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Antiques for the wine enthusiast

Antique Wine Accessories

It is an extraordinary fact that for the past 300 years, Britain has been at the very epicentre of the world wine trade - and it still is. It is extraordinary because Britain produced little or no wine for most of that time, so the question "Why?" comes to mind. In large part it is because the Royal Navy dominated the world’s oceans until the second half of the 20th century and it meant that British trade was able to flourish. This very much included the wine trade, and English merchants and aristocracy chose to take advantage of what was on offer.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the English gentleman gave considerable patronage to vintners, who became knowledgeable about wines from all around the world - from South Africa to Madeira, Portugal (especially) and all Mediterranean countries, while wine merchants from France and elsewhere dealt almost exclusively in wines from their own countries or regions. In large measure, they still do.

With the burgeoning trade came wealth and the British spent lavishly not only on wine but on accessories they felt would enhance its enjoyment. As early as the 1670s English glasshouses began making wine glasses and decanters quite unlike anything produced by the Venetians - although Venetian wine glasses were selling in large numbers before that. The English glass was more robust, beautiful in its proportions, and more cogently, it was eminently useable. It was soon to dominate the world market and did so for over a century.

By the early years of the 18th century, there was a seriously burgeoning trade in imported wine. Silversmiths produced goblets and wine tasters, and later in the century they began making coasters, funnels, wine labels and corkscrews. Wine accessories found an eager home market keen to purchase or commission such things in enormous quantities. War, which prevailed between England and its neighbours in Europe for much of this time, affected trade and specifically wine imports surprisingly little, and while taxes were raised, there was also a thriving black market to keep the English (and to a lesser extent the Scots, Welsh and Irish) happily drinking wine, often to excess.

The opening years of the 19th century saw the dining room enlarged to take dining tables accommodating two, three or even four dozen - with the appropriate accessories not only for eating, but also for drinking wine. Grand silver wine coolers became gilded to match coasters, goblets, wine labels and eating accessories (salt cellars, dessert dishes etc.). Later coloured glass found favour when service á la Russe meant drinking glasses multiplied in number and were set on the dining table.

The closing years of the century saw a fashion for champagne, which since 1858 had become ‘dry’ or 'brut' to cater for the British taste, and this style of Champagne soon became the world favourite, although it took a couple of decades to establish. Needless to say, an array of equipment was invented to cater for this trend.

For a fuller account, please refer to my book - Great British Wine Accessories 1550 - 1900