You know I’m a sucker for history, and this was a fascinating one to research. Through Thomas Jefferson’s detailed records, we’re able to learn so much about wine during the late 1700s and early 1800s in France, Spain, and northern Italy. Turns out, as much as we think things have changed, much of it has stayed the same. We need to thank the folks at Monticello in Virginia for making such awesome records available! Here are some notes:
- Pre-Revolution wine was made up of Madeira, light red Claret, Sherry, and Port. The British dictated tastes and discouraged trade in French wine so Portugal and Spain dominated
- Jefferson began his love of wine while at William & Mary College in Williamsburg, Virginia and developed more of an interest when he interacted with German prisoners during and after the Revolution
- in 1784, Jefferson was newly widowed and moved to France to serve as an ambassador alongside John Adams and Benjamin Franklin.
- Adams loved Bordeaux and helped school Jefferson in wine, but Jefferson took his passion further, combining “public service with private gratification” on a number of long trips through Burgundy, Rhône, Piedmont, Loire, and Bordeaux. He toured Rheingau, Mosel, and Champagne later on. Burgundy was his passion.
- Jefferson didn’t want to leave Paris in 1789 but left and became Washington’s Secretary of State, and he never returned to the continent. He became an advocate for French and Italian wines in America.
- While president, he drank sherry Hermitage blanc, what appears to be Bandol, and a Roussillon wine that seems like a modern day vin doux natural and racked up personal wine debts that would be several million dollars in today’s world.
- Throughout his life, Jefferson kept immaculate records of his drinking, coming up with a tasting lexicon and a method for getting people more interested in trying these fine wines. We know that the best wines of the world remain so — terroir is terroir — and that the more things have changed, the more they have stayed the same in many regards. No amount of technology can make a better wine than a Montrachet from Burgundy or a first growth from Bordeaux.