When we open a bottle of wine, how much do we really know about what we are about to drink? Modern labelling and regulation appear to provide a high degree of reassurance to the wine-drinker. Nevertheless recent scandals — such as the reported use of oak chips in Australian wine to counterfeit the effect of barrel-ageing, and the doping of Austrian wine with anti-freeze-suggest that there is still plenty of scope for fraud. At one end of the spectrum is the practice — long traditional in parts of France — of passing off sound cheap wine from another area as something more expensive, or of blending such wine with the genuine but perhaps insipid article (the old joke was that Bordeaux was such a plentiful source of wine that almost one third of all the wine sold as Bordeaux was grown there). At the other, there is the adulteration of wine by foreign, harmful substances.
However, the scale and gravity of fraud and adulteration suffered by our ancestors, when wine was imported in bulk and when most consumers were not greatly concerned about particular vintages, seems to have been much worse. Peter Ward began his 1705 poem in praise of small beer by evoking the horrors of a morning after an evening’s indulgence in “concocted” wine:
Debauch’d o’er Night with base Adult’rous Wine,
From Apples squeez’d, and Tinctur’d with the Vine,
Mix’d by damn’d Coopers, and by Art made fine:
Next Morning I awake with aching Head,
And drouthy Intrails parboil’d in my Bed,
By that Fooll’s-bane, sophisticated Red.
Early-18th-century defenders of the salubrious and medicinal qualities of wine were careful to make their claims only for those wines that had not been corrupted by the various malpractices of the trade. Peter Shaw, whose The Juice of the Grape: or, Wine Preferable to Water (1724) is one of the most interesting of these treatises, having described how natural wines are produced with minimal intervention from the winemaker, goes on to stipulate that “’tis only of Wine thus prepared, that I must here be understood to speak.” Health could only be undermined by impure or sophisticated wines.
But what did unscrupulous 18th-century vintners actually do to the wine they sold? At the end of the century John Wright abandoned his career as an army surgeon and set himself up in the wine trade. His “An Essay on Wines” (1795) is in one sense an advertisement for his new business. But in the course of explaining what he won’t be doing to the wines he intends to sell, he gives us a fascinating snapshot of the malpractices then current, as the subtitle of his essay — “Intended to instruct every Person to distinguish that which is pure, And to guard Against the Frauds of Adulteration” — indicates.
Wright is concerned mainly with port, which because of the war against revolutionary France was at this time virtually the only easily imported red wine. His statistics indicate the scale of the problem:
About fifty thousand pipes or more [of port] are yearly imported, about sixty or seventy thousand at least are consumed, and a vast deal of it so unpleasant, or rather offensive and unwholesome, that it is astonishing to observe, those who think themselves rational beings, guzzle it without taste or reflection, while it confounds and confuses the ideas of men, making them fierce, angry and quarrelsome .
But even the 50,000 pipes imported from Portugal might be defective or impure. Wright had travelled in Portugal and had observed the vintage. The way the wine was made did not inspire confidence in him:
Instead of picking, or pains taking, or removing the stalks or bad grapes, all are thrown in promiscuously, and to increase their quantity of wine, water is sometimes added, which never contributes to the worth of the wine.
Wright was ahead of his time and anticipated modern oenologists when he recommended destemming and a meticulous triage. He also opposed the addition of brandy to port. He understood that an addition of brandy served the purpose of stabilising the wine for transport, but he shuddered at the consequences of mixing violent spirits of usually poor quality with a natural and wholesome product:
Port brandy, which may be called a liquid fire, or rather a rank slow poison, is always at hand, and is often liberally administered; this additament prevents weak or ill-fermented wine from running quickly into the acetous process; but is hurtful to health, and almost as destructive to persons of delicate constitutions as the same quantity of diluted aqua fortis.
Once landed the wine was subject to a whole series of further manipulations. If the merchant discovers that his wine is a little too strong or too rich, he might add sea water to it. If the taste is deficient, then “hepatic aloes” and gentian might be added to conceal sourness. If the merchant has economised and bought a low-priced thin, pale wine, he could add to it some “Benecarlo”, a cheap, strong red wine from Valencia.
When the wine came to be bottled there was scope for yet further contamination. In the 18th century dirty bottles were cleaned for re-use with grains or pellets of lead, such as small shot. If some of these pellets were accidentally or carelessly left in the bottle they would in time be dissolved by the acidity of the wine, and, as Wright warned, “all solutions of lead, taken inwardly, are dangerous”:
violent pains in the bowel, costiveness, wasting of the body, loss of strength, tremor, spasm, convulsion are but too often the effects of this metal.
Merchants also had a range of techniques at their disposal for making young wine seem older than it was. Before bottling the addition of white wine would make it seem two or three years older. But even when the wine was safely corked and sealed, opportunities for fraud and malpractice remained.
Wright recalls a visit to “the very extensive vaults of an opulent wine dealer” which contained many pipes of port, in between which were placed iron stoves which created a general warmth throughout the cellar:
I asked him if that heat did not hurt his wine; he said no, for a certain time, for it ripened and made it old, or fit for present drinking.
But this was a ruinous and short-sighted practice: “a fresh fermentation being brought on by artificial heat, exhausts the wine of its better parts, if it had any before.” Today’s wine-drinker, if not absolutely secure, nevertheless runs far fewer risks than his 18th-century forebears.