Tony Eklof, originally from New England, has settled in Clonakilty after a career as a librarian at University College Dublin. His knowledge and passion for wine has been inspired by frequent visits to the wine growing regions of the continent, particularly Italy and France.
When I was a student at the University of Massachusetts in Boston my field of study was the history of the Victorian era. My thesis topic was the life of the Eighth Duke of Argyll. As anyone doing research in the 19th century can testify, there is a lot of reading involved as contemporary biographies often ran to multiple volumes. Also, eminent Victorians often wrote on many diverse subjects. George Campbell Douglas, Duke of Argyll, aside from sitting in Gladstone’s Cabinet and opposing Home Rule for Ireland, wrote a famous tract called ‘The Reign of Law’ and also on topics as wide ranging as farming methods in the Scottish Highlands, Glaciology, evolution and world economics.
The Victorians, like myself, had a special relationship with Italy. Many young well-to-do gentlemen of the time spent months on what was referred to as the Grand Tour, which included such highlights as Venice, Rome, Florence and Naples. The list of eminent Victorians whose lives were influenced in a major way by their Italian experiences include Gladstone, Charles Dickens, Robert Browning and John Ruskin.
Incidentally the villa where Ruskin wrote his famous Stones of Venice is now a hotel which happens to be my favourite place to stay in Venice.* Browning’s residence right on the Grand Canal, Ca Rezzonico, is beautifully preserved and is fascinating to visit.
When you think about it, many of our current Christmas traditions and images come straight out of the Victorian era. The Christmas card was invented by one Henry Cole, friend of Prince Albert and chief organiser of the Great Exhibition of 1851. Christmas trees, mince pies and the festive dinner all are associated with this period, especially after the publication of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in 1843, which was a huge success and has left a seemingly permanent impression on how Christmas is viewed in modern times.
What about the Victorians and wine? Again, we associate Christmas with claret (Bordeaux) because of how it became the wine of choice during the latter 19th century. I wouldn’t particularly recommend Queen Victoria’s favourite tipple, a mixture of claret and whiskey, but a special Bordeaux from one of the better appellations, Margaux, Saint Estephe or Pomerol is still my favourite choice for the celebration. The trade between France and England for claret has a centuries old history but it was pretty much the reserve of the aristocracy until William Gladstone introduced the Single Bottle Act of 1861, which meant that ordinary citizens could buy claret by the bottle instead of having to buy it by the case from specialised merchants.
*The hotel mentioned in Venice is La Calcina in the lovely Dorsoduro district. *If you are interested in the era, A.N. Wilson’s single volume The Victorians is a wonderful read.
La Providence Margaux, LIDL, €19.99
Barossa Valley (Australian) Shiraz, SuperValu, on special at €12.
Murphy-Goode California Chardonnay, O’Brien’s Fine Wines, Douglas, €17.99