Wine in the Renaissance

By the heated glow of a bonfire, serenaded by a triangulation of owls and a chorus of frogs, my husband poured me a glass of a wine he had carefully cellared for 33 years. It was sublime and like all good wines, had a story to tell.

The Taltarni Cabernet Sauvignon 1980 glowing like a jewel in our glasses had its roots firmly in the terroir of France. In the 1970’s Frenchman John Goelet, from a famous wine merchant family in Bordeaux, scoured the world in search of land that could produce wines to rival Bordeaux. His winemaker, Bernard Portet, discovered the little known Stag’s Leap region of the Napa Valley and the Pyrenees region of Victoria in Australia, and two classic vineyards were duly born – Clos Du Val in the Napa and Taltarni in Victoria.

Sipping on this elegantly aged wine that had lost none of its complexity, I began to think about the wines that would have been consumed by the French court during the Renaissance.

Wine has helped mankind through his trials and tribulations for as long as there has been evidence of civilisation. The Romans certainly cultivated vines throughout France and were the first to produce wine out of the Bordeaux region which they called Burdigala – which incidentally is the name of a quaint hotel in the city of Bordeaux where I have stayed while exploring the wine marvels of the region. The key French wine regions of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, and the Loire were all producing wines in the 16th century.

Famous labels such as Chateau Lafite (now Chateau Lafite Rothschild) in Pauillac in the Medoc region of Bordeaux can trace their ancestry back to at least the 14th century. Of course the Aquitaine area had passed into the hands of the English in the twelfth century when Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry Plantagenet who would become King Henry II of England. The already prized wines of the region and in particular St Emillion were shipped off to England and their son, King Richard the Lionheart was said to love Bordeaux wines so much that he drank them every day.

In 1453 at the conclusion of the 116 year long Hundred Years War between France and England, Bordeaux had been returned to the French and the English lost their favoured tipple.

The French royal Valois family were especially proud of their title of the Duc de Burgundy and no doubt also proud of the wines produced in the area. I like to think of King Francois sipping an elegant pinot noir (the grape varietal was first mentioned in 1370 under the name Noirien) while reneging on the Treaty of Madrid which he signed in 1526 under duress as the prisoner of the Emperor Charles V - the main dispute between these two powerful rulers was the lands of Burgundy. I could even picture Francois with his flashing sense of humour, sending a barrel of Burgundy wine to the Emperor’s court to rub salt into territorial wounds.

Francois assumed the throne at the age of 25, a handsome, gallant King fond of women, hunting and carousing with his friends in no particular order. So it is little wonder that he proclaimed himself as Roi d' Aÿ – King of Ay, a village south of Reims in the Champagne region. It was at the imposing Reims Cathedral that Francois, like all kings before him was crowned. The wines of Ay would have flowed at all the celebratory banquets.

During the sixteenth century King Francois 1st would have enjoyed wines from many regions in France, although we can only guess at the wine he chose to spurt forth from a fountain in his beloved palace of Fontainebleau. Perhaps not one of the finest as it was mixed with water.

Water was not a preferred beverage during these times when ensuring the purity of the water was an issue, so watered down wine or ale were more commonly drunk at court. During a rather harsh drought in the sixteenth century most of the court, which was on progress at the time, ended up with the flux from drinking stagnant water. Wine was considered as having many beneficial qualities – a thought close to my heart as I drown out the logic of modern day scientists who still waver on the issue. Brandy was even believed to be a cure for plague and there are those to this day who swear their nightly nip of brandy is purely medicinal. Wine was served hot and cold, straight, watered or mulled with exotic spices.

The production of wine was also still experimental. It was during King Francois’ reign that a monk in the town of Limoux in the Languedoc discovered how to add sparkle to wine, although the technique would not be perfected until the 1600’s when Dom Perignon mastered the art in Champagne, subsequently called methode champenoise.

I finished off my fireside musings in a paddock far away from the vineyards of France with a peaty single malt whiskey and my thoughts turned to the Auld Alliance between Scotland and France…but I will leave that for another burning log.

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