Wine's World

The Politics of Port

Another legacy of the British Empire: The world’s lust for red wine.

“There are some things so intangible that only culture explains them,” a friend said to me many years ago. It had been a long, wine-filled dinner, and the talk had turned to serious matters. My friend, an Englishman, was warming to his subject: that the British love affair with claret–red Bordeaux–was one of the great, and for him joyous, mysteries of life. Another, he continued, was the Englishman’s proclivity for port. As you can tell, his interests were limited, but he was making a (vinous) version of an argument that has been given great credence in intellectual circles of late.

Culture is hot. By culture I don’t mean Wagner and Abstract Expressionism–they’ve always been hot–but rather culture as an explanation for social phenomena. People now use the concept of national or ethnic culture routinely to answer seemingly complex questions. Why is the United States economy bursting with growth? It’s obvious: our unique entrepreneurial culture. Why is Russia unable to adapt to capitalism? Alas, it has a feudal, anti-market culture. Never mind that American culture was around to witness stagflation, not to mention the Great Depression. And Japan’s and Germany’s feudalism seem to have adapted nicely to capitalism.

Cultural explanations persist because intellectuals like them. They make valuable the detailed knowledge of countries’ histories, which intellectuals have in great supply. And they add an air of mystery and complexity to the study of societies. But beneath them usually lurks something more simple and straightforward–such as politics.

Consider claret. The British drink Bordeaux because for hundreds of years the wines of that region were given preferential tariff treatment for powerful political reasons. In the 11th century, when our story begins, the English actually liked and imported vast quantities of somewhat acidic wines from La Rochelle (now the Charentes region north of Bordeaux), a sunny and frost-free area, whose wine exports were aggressively promoted by its ruler, the Duke of Aquitaine. (The duke’s lands included Bordeaux.) The duke died, and in 1152 his daughter, Eleanor of Aquitaine, married Henry Plantagenet, Duke of Normandy. Two years later, he became Henry II and Eleanor became queen of England. (Their fiery relationship was memorably replayed by Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn in The Lion in Winter.)

Initially, little changed, since Eleanor, like her father, still favored La Rochelle. But the Bordelais coveted the English market and worked tirelessly for special favors. Over time, as it always does, the lobbying worked. Henry’s grandson John set up a classic political trade that would make any K Street consultant proud. In return for support against the King of France (who knows why, they were always at war in those days), John would exempt Bordeaux from the principal tax on its exports. The merchants of La Rochelle miscalculated and did not counteroffer, infuriating King John, who decided to favor Bordeaux further. The king ordered that all his household wines would come from Bordeaux–a huge order, since it included the army’s supplies. “What finally decided it against La Rochelle was not the acidity of its wines, but the disloyalty of its citizens,” writes wine historian Hugh Johnson. Thus was born the special, mystical relationship between England and Bordeaux.

As for port, in the 17th century the naval rivalry between England and Holland, on the one hand, and Spain and France, on the other, was still intense. In this diplomatic game, keeping Portugal happy was crucial so that its seaports, particularly Lisbon, would not become enemy bases. In 1703, England struck a deal, the Methuen Treaty, which got Portugal to ally itself with England and Holland against the Catholic powers. Naturally, Portugal got something out of it–a lowering of import tariffs on its products and some royal patronage. When war between France and England did break out, the English consumer market needed substitutes for Bordeaux. Portuguese wines proved cheap and–within a few years–readily available. Amusingly, the wines that created the English interest in port were not actually the sweet wines of today but rather normal table wines. Far from having a natural affinity for port, the English simply drank it because the Portuguese had already made inroads into the consumer market.

The moral of this story is not that taste, let alone culture, doesn’t matter. After all, once the English got hooked on Bordeaux they stayed with it even after most preferential treatment abated (around 1453). And the Englishman’s love of red Bordeaux wines has had massive, global effects. For one thing, it created the modern Bordeaux wine industry. Whole swaths of Bordeaux, including much of what is now considered the best wine country, were cultivated in response to English demand. Also, since the British were the global superpower and style setters of the 19th century world, everybody copied their tastes. That’s why today, from Australia to South Africa to California to Chile, the most expensive wines in the world are made from the same grape (cabernet sauvignon) and in the same style as red Bordeaux, down to the shape of the bottle.

But culture itself can be shaped and changed. Behind so many cultural attitudes, tastes, and preferences lie the political and economic forces that shaped them, even in something as intangible as wine and food. All of which makes me glad that the two great powers that lost out in this century’s power struggles were Germany and Russia, or we might be savoring the delights of borscht, potatoes, and sauerkraut, washed down by gallons of vodka!