Purple Passages: British Authors and their Love of Plonk
‘Give me books, fruit, French wine and fine weather.’ If there’s one thing that poet John Keats loved more than drinking wine, it was writing about it.
There are over 40 references to ‘wine’ in the works of Keats, and many more if you count ‘vintage’, ‘sack’, or other variations. They range from juvenilia (‘Give me wine women and snuff’), to glorious, purple passages like in his celebrated Ode to a Nightingale:
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim.
In an 1818 letter to his brothers, Keats reports that, on being invited for dinner one evening to sup with William Wordsworth, Charles Lamb and other literary luminaries, he “astonished” the crowd with his “pertinacity in favour of drinking.” In other correspondence he demonstrates his particular fondness for, above all else, Claret: ‘Now I like Claret, whenever I can have Claret I must drink it … For really ’tis so fine’.’
Claret in the early 19th century had come a long way from the weak, cloudy clairet wines of Bordeaux into deep, rich wines of quality. By Keats’ time, demand for this fine new product among the new British bourgeois and urban elite had even surpassed the native apathy to their Gallic neighbours, so much so that the British government cut import tariffs in order to bolster supply.
But Keats is not alone. British poets and writers have long had a fascination with wine. Indeed, some of the most memorable passages in British writing could be said to be about or in honour of the drink. And they all tell us something about that era.
Even among the colourful cast of characters in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the Pardoner stands out. A hypocrite par excellence, the tale he relates is a histrionic warning against the dangers of the demon drink: ‘A lecherous thing is wine’. But he also boasts to his fellow pilgrims of selling false relics to the ‘poorest page’ to sustain his lavish lifestyle: ‘I will drink liquor in of the vine / And have a lovely wench in every town’.
Fittingly, then, even when warning his audience against the devilish nature of wine, the Pardoner reveals his own forensic knowledge of London’s drinking scene.
Now keep you from the white and from the red,
And namely from the white wine of Lepe,
That is for sale in Fishstreet or in Cheapside.
The passage is indicative of the Middle Ages’ changing attitude to wine, brought about by the new cross-currents of trade and commerce that blew European wines to Britain’s shores.
By the Elizabethan period, it was Spanish wine that was all a la mode. Shakespeare’s most dazzling, scintillating sot Sir John Falstaff puts away copious amounts of Spanish “sack” during the course of the Henriad plays.
If I had a thousand
the first humane principle I would teach them should be to
forswear thin potations and to addict themselves to sack.
Specifically Falstaff is referring to ‘sherris sack’ and, using faultless drinker’s logic, he reasons that this galvanises the mind to be ‘full of nimble fiery and delectable shapes’, and it also fortifies the body through a ‘warming of the blood’.
While sack had always been traded into Britain in some form or another, sherry from the famed Jerez region had recently gained huge popularity. And for that, we must look to Sir Francis Drake and his daring raid against the Spanish in 1585. Not only did this state-sanctioned pirate and slave-trader destroy a significant proportion of the Spanish fleet that was moored in Cadiz, primed to set sail to invade England, but he also seized a mighty 2900 butts of high quality Jerez sherry – almost 3 million pints. Quite a lot, to be sure, but not quite enough to make Jerez Sherry readily available to all but the more discerning or well-connected classes. For Falstaff, his proclivity for sherry drinking reflects his epicurean tastes as well as his social standing. As it may well have been for sherry-drinker William Shakespeare: a glove-maker’s son turned theatre-land royalty.
Samuel Pepys – diarist, Member of Parliament, Royal Navy administrator – was an an enthusiastic social drinker. The man who, on seeing the smoke billowing from the oncoming Great Fire of London, first dug a hole in his garden to bury his ‘Wine and some other things’. Alongside this recollection in his diary there is an array of other boozy entires. ‘A Barrell of good oysters, a couple of lobsters, and wine’; typically quaffed in measures of ‘a glass of wine’ or ‘a pint of wine’, often ‘too much wine’. On one occasion, Thursday 21 August 1662, Pepys feels the need to mention: ‘I drank no wine to-day.’
A short and unassuming entry dated Friday 10 October 1663 is of singular interest:
Off to the Exchange with Sir J Cutler and Mr Grant to the Royal Oak
Tavern in Lumbard Street … and there drank a sort of French wine
called Ho Bryan, that hath a good and most particular taste that I never
On one occasion, Thursday 21 August 1662, Pepys feels the need to mention: ‘I drank no wine to-day.’
Here we have the first mention in English of a wine estate in Bordeaux. Even for an inveterate connoisseur of the good stuff, this particular wine clearly stood out enough for Pepys to mention the estate by name, although this may have not just been for the wine’s “good and particular” flavour profile. Charles II’s restoration to the throne had brought luxury items back to the court – not least among them fine wines. Indeed, the Royal cellar book makes mention of plentiful bottles of “wine of Hobriono” being served at court. The fleeting mention of this “particular” claret was perhaps not just a tasting note but a self-reflexive boast: a delightful memory to be enjoyed.
At the same time as John Keats was writing excitedly about outdrinking William Wordsworth and Charles Lamb, Jane Austen was revealing her own affinity in favour of drinking in her personal letters.
I believe I drank too much wine last night at Hurstbourne;
I know not how else to account for the shaking of my hand today.
Austen’s fictional worlds offer a compelling snapshot of high society’s interior lives, and they can also offer a window into England’s changing wine preferences, precipitated by the increased globalisation of the Enlightenment period. In Sense & Sensibility, Mrs Jennings advocates “the finest old Constantia wine” to cure a broken heart.
Often lauded as the oldest New World wine region, viticulture had been introduced into the Constantia region by the Dutch in the 17th century, but because the region was so small and had such a low yield, the wines produced were incredibly expensive – consumed only by Kings, Queens and the British aristocracy. Austen reveals how wines from South Africa began to make their ways into the country’s drawing rooms and kitchen cupboards.
On 16 June 1904, Leopold Bloom slakes his thirst with one of the most famous glasses of wine in all of literature:
Glowing wine on his palate lingered swallowed.
Crushing in the winepress grapes of Burgundy.
Perched at the bar in Davy Byrne’s pub, Bloom pares his gorgonzola sandwich with a ‘good glass of Burgundy’. The purity of the Burgundy coupled with the deliciously fetid earthiness of the cheese allows Bloom his own Madeleine-moment of memory, loss and love.
French wines – as well as hand-picked artisan products – had been imported into Dublin consistently throughout the 19th century onwards, creating the thriving deli-counter scene such as the one Leopold Bloom finds in establishments like the Davy Byrne pub.
Bloomsday is still celebrated around the world: on the 16 June every year, countless people raise a glass of Burgundy to Leopold Bloom, and James Joyce. But a novel less than a century later redefined Burgundy’s prized white grape in much less advantageous terms.
“Am going to open bottle of Chardonnay and watch Friends.”
At the time of Bridget Jones’s Diary’s publication, Chardonnay had become the second-most planted grape in the world. Just like the book itself, Bridget’s tipple of choice perfectly skewers the tastes and proclivities of UK society in the nineties: blithely consumerist and unstopped, yet also un-fussed, fun, democratic, and carefree.
The story goes that the Bridget Jones effect all but sounded the death-knell for Chardonnay in the UK. ‘Until Bridget Jones, chardonnay was really sexy.’ Oz Clarke said in 2008. ‘After, people said, ‘God, not in my bar’.’ If this is true, it’s a sad demise for this most convivial, hardy and easy-going of varietals. But, more realistically, death by Chardonnay was mostly due to over-exposure and exploitative marketing. The value gap was ultimately too great for the consumer, and sales of this noble grape tailed off, leaving Brits to celebrate the new millennium with a bottle of something else.
Notable by its omission in this whistle-stop tour of British writers writing on wine is English wine itself. But that doesn’t mean that there are no examples. Transplanted Roman historian Tacitus wrote that the English climate was completely unsuitable for the growing of vines. The Domesday Book listed 45 working vineyards in the UK. A Punch cartoon of 1890 asked: ‘How many men does it take to drink a bottle of English wine?’ (Four, apparently: the victim, two holding the victim down, and another pouring the wine down his throat.)
‘How many men does it take to drink a bottle of English wine?’ (Four, apparently: the victim, two holding the victim down, and another pouring the wine down his throat.)
Now, however, we’ve never had it so good when it comes to British wine. Even the names of the native grapes – Bacchus, Ortega, Madeleine Angevine – play wistfully, playfully on the tongue. One can only imagine what Keats would have made of such mellifluous-sounded grapes. Whether Jane Austen would have opened her own vineyard in the West of England with the proceeds of her novels. Or, indeed, what purple passages the poets and novelists of the future will one day write.
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