Sunday, 1 May 2016

Sherris Sack and the Sack Trade

Some Background
Let’s begin with a quick look at the English situation and some history of the wine trade. Evidence of the existence of the vinífera vine dating from prehistoric times has been found in England but not of its cultivation. Wine was therefore being imported into England, probably a couple of centuries before the Romans invaded in AD 43, but they hugely increased its importation, production and consumption. The earliest mention that wine was made in England comes from Bede in AD 731, and it was generally, though not wholly, a monastic occupation.

The Normans ensured their supply of wine from France, as the 38 vineyards listed in the Domesday Book of 1086 could never have been sufficient to supply them, but more were planted, and wine was produced in reasonable quantities till the XIV century when the climate cooled quite dramatically, and it was no longer possible. In 1152 Eleanor of Acquitaine married Henry, Duke of Normandy, who became Henry II, king of England only two years later. Her dowry was Aquitaine and Gascony, and what with Henry’s Normandy, the English crown therefore owned effectively the left hand side of France. Bordeaux and Gascon wines now became the norm in England, at least till the mid XV century when the English were finally driven out of France after the Hundred Years War.

French wine was not the only wine consumed in England however. Portugal had been trading with England for some time already and various treaties had been signed. A substantial English community had grown by the mid XV century in Lisbon, Oporto, Gaia and Viana, trading in cod, wool and wine. A formal alliance between the two countries was forged after an invasion of Portugal by Castile. It was seen off by the Portuguese with the help of 500 English archers. In 1386 England and Portugal signed the Treaty of Windsor, known as the “Treaty of Perpetual Friendship”, which is still in force. By the 1530’s wine from Lisbon and the Douro (now Port) was already being shipped, but it was a cruder wine than we know today. Nevertheless, the first of many Port houses (Kopke) was established in 1638 and sales grew, providing competition to Sack.

From the 1350’s wines had been imported from the eastern Mediterranean, mainly by Venetian traders, from Italy (Vernage, a corruption of Vernaccia), Sardinia, Tyre, Cyprus and Crete, whose Malmsey (a corruption of Monomvasia, the port of exit) was prized for its sweetness and body. This trade was subsequently lost to the Ottoman Empire after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, causing northern traders to concentrate more on the western Mediterranean. Many other sweet wines were then shipped from there, from places like Sicily and Málaga but the further west the vineyards, the more convenient.

The Development of Sack
Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400), from a family of vintners, refers in his Canterbury Tales to the wine of Lepe which he rhymes with Chepe, presumably now Cheapside in London. Lepe (actually pronounced like the Spanish name “Pepe”) is situated in the province of Huelva, not far from the southern border with Portugal and not terribly far from Jerez, and from here considerable quantities of wine were exported to England. It was obviously strong; Chaucer says: “This wyn of Spaigne crepeth subtilly…ther ryseth such fumositee…” (what a wonderful word!) This would be a forerunner of Sack in times long before the demarcation of vineyards.

A medieval sack cup (foto: pinterest)

Meanwhile, the Jerez area had freed itself of the Moors in 1264 and the first record there of export to England was in 1485, though it is certain that exports in at least a small way were already fairly common. By the end of the XV century English merchants had established a community in Sanlúcar, the main port of departure to the new Spanish colonies in South America, and were exporting wines to England. At this time a wine known as “Rumney” was popular in England, originally from Romania (then part of Greece) but latterly produced in Jerez, it was not consumed locally but only for export, for which it was fortified. It was to be made, by law, from the Torrontés, Fergusano and Verde Agudillo grape varieties.  In the 1490’s Columbus included in his ships’ provisions plenty of Jerez wine, and Magellan also took it on his voyage to circumnavigate the globe in 1519. In fact he spent more on wine than on weapons. Ironically, he was killed in battle before he could return, though the voyage was completed by Juan Sebastian Elcano.

During the XVI and XVII centuries, the Jerez area saw the arrival of many foreign traders, mainly Portuguese, Italian and English. Spanish and foreign traders had equal rights. In 1517 the Duke of Medina Sidonia, Don Alfonso Pérez de Guzmán, in whose feudal domain Sanlúcar was situated, granted extended privileges to the English merchants, many of whom, being Protestants, were having problems with the Inquisition. He granted them land upon which they built St George’s church; he made justice more accessible; allowed them to carry arms, and increased customs efficiency – anything to boost trade. The English community got on with trade and making money and rarely interacted, but as time went by they saw the need to, as religious strife between Spain and England worsened (due to rumours of Henry VIII’s divorce of Catherine of Aragon), and in 1530, Henry granted their petition for a constitution and the Company of Andalucía was created, nicknamed the Brotherhood of St George. Henry went on to further annoy the Catholics, and so too did his daughter Queen Elizabeth I (known as “Isabel the Heretic” in Spain), especially when she put to death Mary Queen of Scots, a Catholic. So while Sack was widely drunk in England, it was dangerous for its merchants: a few were tortured and many imprisoned by the Inquisition and some returned to England. It was safer to export wine using foreign ships. Yet despite all these problems, trade managed to flourish, and in 1548, two thirds of the Jerez production of 60,000 barrels was exported - and mainly to England.

A XVII century Delft sack jug

By the 1580’s, however, trade suffered further as a result of more tangible hostilities between France, England and Spain. Wine, then as now, suffered from political whims and the Anglo-Spanish War of 1585-1604, while intermittent – and never actually declared – did much harm to commercial traffic - but much good to the privateers. These seafarers (many called them pirates), Hawkins, Drake and Raleigh, to name only three, were quite happy to raid Spanish colonies in South America, Spanish shipping or Spain itself, and sell their booty in England. Drake’s name survives in the Spanish expression to persuade children to behave: “Mira, que viene el Draque” (Watch out, Drake’s coming).

Already popular, what really made Sack take off in England was Sir Francis Drake’s raid (one of many) on the Spanish fleet in the port of Cadiz on April 19th 1587. He captured nearly 3,000 pipes of Sherris Sack intended as supplies to the Armada, an armed fleet being readied for an invasion of England, and presented some at court. Suddenly it had royal approval, and it was seen as patriotic to drink it. Sack reached the height of its popularity in the XVI and XVII centuries, thanks in part to Shakespeare, who often described its merits through the characters in his plays. Shakespeare himself is thought to have drunk mulled Sack. His contemporary playwrights and authors Ben Johnson, Edmund Spenser and Christopher Marlowe also wrote glowingly on Sack, and it is probable that excess consumption of it led to the fight in a tavern in which Marlowe was killed.

In 1588, partially as a result of the English raids, but mainly in his war against Protestantism, Felipe II sent the massive Spanish Armada (130 ships) commanded by the Duke of Medina Sidonia, to invade England, and people in the Jerez area worked night and day to supply its provisions. Fate was against the fleet, however, while life for any remaining Englishmen in Spain became even more difficult, especially after another English raid on Cadiz in 1595. They were effectively trying to make a living in enemy (at least in religious terms) territory. When Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603, and was succeeded by the son of Mary Queen of Scots, James VI (of Scotland)and I (of England), albeit a Protestant, things became a little easier. The quality of Sack had been eroded, yet in fact, by the end of the Tudor period (1485-1603), England was importing more wine from Spain than from France. In 1604 King James VI and I issued an order limiting the amount of Sack consumed at court to twelve gallons a day (nearly 55 litres) “and no more”.

The most important English ports of entry for the Sack trade were Bristol, Plymouth and London. For reasons of efficiency and economy, many of the ships were also involved with the Newfoundland cod business, as it meshed well with the equally seasonal cargoes of wine, raisins and olive oil. They would offload salt cod in England, Portugal, Spain or the Atlantic islands in the spring and summer, and then return with cargoes of wine, raisins or olive oil, produce of autumn and winter. England was not the only country involved in this trade. In the early days of the Newfoundland fishing, Spain, Portugal, France and Holland were also involved, but with Philip II of Spain’s annexation of Portugal in 1580, both countries succumbed to poor government from Madrid. The English and the French thus came to dominate the fishing, while the English and the Dutch came to dominate the Sack trade. In 1620, one of the Sack ships, the Mayflower, was diverted to take a cargo of Puritans from England to America. They were later known as the Pilgrim Fathers.

There was more trouble in 1655, when the English disembarked in the Spanish colony of Jamaica and took it over. In return, the Spanish took the ships, goods and possessions of any Englishmen found in Spanish ports. The English then raised taxes on Spanish wine, so infuriating the Málaga producers, it is said, that in 1668 they allowed the grapes to wither on the vine so that there was no Málaga wine for the English, and no sack was landed in Bristol that autumn. But things calmed down again, and in 1683 Pepys visited Jerez, where he found a flourishing Sherry business, especially in Sanlúcar, though the Church of St George was a ruinous state. It should be remembered that for reasons of shipping convenience, the Sherris Sack trade was based mainly in the coastal towns of the province of Cádiz: Sanlúcar and Puerto de Santa María. The importance of Jerez itself came a little later.

What was Sack?  
Etymologists and historians are not agreed on the origins of the word. It might originate from the English verb “to sack” or “plunder” but it most likely comes from the Spanish “sacar” = to withdraw (for sale/export) and appears at about the end of the XV century, often in the form of “Sherris Sack” (as opposed to Canary Sack etc.) but being usurped by the word “Sherry” at the start of the XVII century. Much of the wine came from Spain. It by no means came only from Jerez though; it was shipped from Alicante, Málaga, Huelva, the Balearic Islands, the Canaries, and quite probably Sitges and Valencia as well, not to mention Madeira and Lisbon. Its principal advantage over say, Bordeauxwas that it was made from riper grapes, often extra-ripe grapes, giving it a higher alcoholic strength and less acidity, and it travelled better.

Sack was thus really a generic term and often included such wines as Bastard (a corruption of the red grape variety Bastardo and sometimes the name used to describe sweet wines made by the addition of alcohol), Tent (a corruption of Tinto or the red grape variety Tintilla from Rota), Malmsey (see above) from Madeira and also grown in the Canary Islands (which provided Canary Sack and Bastard), and Muscat or Muscatel (Moscatel), mostly from Málaga; Palm Sack came from Palma de Mallorca, in the Balearic Islands. By the end of the XVI century it was occasionally fortified, probably to around 16% vol, with or without arrope (boiled-down must) guaranteeing safe arrival in overseas markets. Another method of preservation was to ship the wine before the completion of fermentation, but the resultant wine would have been dry, or drier, unfortified and probably much less appetising. It is fair to say, however, that whatever the quality or condition of the Sack, the innkeepers and wine merchants were not above ”improving” it.

Sherris Sack was usually white, usually quite young, sometimes sweet but usually dry and occasionally fortified. The fortification could be done in either of two ways:  after fermentation rendering a stronger dry-fermented wine, or the sweet juice itself was fortified, so it was unable to ferment, creating a “mistela” or fortified grape juice (like modern Málaga, Moscatel de Chipiona or PX). It probably tasted fairly oxidised from its weeks at sea and would have had a deep golden to amber colour. It probably resembled a young Oloroso of today. So it can’t have been too bad!

Pepys mentions drinking Sack by the pint in 1660. It was certainly very expensive (especially by the pint!) at around twelve times the price of ale; in 1533 it cost ten pence a gallon but by 1598 it cost fifty-six pence (or 4 shillings and eight pence), due more to scarcity than taxation. Certain medicinal properties were known: wine had a disinfectant effect on wounds, and of course the water was usually polluted, so it was safer to drink alcoholic beverages. In the 1640’s an Oxford doctor went among the victims of the plague, trying to cure them, and his only means of personal safety was copious quantities of Sack. Hopefully he gave the (his?!) victims Sack also!

This most popular wine was not always drunk on its own. Often it was mixed with mulling spices, and Pepys refers to Sack-Posset, a mix of Sack, sugar, spices, milk and beaten egg which was supposed to be healthy, and was popular in Colonial North America where it was often served at weddings. Shakespeare’s character Sir John Falstaff (who made a magnificent and unforgettable speech in praise of Sack in Henry the Fourth (IV, iii – must read!) mixed in sugar (so it can’t all have been sweet) and called it “Sir John Sack and sugar”.

Here is not the place to recount the endless praises heaped on Sack by XV-XVII century writers, but it is worth noting the positive effect they had - and still have on its success. The wine that is now called Sherry has been famous for centuries, not only for their praise, but also for that of many later writers, for its sheer quality. The XVIII century saw major development of the wine into what we know and love today, but it was no longer called Sack (except for Williams & Humbert's Dry Sack, which is more a brand than a true reflection of old sack). Now, Sherry is a more complex wine with many more styles than before, but with a long, noble and fascinating history, a wine that is slowly regaining its rightful place as one of the world’s finest.

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