The demand for wine as an everyday beverage kept winegrowers and merchants busy for many centuries. Around the end of the 17th century came a new demand: for wine that was an aesthetic experience. Of course the Romans searched their Empire for the finest vintages, and kings and abbots of the medieval era expected the best. What was new in France, and especially in England, was the rise of a social group with money and taste, who would pay a premium for fine wine. In France the courtiers of the Regency period (1715-1723) demanded - and got -a copious flow of better, and more sparkling, champagne. In England in the same period the grandees of the government, headed by Prime Minister Robert Walpole, sought out the finest red wines from Bordeaux.
It is to this generation that we can trace fine wine as we know it today. Up to this point, wine was drunk within a year of its making; as the new vintage approached, the price of the 'old" wine fell. But by 1714 a Paris merchant was writing to his Bordeaux agent asking specifically for "good, fine wine, old, black and velvety". The secrets of maturing and improving wines had been mastered, and the age of fine wines had begun.
Arnaud de Pontac, president of the parlement of Bordeaux around 1660, and owner of Chateau Haut-Brion, is generally credited with pioneering this new approach. He set out to make a new kind of wine, applying the techniques that were later to become routine: small crops, careful selection, and rigorous winemaking and cellar practice. The aim was, of course, to gain a reputation and command a high price. In London, Haut-Brion sold for more than three times the price of other good wine.
Within a generation other Bordeaux estates - led by Latour, Lafite and Margaux - had followed suit. Refinement followed refinement: the best vine varieties were selected, vineyards were drained, ageing and cellar care became a precise art. Fine wine was being made on a large scale.
For ordinary wine to be made on a similar scale France had to wait for the Industrial Revolution. The growth of towns, filled with thirsty workers, redoubled the demand for cheap wine. The railways allowed it to be met - from the wide, hot lands of the Midi.