Brexit By The Bottle
There are plenty of rich pickings in the current political climate for a historical blogger to take a ‘wider perspective’ of current events, always with the benefit of hind-sight. As someone who likes to combine the turbulent world of wine with the shifting sands of history there is plenty to cover.
As such, it seemed an ideal chance to examine how the British relationship with the continent for some two thousands years has had a huge impact on the liquid in our glass. From Roman ruin, to Napoleonic conflicts, the World Wars and now Brexit; wine is often one of the first indicators of our ties with the continent tightening or becoming dilute.
Despite some Pre-Roman trade with the Gauls of Spain, widespread drinking of wine in Britain can only really be seen as linked to the arrival of the Roman invasion in 43 AD, for more information on this time see here Romano British Wine. But perhaps surprisingly, in this case, when the Romans left the British did not completely abandon their European taste for wine. True, beer was the preferred drink of the Anglo-Saxons but as Bede alludes to vines were still cultivated up and down the country. It became a symbol of luxury, something hard to obtain or create, something to aspire to. Trade continued with the continent, away from the overarching authority of the Roman Empire, with the southern coast ports still bringing wine from France and further afield. But there was also a real effort to stave off the absence of widespread European trade with the a home grown wine industry.
The Middle Ages can be seen as a time of greater integration between the British wine drinking classes and their neighbours in Europe, a re-opening of the old trade channels. The English possessions of Bordeaux, Aquitaine and Gascony laid long lived foundations of trade and helped to create a pallet both English and European with the wines made famous from these regions which we can still see today. Culturally too, wine was woven into British culture. Trade was crucial to keeping a steady supply of wine but the native industry still continued, through monastic vineyards plus some in private hands, 36 according to Domesday. Whether through a wish to be seen as European, cultured and sophisticated or simply through a love of the drink – wine was an emblem of Anglo-European relation. It was also one all too often sacrificed in times of conflict where it was deemed to do the most amount of damage.
In the face of hostility in Europe, Britain would always seek to fill the nation’s wine glasses in any way possible. The 18th and 19th Centuries are both great examples of this. With constant outbreaks of war between Britain and her immediate neighbours, the country began to look elsewhere which ultimately led to the creation of Port. War with France made wine unobtainable and due to much more favourable tariffs with the Portuguese supply was met. With the vineyards of France, Spain and Italy under Napoleonic control, Britain became ever more reliant on Portuguese wines and some enterprising efforts from the New World.
Perhaps our own generation will begin to see something similar emerge from Brexit? Many leading figures in the wine industry were banking on a rise in prices, particularly from wines made across the channel. The truth behind this is really yet to be seen, but a weakening pound and the loss of a free trade agreement is bound to have some kind of knock on effect to the bottom line of most EU wines. Will we, once again, come to rely on our own vineyards which are experiencing a time of boom like no other? It was a solution which are Anglo-Saxon ancestors seemed to favour. Or perhaps our shelves will be filled with wines from new regions and countries, a greater reliance on Eastern Europe or South America just as we have when war has put a barrier between us and France? Some people are already hedging their bets on a greater rise in the wine producing countries of the Eastern end of Europe like Bulgaria and Romania to fill the hole. Either way, in the words of Frank Herbert, the wine must flow.