. Within two years he would be crowned King Henry II of England, and their two sons, Richard Coeur de Lion and John Lackland, would become the stuff of history.

But as gourmets, our interest lies in the vast vineyards that Eleanor bought in her dowry, rather than the romance of a king being held to ransom on his return from a Crusade, or the legendary Robin of Sherwood and his battles against John's erstwhile chum, the Sheriff of Nottingham.

 
The tombs of Henry II and Eleanor of
Aquitaine in the Abbeye de Fontevraud,
not far from Chinon in the Loire Valley.

Seldom had a bridal gift contained such treasures as all the land between the Loire and the Pyrenees, including the vineyards of Bordeaux. And it was to remain under The English crown until that fateful day on the 20th July 1453, when 79 year-old John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, lost it all at the battle of Châtillon to the Bastard of Orleans, General Daunois.

Throughout those 301 years these robust and warming wines found a ready market with English noblemen and gentry who, following the Norman invasion of 1066, had quite a drop of French blood in their veins. They were certainly more to their liking in their damp and draughty castles and manor houses than the thin English wines made in neighbouring abbeys and monasteries.

However, first the French wines had to be selected and shipped to England. Since the winegrowers were then, as many remain now, only farmers, there was a need for merchants - or negociant - to act as wholesalers. They in turn were assisted by wine brokers called courtiers en vins, who were the middlemen between the merchants and growers.

The merchants set up warehouses along the quays of Bordeaux where they could receive the wines sent down the rivers Dordogne and Garonne. And it was from here that they were sent by larger ships bound for Bristol and London and the south coast ports of England. Later, in an attempt to preserve the 'auld alliance', and drive a wedge between Scotland and England, Napoleon would allow wine to be shipped from Bordeaux to the ports of Glasgow and Leith while he still tried to blockade England. In turn this fostered a successful Scottish wine trade that still flourishes today.
 

But back to those early days long before the glass bottle or the arrival of cork stoppers from Spain and Portugal. In those days wine was shipped in large barrels. A 'tun' or 'ton' held the equivalent to 252 imperial gallons, and the size of a ship was measured by the number of tons that it could carry. In time this liquid measure became a universally accepted shipping weight.

The empty ships came from England loaded with Cornish granite as ballast. This was much prized by French masons and it is reputed that the cathedral of St-André in Bordeaux is built with English stone, while the streets of St-Emilion are said to be paved with Cornish cobbles.

Ever eager to get their hands on fine wines, pirates from The Netherlands and Scandinavia would hi-jack the ships laden with wine on their way back to England. As a result, soldiers were put on board to fight off marauders and this, it is said, was the birth of what became the Royal Navy.

The secret of Bordeaux's success as the most important quality wine-producing region in the world lies in its inhospitable, gravely soil and variable climate. The soil was brought down from the Massif Central during the Ice Age by glaciers that gouged out the valleys of the rivers Dordogne and Garonne. They converge just beyond the city of Bordeaux to form the Gironde.

 

The gravel - or graves - reflects the sun's rays during the day and acts as a radiator, storing heat for the cold of night. It is also rich in minerals and trace elements that contribute to the subtle character and fine flavours of the wines. The region's climate, influenced by Atlantic weather systems, is at the extreme at which fine wines can be produced. As a result the wines change from vintage to vintage.

However the Médoc, that magic finger of land that runs north from Bordeaux and along which are the most precious of all châteaux, was at one time virtually a bog. It took industrious Dutch engineers to dig dykes and to drain the soil before vines could be successfully grown.

Bordeaux is not only the wine capital of the world; it is also a whole world of wine in its own right. Red, rosé and white, sweet and dry, Bordeaux is a veritable Bacchanalian cornucopia of wines ranging from patrician red and dry whites created by internationally famed châteaux, through easily approachable and less exalted examples, to the delectable delights of botrytis-blessed Barsac and Sauternes. And we must include Clairette, the young rosé wine of the region made by bleeding off some red juice after a night's maceration, and from which we get the word Claret.

It is all too easy to forget that until Gustave Eiffel - he of the eponymous tower and the infrastructure of New York's Statue of Liberty - built his railway bridges across the Garonne and Dordogne, Claret was better known and understood in London than in Paris. Indeed it was Emperor Louis-Napoleon's embarrassment in discovering, on his visit to the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, that the British knew more about his wines than his own experts, that led to him to set up the commission which resulted in the famous classification of 1855. But that is altogether a different story for another day.

This year we should be concentrating on that Whit-Saturday 350 years ago when Harry wed Ellie. Drink to their blessed memory - in Claret of course.


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