What is a fortified wine?
Before modern techniques were available most wines were fortified. This involves adding strong alcoholic spirit to stop the wine going off and to give the wine muscle to travel to distant markets. Good examples are Port, Sherry, Madeira, Málaga and Marsala.
This was particularly relevant in south-west Spain because it was from here that Spanish fleets set off to their vast empires in the Americas.
So, in the 16th century the British were also looking for strength in their wines and some sweetness too. The experts at distilling high-strength spirits were the Moors and this was perfect for fortifying wine especially as they were right on the doorstep of Sherry country.
Long before the days of modern technology, grape spirit was needed to stabilize wines to stop them re-fermenting or becoming vinegar. Chemicals such as sulphur were not yet known.
The English drank a wine called Sack, usually sweet and always strong. The most popular sack was Sherris sack, named after the wine from Jerez de la Frontera. This is the wine Sir Francis Drake brought back when he “singed the King of Spain’s beard” in 1587 and made off with 3,000 barrels
of the stuff.
Halfway through the 19th century 50% of the wine drunk in Britain was sherry. Dry Sack was one of the best known brands but it was slightly sweet and people thought it more sophisticated to drink something with ‘dry’ in the name. In the middle of the 20th Century Harvey’s Bristol Cream was probably the most famous wine in Britain – even if most people only drank it once a year at Christmas. But then in those days, most Britons only drank wine once a year – at Christmas. How times have changed!
Excessive Drinking: The drinking excesses of the 18th & 19th centuries are usually thought to be the fault of gin. Hogarth’s 1751 print Gin Lane gives a fairly graphic demonstration of a society disintegrating under the outrageous gin consumption.
However, this was the age of the four bottle man, the five bottle man, even the six bottle man. Dr Samuel Johnson was a three bottles of port man, Boswell’s uncle was a five bottles of Claret man and someone called Mytton drank four to six bottles of port a day and General Bisson, a Frenchman,
drank eight bottles of wine for dinner. Every day!
It is just not possible to comprehend how people could function – or even stay alive – on such vast amounts of booze. Also it is probable that bottles were one litre in size instead of today’s 75cl.
The government intervened in 1750 with the Sale of Spirits Act, commonly known as the Gin Act in order to reduce consumption of spirits which was also one of the primary causes of crime in London