From brandy to Bass Pale Ale: Algernon Swinburne’s path to sobriety

The poetry of Algernon Swinburne was written to shock Victorian morals and moralisers. He sang of Lesbianism and boasted of his own bestialising tendencies. He was certainly addicted to drink and (probably) flagellation. Just how perverted his sexual tastes were, is a matter of debate. Continue reading

You can tell by the smallness of the glass how precious the contents were’: wine glass size in the 19th century

As part of their Christmas 2017 edition, the British Medical Journal published a fascinating article looking at ‘Wine glass size in England from 1700 to 2017’ and asking whether ‘downsizing can reduce alcohol consumption. The answer, based on a range of studies, seems to be yes – but that’s not the focus of this post.

The article by Theresa Marteau and colleagues at Cambridge University obtained measurements of 411 different wine glasses dating from the 1700 to the present day. Their conclusion was that glass size has increased sevenfold in around 300 years with by far the greatest increases in size coming in the last thirty years or so. For the article and data go to http://www.bmj.com/content/bmj/359/bmj.j5623.full.pdf. It’s well worth reading. But it was their graphic (reproduced with permission below) that set me thinking and checking my own data for nineteenth-century.

The Cambridge team’s data shows a slow rise from 1700 to the late nineteenth century before the growth in capacity appears to level off slightly before beginning to rise again during and after the Second World War.

Glass size_281217GlassCapacity-MeanTimeTrend – reproduced by kind permission of Dominique-Laurent Couturier, University of Cambridge

However, they are not the first to consider glass size as an indicator of consumer behaviour. In 1861, there was an editorial in The Times which made a rather similar point about the growth in size. Talking about the new-found enthusiasm for wine produced by Gladstone’s budgets of 1860 and 1861 which drastically cut the duties on wine and kick-started a consumer boom, the paper noted first the shift to new types of wine. Claiming (rightly) that ‘there is no limit to the variety of flavour, substance, and quality at our command’, they suggested that future historians (i.e. people like me) would think it a ‘curious characteristic that in England once upon a time, the only wines known were port and sherry, and that both of were luxuries’. They further observed that in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century:

Wine, in fact, was not a beverage, but a liqueur. It was at once too strong and too dear. Nobody could take it at meal-times in the ordinary way of drink, and few could afford to consume it by pints, or half-pints, or at draught. It was preserved carefully in a decanter, and brought out of the cupboard on holydays and measured into glasses carefully sized. An English wine-glass of the last century tells its own tale, like the salt-cellar of an old Indian dinner service. You see by the smallness of the article how precious the contents were thought.

Times, they inferred, were changing and with them the size of wine glass. Other comments in the 1860s and 1870s backed them up and suggest that wine bars of the period were just as conscious as their twenty-first century counterparts of the glass size effect in increasing consumption and sales. In 1868, the popular wine writer Edward Beckwith warned his readers that glass sizes were increasing and instructed his readers to give a ‘timely and not quite unnecessary instruction to the officiating domestic’ not to fill the glass to the brim. His concern appeared to be that a brimming glass adversely affected the drinking experience. taste.  Commercial venues got into the larger glass act. In 1870, an advertising ‘puff’ in the London City Press noted of the flourishing ‘Bodega’ chain of wine bars that they used a ‘dock tasting glass’ more than double the size of the ‘ordinary glass’. Doctor Frederick Anstie, writing in 1877 of his concern that ‘young dancing ladies’ might unknowingly over-indulge warned that’ of late years there has been a marked tendency to make [glasses] larger the formerly’. The London Standard (possibly after a glance at the cuttings library) reiterated The Times’ 1861 point  in an 1882 article. Talking of champagne, they wrote that in the early part of the century:

the precious wine was poured into a prolonged thimble, in which froth largely predominated. In fact, you were intended to sip rather than to drink it. That would seem to us now an odious and churlish custom. […] Now the demand is for big spacious glasses.

By then the ‘tall, old-fashioned champagne glasses’ were only fit for filling with ‘pretty moss’ as part of a flower arrangement –  or so thought the Aberdeen Journal in 1880.

It’s possible that the Cambridge data has been slightly skewed by the continued presence in the market of smaller-size port glasses, for which the standard size remained at 2 fluid ounces (around 50 ml) for many years.

But, it seems probable that the size of ‘standard’ wine glasses increased during the wine boom of the 1860s and early 1870s; certainly the size of champagne glasses did. To quote the Aberdeen Journal again; this time from an 1888 article on the economics of hotels and restaurants:

the restaurant-keeper is making a golden harvest by the sale of wine. He can well afford to give a tempting and luxurious dinner at a few shillings a head when he knows that champagne will be freely used at it. A good bottle of champagne is not now to be had at a restaurant under twelve or fifteen shillings, and then the wine-glasses which are cunningly adopted are very large, one bottle filling about four glasses, so that relays of champagne are necessary.

Translated to old imperial measures and bottle sizes that meant close to half-pint glasses. And another thing. Restaurateurs preferred to serve lighter champagnes, which meant Chardonnay-driven blends rather than the stronger, black grape wines dominated by Pinot Noir. A customer would be satisfied with one bottle of the black grape blends but would take two of the Chardonnay-dominated wines. But that’s another story for another time.

‘Meurtre au Champagne’

It was the author – Agatha Christie – and title that got me. Translated back into English that’s ‘Murder by Champagne’ and it took a moment to work out that this must be the novel that Christie published in 1945 – ‘Sparkling Cyanide’.

‘Sparkling Cyanide’ movie poster (note the yellow iris) and ‘Meurtre au Champagne’

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Champagne – the return of the pint?

Since Pol Roger announced in late August 2016 that they were planning to revive the tradition of supplying champagne in pint bottles, the pro-Brexit British press has been loud in its approval of this decision. A ‘deeply civilised measure’ according to Jonathan Ray in the Spectator; a ‘victory for common sense’ claimed the Express. ‘God’s own bottle size’ according to Simon Berry, the chairman of Berry Bros & Rudd. Continue reading

‘Bringing happiness, one glass at a time’: Digby Fine English Sparkling Wine

‘Bringing happiness, one glass at a time’ is the unofficial mission statement of Digby Fine English – or so suggests their co-founder. The brand is named after Sir Kenelm Digby and portraits of the seventeenth-century courtier, cookbook author and pirate (hardly the life of the blessed Delia) suggest he was a man who appreciated happiness – and pleasure.

Sir Kenelm Digby, from an 18th C folio on Knights of the Realm.

Sir Kenelm Digby (courtesty of http://www.ArgentCellars.com)

And a lot of people owe him rather a lot in the way of hedonistic joie de vivre. The weight of the evidence suggests that he was the man who made English glass the strongest in Europe and in so doing kickstarted the champagne industry. Without bottles that can withstand pressure sparkling wine can never get beyond mere ‘creaming’. Full-blooded sparkling wine generates a pressure of around 6 atmospheres (think the tyres of a London bus).

So, it’s perhaps fitting that Sir Kenelm’s name (and currently modest fame) has been appropriated by a resolutely English brand of sparkling wine. At the Oxford Foodies Festival last weekend I had the pleasure of tasting Digby Sparkling wine in the company of co-founder Trevor Clough. Trevor, with the support of husband Jason Humphrey (the co-founder) and wine-maker Dermot Sugrue (ex-Nyetimber and now making his own wine), has created a wine with considerable personality and considerable sophistication.

... , Trevor Clough, Jason Humphries, and new chairman Ewen Cameron

The Digby Fine English team (courtesy of http://www.ukvine.com)

The Reserve Brut of 2009 has a French term on its label (rather to Digby’s founders’ regret) but apart from grapes (Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay) and soil (the chalk arc that spreads from norther France to southern England) it owes little to France. The taste – to my palate – is dry, precise, refined and vivid. More Laurent-Perrier Extra Dry than Bollinger.

It’s also a quite ‘vinous’ taste – an annoyingly common and ill-defined word that pops up all the time in nineteenth-century descriptions of wine. In essence it means that it tastes like wine – which is not quite so common in these days of fruity ferments and over-yeasted and (arguably) over-carbonated sparkling wines. For the Digby wine guys it’s important not to be a champagne ‘me-too’. English sparkling wine must in their view (and mine too) stand on its own feet and find its own style.

The style, dressing and personality of the brand is English – with a lion on the label, houndstooth foil with a purple lining and a Fortnum & Mason’s scotch egg in the background. English-ness has always been a challenge for luxury brands. How do you steer a course between Aston Martins and warm bitter? It will be fascinating to see how Digby deal with this challenge.

Digby Fine English

The Digby Fine English range

One of the key business (if not stylistic) influences on the brand is the Napa Valley sparkling wine industry. A tour of the area convinced Jason and Trevor that a négociant model made more sense than a grower / producer model. Better to buy in grapes than grow your own. That enables each player in the value chain to focus on their own set of skills rather than trying to master them all – a lesson straight out of the business consultancy playbook.

A couple of Harpers interviews (www.harpers.co.uk) speak to the quality of the liquid – as do a clutch of awards including Gold for the Reserve Brut 2009 at the Champagne and Sparkling Wine World Championships 2014 – and the recent deal with the Leander Club to become the official supplier of pink fizz testifies to the marketing nous of the Digby pair and their advisers.

Digby Leander Pink NV

Out with the lion, in with the Leander Club hippo

Champagne was always a recommended drink on the nineteenth-century for athletes and jockeys (and horses – though that’s another story) so I look forward to a generation of Olympic oarsmen fuelled by fizz. And, I hope, a successful future for Digby (www.digby-fine-english.com).

Laurent-Perrier Ultra Brut – a history of innovation

If you like your champagne dry then you’ll know of Laurent-Perrier’s Ultra Brut. You may not have had the chance to taste it, since it’s produced only in very great years. With no dosage at all, the Ultra Brut is, as the company puts it, a wine ‘without make-up’, a wine in its natural form. Very pale and bright with citrus, white fruit and honeysuckle on the nose it’s a great wine with seafood and oysters but also with foie gras.

ultra brut seashore

Laurent-Perrier’s Ultra Brut

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Sauternes gets a sparkle

The family that owns Smith Haut Lafitte last week launched a light Sauternes to be mixed with Perrier water and drunk as an aperitif. Traditional Sauternes lovers are dubious – and probably not reassured by the family’s statement that ‘those who don’t disrupt existing models will have difficulty surviving.’

However, it’s far from the first wine cocktail and very far from the first sparkling Sauternes.

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Champagne on tap – Pommery style

In the last couple of days there’s  been a fuss in the British press about ‘prosecco on tap’. There are plenty of bars up and down the land where this has been on offer for the last year or so. Now the Consorzio de Conegliano Valdobbiadene have threatened to take the venues to court. EU rules say prosecco (like champagne) can only be sold from the bottle. The Italians claim that drinking it from a tap causes confusion and damages their sales. But there’s a rather fine Pommery precedent from the 1920s… Continue reading

Champagne versus sparkling wine: the Bothy Vineyard challenge

The Bothy Vineyard (www.bothy-vineyard.co.uk) is Oxford’s nearest vineyard. Run with imagination and dedication by Richard and Sian Liwicki, it produces award-winning white, rosé and red wines. New from Bothy this year is their sparkling brut rosé, Halcyon Days. But this piece is not a plug for Bothy but an opportunity to write about a remarkable tasting last month.

Bothy vineyard

The Bothy Vineyard

Richard is, to put it politely, a bit of a sceptic about champagne. He reckons that there are sparkling wines in the market which are not only preferred by tasters but considerably better value than the real stuff. So, he challenged a group of the Bothy’s friends (we all put in a few days’ work a year in the vineyard in return for a bottle or two and some of Sian’s top-notch cooking) to produce their best bottle of champagne or sparkling wine for a taste-off.

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Back to the terroir – Lambrusco re-booted

I went a week or so ago to the inaugural Oxford Wine Festival (www.Oxfordwinefestival.org).

Among a range of interesting stands (and an excellent bar with some fascinating wines run by 1855 – www.1855oxford.com) I came across the range of Lambrusco wines imported by Kilgariff & Kahan and could not resist the opportunity write about red fizz for once.

Lambrusco is one of those wines that, rather like Beaujolais Nouveau, lost itself to easy drinking marketing in the 1970s and 1980s and has been painfully trying to regain lost ground ever since. Continue reading