Tradition isn’t always what we think it is

ArticlesJust Williams

The Wine Society celebrates its 150th anniversary this year. It’s a good time to acknowledge that, despite some ingrained preconceptions, very little in the world of wine stays the same as the decades glide past. David Williams has been learning a little history


Strolling down St James’s Street late last year, I was reminded, as I often am in this smartest of London addresses, of the power and romance of tradition.

This, after all, is the spiritual home of the long-running boutique specialist shop. And whether it’s Lock & Co (the oldest hat shop in the world), James J Fox (the oldest cigar shop in the world), Truefitt & Hill (the oldest barber shop in the world), or finally, there on the corner with Pall Mall, Berry Bros & Rudd (Britain’s oldest wine and spirit merchant), it’s hard not to get swept up in dreamy thoughts about how you could, if you had the time and money, get a haircut in the same place as Charles Dickens, or buy a bottle of port from the same merchant as Lord Byron or William Pitt the Younger.

I’m not alone in feeling this sense of wonder. On the day I was there, a group of American tourists was posing outside Berry’s, taking selfies in front of the sign that reminds visitors that the company has been trading since the 17th century. Naturally, my instinct as I passed by was to feel a surge of soft pride in my country’s rich history, a kindly but rather patronising attitude towards a people who, we always assume, just don’t have that sort of history back home.

Googling later that evening, I soon discovered there’s not much to support this sort of condescension. Back in 2020, the United States’ oldest still-extant wine merchant, Acker Wines, formerly Acker Merrall & Condit, celebrated 200 years since setting up shop in New York City. Not quite a match for Berry’s (established in 1698) or its old rival on the other side of St James’s Street, Justerini & Brooks (1748), but older than another storied store on the street, the bootmaker John Lobb (which started on nearby Regent Street in 1866). And older, too, than another of the UK’s most august wine retailers, The Wine Society, which this year is celebrating its 150th birthday after forming in the wake of a series of International Exhibitions at the Royal Albert Hall in 1874.

It was a Society briefing about its plans for marking its landmark anniversary that had in fact brought me to St James’s in the first place. I had been invited to join buyers Pierre Mansour and Matthew Horsley for the tasting and chat at 67 Pall Mall, the relatively new London wine trade nerve centre and meeting place, which is just across the road from Berry Bros.

Mansour, Horsley and the rest of the Society’s buying team have been preparing for years for this moment, combing through the mutual’s impressively detailed archives, and negotiating with its longest-running suppliers, to come up with a selection of limited-edition anniversary wines which will be released in batches throughout the year, as well as a series of dinners, tastings and other events.

The wines they showed were – as ever with a company that I know provokes mixed feelings for indie merchants – well worth my tasting time, and you’ll no doubt be hearing more about them from me and my wine-writing peers as the year goes by.

But what was perhaps most intriguing about the meeting were the nuggets of historical information shared by Mansour and Horsley as they presented the wines – a history lesson that proved instructive about the romance of tradition, while at the same time challenging a number of cosy and common assumptions about the past couple of centuries of wine history.

While it was no surprise, for example, to learn that the Society’s early wine lists were dominated by claret, hock and page after page of port and sherry, I – and the Society’s buyers and Puglian suppliers – certainly hadn’t expected to see “Primitivo” as the only named Italian table wine on offer to Society members around the turn of the 20th century. The presence of a white wine from Bucelas near Lisbon and of an unfortified Portuguese red is equally surprising, even if it is explained by the fact that the Society’s origin story is based on the discovery of a lost parcel of Portuguese wine in the depths of the Royal Albert Hall.

Then there are the questions of style, with two classic European wine names – both of which were, as expected, present and correct on the Society’s early lists – offering the most food for thought for lovers, like me, of vinous tradition.

In both the Mosel and Rioja, there is a tendency to describe a certain style of wine as “traditional” or “classic”, and, in doing so, to tacitly or explicitly cast wines made using different methods as unconscionably “modern” and, therefore, inauthentic.

In the Mosel, it’s off-dry, medium and other sweeter styles (from Kabinett to TBA) that are sometimes presented as the true representatives of the historic Mosel way, with dry styles being the modern, new-wave fad.

In Rioja the “traditionalists” are all about long ageing in American oak, while the “modernists” prefer French oak and somewhat shorter ageing times.

As Mansour and Horsley found out, however, late 19th-century Rioja wines – the earliest iterations of the Bordeaux-inspired Rioja “tradition” – were in fact made using French oak, with American only arriving as a more affordable option once the French wine industry began to recover, and reclaim orders for French oak, post-phylloxera. Similarly, in the Mosel, records show that wines were largely dry until some years into the 20th century.

Such ironies don’t lessen the romance and power of tradition – the simultaneously dizzying and reassuring feeling of continuity and consistency that comes with dealing with products and businesses with a long history.

But they do offer a reminder of an important fact. Just as the sound of electric clippers now buzzes through the door at Truefitt & Hill and the digital ping of the card machine has replaced the analogue brrriiing of the cash machine at Berry Bros & Rudd, so no wine region is exactly the same as it was 150 years ago. No matter how small or incremental, it’s only by evolving that tradition stays alive.

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