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Former wines are passed away

Wines seem to go out of fashion rather more slowly than clothes but many that were once common have nonetheless vanished as our tastes have changed. With them have gone their names, so that reading older texts can require keeping a dictionary handy to make sense of what the characters are quaffing.

Take the ill-fated Duke of Clarence, brother to Richard III. Convicted of treason, by tradition he was executed by drowning in a “butt of malmsey”. What may have been just a Cockney’s sarcastic comment on a drunkard’s end (it was George’s favourite tipple) became part of the language. Linguistically and geographically, the sweet white wine called malmsey started out in Monemvasia in the Peloponnese, but its name was corrupted in French to malvoisie and further chewed about during its transfer to English. By the time of the unsaintly George’s untimely end, it was being made in Spain, the Azores, Madeira and the Canaries as well as in Greece. A similar wine from Italy was called vernage, which may be a version of the Italian vernaccia, under which name a wine is still made. There were several other strong sweet wines of the same period: tyre (probably named after the place in Syria but actually made in Calabria or Sicily); Rochelle (not where it was made, but the seaport in France from which it was exported to Britain); rumney or romney, a resinated wine from Greece (the name has nothing to do with the distilled rum or with the town of Romney, but comes from Romania, a name at the time used of mainland Greece); and raspis, about which not a lot seems to be known, not even where the name comes from. These wines were too rich or “hot” to be drunk with meat meals, but were served with salads or fruit.

Many people of this and earlier periods right back to Roman times liked their wine spiced, a habit developed to disguise thin or off flavours (the spices also helped preserve the wines in hot weather). The oldest of these in England was piment (from old French, cognate with the medieval Latin pigmentum for a spiced drink and later transferred in the form pimento to the spice itself) which was a white wine with added honey and spices, usually pepper. Piment was imported into England even before the Norman Conquest and was much imitated. By Chaucer’s time, probably the best known of these spicy wines were hippocras and clary. Hippocras took its name from the conical bag through which it was strained, which was said to resemble Hippocras’ sleeve, or at least the shape of the sleeves of medieval gowns. It was a red wine, flavoured with ginger, cinnamon and grains of paradise (a peppery spice from tropical west Africa) and sweetened either with honey or (if you could afford it) with sugar. Clary was an even sweeter drink with a lot of extra sugar or honey and with many spices, including pepper and ginger; its name comes from the medieval Latin claretum, “that which is clarified”, from which we also get the name claret.

Honey featured in many drinks because it was by far the most easily available sweetening agent. It was also the basis for several drinks in its own right, of which the best known is mead, the drink of lords and thanes celebrated in Beowulf and the Mabinogion, but which by the time of Richard III had rather gone out of fashion in favour of spiced wines. The Welsh had a variant of mead which they called metheglin (from the Welsh meddyglyn, “physician”, because it was said to be medicinal — a good ploy to get in some extra quaffing, no doubt) and which was mead spiced with cloves, ginger, rosemary, hyssop and thyme; it became better known in England after the accession of the Welshman Henry Tudor to the throne following Richard’s death at Bosworth. A mixture of honey and ale fermented together and spiced with pepper was called bragot or bragget, which derived from an ancient Celtic word for a kind of grain which is the origin for the modern Welsh brag for the infused barley “wort” that is fermented to make beer. By Richard’s time bragot had become more complex, being flavoured with cinnamon, pepper, cloves, ginger and galingale (an aromatic root whose name comes via the Arabic khalanjan from the Chinese Ko-liang-kiang, “the mild ginger from Ko”).

The best-known of these old sweet wines is sack, because of its associations with Shakespeare’s Sir John Falstaff; it was an amber-coloured wine from southern Spain and the Canaries. The name perhaps comes from the French sec, meaning “dry” in the sense that all the sugar has been converted into alcohol. It seems that we took over vin sec but kept only the second word without worrying about its literal meaning. It was clearly not always sweet enough for the Elizabethan palate, for Sir John speaks several times of “sack and sugar” (a sly dig at his extravagance which is lost on us now). He also refers to sherris sack, because much of the sack drunk in England came from the southern Spanish province of Jerez, of which sherris is a corruption.

Even during Shakespeare’s lifetime, the word was shortened to sherry, perhaps because people mistakenly thought sherris was a plural. The modern sherry is a descendent of Falstaff’s sack, though shortly after his day it began to be made by the more complicated modern process which includes adding brandy. Because so much of it came into England via the port of Bristol, it was slangily called Bristol milk (the main importer today still calls one particularly rich, sweet brand Bristol cream).

Page created 8 Feb. 1997

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Last modified: 8 February 1997.