History and Hospitality: wine and food stories told in silver. Part 1

 

I love a good story, especially one that involves wine!  Who would have thought I would stumble across a story that involves not only wine but Sicily and the British naval hero, Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson when visiting the Allen Gallery in Alton, Hampshire a couple of weeks ago.

It all began as I looked at a silver wine label marked “Bronte”…

This label is part of a wine and sauce label collection managed by Hampshire Cultural Trust in collaboration with the Allen Gallery.

Silver and enamel wine and sauce labels were used in the 18th and 19th centuries by the growing middle class in England when wine was decanted from barrels into glass decanters and the identity of the wine was described by a silver label.    Condiments or sauces for food were also served in glass jars or bottles and similarly labelled.

So what is the connection between this Bronte silver wine label, Sicily and Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson?

The latter part of the 17th century and early 18th century was the time of the Napoleonic Wars (1793 – 1815) between Britain and France and involving many other nations in Europe.   It was a time of major land and sea battles, which are still commemorated.

The Napoleonic Wars ended with the great victory of Wellington at the battle of Waterloo in 1815.   The Napoleonic Wars include the mighty naval battles of the Nile (Aboukir Bay) and Trafalgar under the leadership of Admiral Nelson.     It is the history of Nelson that relates to our Bronte wine label.

As part of the naval battles in the Mediterranean, Nelson protected Naples from the French. At the time, Naples was incorporated into the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies of which Ferdinand 1st was King.     In 1799, King Ferdinand rewarded Nelson’s services to his kingdom by granting him a title of Sicilian nobility, the Duke of Bronte together with an estate in Bronte, an agricultural area in the shadow of the volcanic Mount Etna.

A famous wine from Sicily is Marsala, a fortified wine similar to sherry which became popular in Britain in the 18th century.     This popularity was partly due to the trading activities of the 18th Century importer John Woodhouse and the British Royal Navy, which became a big consumer of Marsala wine.   Vice Admiral Lord Nelson used Marsala as the official wine ration for sailors under his command.   A manuscript exists, dated March 19, 1800, and carrying the signature of the importer John Woodhouse and the Duke of Bronte, Nelson’s Sicilian title, stipulating the supply of 500 barrels, each with a capacity of the equivalent of 500 litres for the fleet stationed in Malta.

After Nelson’s victories, especially at Trafalgar and his death there, Nelson was held in great esteem by the British people for saving Britain from possible invasion. Many landmarks were created in his name, including Nelson’s Column and Trafalgar Square in London.

The British people were keen to taste the wine that had so fortified Nelson and his sailors’ spirits in battle and this added to its popularity.

Back to the wine label marked “Bronte”.     This fine piece of craftsmanship was made in London by the silver makers Reilly and Storer in 1830.  It was just fifteen years after the end of the Napoleonic Wars.    The label would have been used on a decanter of Marsala wine, possibly produced on the Bronte estate in Sicily or elsewhere on the Island but called Bronte in recognition of Nelson’s Sicilian title.

The Bronte estate remained in Nelson’s line of descendants, now called Nelson-Hood until 1981 when the last remaining lots of land were sold to the Municipality of Bronte.    There remains a Nelson Museum in the town of Bronte, which is now known for its pistachio nut harvests and the delicacies made from them..

Marsala wine is grown in the region DOC Marsala in Sicily and produced from three white wine varieties.     It is a fortified wine usually containing around 17 % ALC – alcohol by volume.   The ‘in perpetuum’ process used to make the fortified wine is similar to the solera process used for Sherry produced in Jerez, Spain, in which old wines are blended with new wines and the barrels never emptied. Marsala wines are classified on an eight-point scale according to their colour, sweetness and duration of their ageing.      Usually served as an aperitif, Marsala can also be served with a cheese course.     It is often used in cooking and this is how I remember it being used by my Mother.  Dry Marsala is used in savoury cooking. One of the most popular savoury Marsala recipes is chicken Marsala.   Sweet Marsala is used in the preparation of delicious desserts such as tiramisu and zabaglione.

Every story has an ending.   Our story about the Bronte wine label ends with our visit later that same day to Jane Austen’s house in Chawton, about two miles from Alton.

For most of Jane Austen’s ( 1775 – 1817 ) life, Britain was at war with many countries including America, France, Spain, and others, including the Napoleonic Wars.    Many of her books include characters with a naval or army background.   While jokingly hoping to see Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy of Pride and Prejudice fame walk through the garden in Chawton, we did in all seriousness read the stories of Jane Austen’s brothers,  who both rose to a high rank in the Royal Navy and were contemporaries and admirers of Admiral Nelson.

 

A fitting end to our visit was to see on display in Jane Austen’s house, the Herculaneum Funerary Dish in memory of Admiral Lord Nelson, Duke of Bronte, immortalized for me in that silver Bronte wine label.

 

References:

British National Archives   http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk

Various websites about Bronte, Italy and the Castello Nelson Museum

Hampshire Cultural Trust and Allen Gallery. http://www.hampshireculturaltrust.org.uk/allen-Gallery

Wine Label Circle   http://www.winelabelcircle.org

Portfolio Tasting, London: something new, something remembered

I hear the buzz of conversation before I see the people.   Mid morning chat is at a gentle hum as people from across London and elsewhere greet each other and settle down to the serious business of a portfolio tasting courtesy of Davy’s Wine Merchants established in 1870.

Davy's Portfolio Tasting

Davy’s Portfolio Tasting

 

I have been thinking about historical context quite a bit recently, so I am distracted by considering the age of this business and thinking about what was going on when Davy’s Wine Merchants was established.   A time of upheaval and change in Europe with revolutions in the mid century and the unification of Italy a year later.   Queen Victoria was well established on the English throne and the Victorian writers: Trollope, Dickens, Elliot, Hardy were writing books that have become classics of English Literature.   I admire the skill and tenacity required to build and sustain a business over that length of time: 146 years.     Certainly, it speaks to the ongoing public interest in enjoying quality wines.

So back to the business at hand: sampling some of the wines presented by wine producers and/or the Davy’s Team.   It’s an impressive sight in the Hall of India and Pakistan at The Royal Over-Seas League house in St. James’s, London.   31 Tables with over 250 wines presented representing all the classic wine growing areas of the Old and New Worlds and developing wine growing areas such as England itself.

It would take a great deal of time to do justice to the large selection of wines at this tasting. After walking around the room and looking at all 31 tables, I resolve that the only way to take advantage of this opportunity is to be selective in my approach.

I taste a number of wines presented by Jean Becker from Alsace in France.   Their Pinot Gris 2013, soft, with peach fruit aromas; Gewürztraminer 2013, violets and very floral aromas, Riesling Vendanges Tardives Kronenbourg 2009, smooth, honeyed, acidic, and excellent for sweet and sour dishes.

I move on to Bodegas Miguel Merino Rioja, from Spain and really enjoyed the Miguel Merino Gran Reserva 2008, a beautiful rioja nose on the wine, smooth and long.

Vini Montauto, Maremma, Tuscany

Vini Montauto, Maremma, Tuscany

Italian wines from the organic wine producer, Azienda Agricola Montauto, in Maremma, Tuscany are something new and stand out wines for me. Their winemaking philosophy is to make wines that support food, not overpower it.     I particularly enjoyed their white wine: Montauto Vermentino Malvasia 2014.   There is considerable length to the wine, with deep and balanced fruit aromas.   At 13% alc./vol it is a very drinkable wine.  Vermentino and Malvasia are grape varieties typical of this area in Tuscany along with Trebbiano and Grechetto.   Sauvignon Blanc from neighbouring France has found a natural home in the area too. The Maremma area of Tuscany looks like an area worth visiting for its natural beauty, historical interest and microclimate supporting viticulture and the organic wines themselves.

As a final tasting experience, I can’t resist the Fine Wine Collection hosted by Davy’s staff and in this instance by wine consultant, Martin Everett MW.   I look at the line up of wines and notice that a Monbazillac AOC wine, a late harvest botrytized wine from the wider wine region of Bergerac is included; a Monbazillac Chateau Fonmourgues 2009.

Fine Wine Collection

Fine Wine Collection

The red wines at this Fine Wine Collection table are Bordeaux classics, both Left and Right Bank.

I focus on the right bank, Pomerol and St. Emilion.   Château du Tailhas, Pomerol 2012, located near Château Figeac, and Château Beau-Séjour Bécot, Grand Cru St. Emilion. 2006 – a special vintage- and taste these wines.

When I look at my notes, all I write is “ Beautiful”.

It says it all.

When I taste these top of class, prestigious Bordeaux wines with their full and satisfying flavours and aromas, I am always transported back to other occasions when I have enjoyed them.

On this occasion, I think back to 2009 and a visit to both Château Figeac and Château Beau-Séjour Bécot.   What struck me at the time was not just the quality of the wine but the accessibility and congeniality of the proprietors, in each case with family members at a multi-generational helm.   I remember at Château Figeac, Madame Manoncourt, the co-proprietor with her husband, rushed up to meet us as we were leaving. She had just driven back from Paris, a considerable distance, yet insisted on taking the time to welcome us to the Château.   In reading the history of Château Figeac, the Manoncourts were one of the first Châteaux owners many years ago to open their doors to general public or non trade visitors.   That sincere interest in the consumer is what good customer relations is all about.

Similarly, at Château Beau-Séjour Bécot, which we also visited in 2009, Monsieur Bécot joined us on our tour of the Château and the cellars and went to great lengths to explain their approach to making their wines.

It’s always the people who make the difference.

Peeling back the onion rings of memory, these experiences make me think of teenage visits to Bordeaux with my parents many, many years ago, when the proprietors always took the time to show us around yet the visits had to booked then by correspondence  some time in advance.   I remember at that time we visited Château Palmer and Château Margaux among others.

All these thoughts and memories come flooding back as a result of attending the Portfolio Tasting of Davy’s Wine Merchants, an organization with a long history and family lineage.

Enjoying wine, especially excellent wine, is always an evocative experience for me of other times, places and people.  It’s a time machine in a bottle.

 

 

References:

Davy’s Wine Merchants:    www.davy.co.uk

Domaine Jean Becker:    www.alsace-wine.net – Becker

Azienda Agricola Montauto:   http://www.montauto.org.

Bodegas Miguel Merino Rioja:   http://www.miguelmerino.com

Chateau Figeac:  www.figeac.com

Chateau Tailhas:  www.tailhas.com

Château Beau-Séjour Bécot:   http://www.beausejour-becot.com

Monbazillac: http://www.cave.chateau-monbazillac.com