In the 18th century drinking claret helped the rich to distinguish themselves from England’s port-sodden squirearchy. Port was not only the more traditional drink, but also—because it attracted much lower duties—far cheaper. John Hervey, the first Earl of Bristol, spent four times as much on claret as on port, whereas the lusty trenchermen who gathered in the Barbers Hall in the City of London spent a mere £2 on claret as against £850 on port.
When Britain made peace with France in 1713, claret became more accessible and the wine trade flourished. Claret was pricey but rich Londoners, who were also by then big spenders on theatres, spas and music produced by fashionable immigrants, such as Handel, consumed conspicuous quantities. Sir Robert Walpole, Britain’s first prime minister, used navy ships to smuggle his favourite wines from France. The most expensive one he bought was old burgundy, but that—as now—was available only in tiny quantities. So he relied largely on claret, buying four hogsheads of 24 dozen bottles of Margaux and one hogshead of Lafite every three months. In a single year his wine bill amounted to over £1,200 (£100,000 today). British consumers bought the best stuff and paid top prices. By the time of the French revolution, the British were paying five times as much for their claret as the wine’s other main customers, the notoriously parsimonious Dutch, who preferred the cheaper, lower-grade stuff.