Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Beauty and Flavor of Cunard's German Sparkling Wines

                                   Moselle Vinyards, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Friedrich Petersdorff
I last wrote about the champagne options served aboard Cunard ships throughout the 1840s and up through the 1870s, but also listed on the "Wines, Spirits, and Other Liquors" Cunard menu were options for sparkling wines (champagne, but produced outside the Champagne region and from other countries or from other regions of France).   

Sparkling German wine selections included Hock and Moselle.  I have always found the word, "Hock", somewhat confusing, and I was unsure how to distinguish it from Moselle wine, so I decided to do a bit of research.
Aboard a Cunard ship, Hock, sparkling or still, sold for 5 shillings per quart or 3 shillings per pint; sparkling Moselle likewise sold for 5 shillings per quart, or 3 shillings per pint.   Both options were cheaper than Champagne (see my previous blog post), although from my research, Hock seemed more respected in quality among the Victorians than did Moselle.
“Hock” was the British word for German wine that came from Hochheim on the Main River in the Rheingau wine region, although the word (also seen not capitalized) often came to encompass all the white wines produced along both the Rhine and Main Rivers.  “Rhine” and “Hock” are and were largely synonyms. 

                          A map of the Main and Rhine Rivers, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, BerndH.

Moselle (or Mosel) wines were produced along the Moselle River and take into account German wines that came from the regions along the Saar and Ruwer Rivers as well.   
Just as Henry Vizetelly’s Champagne and Other Sparkling Wines helped me understand Victorian attitudes towards and interest in champagne, Walter and Alfred Gilbey’s self-published 1869 Treatise on Wines and Spirits of Principal Producing Countries has been equally valuable for helping me understand wines.  In spite of its very dry-sounding title, this book is easy to read and full of fascinating information.

Hock nowadays might get a bad rap, both in the UK and the US, due to the popularity of the Blue Nun in the 1970s and 1980s, and other sweet mass-marketed German white wines.  Felicity Cloake has an excellent post on  white German wine’s shifting reputation in the Guardian’s Word of Mouth blog that might be interesting to read for a modern-day perspective:  http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/wordofmouth/2010/oct/20/german-wine-curse-blue-nun.

However, at the time that Cunard was sailing and offering Hock on its menu, it was considered, as Cloake puts it, part of the Holy Trinity, along with claret and champagne.  Walter and Alfred Gilbey declared that “Hock is a wine of which the palate never tires, and in this respect it resembles the red wines of Bordeaux [i.e., claret]; and is unlike other natural white wines, which are consumed only at intervals, and for sake of change and variety” (n.p.).  The Gilbeys also pointed out that German wines were of a drier character than French white wines, that they had “greater aromatic properties,” and were “the most refreshing of all natural white wines” (n.p.).  While these authors might have been overly subjective in their generalizations, I would attest to the distinct, pleasantly acidic, dry nature of the very best Rhine wines, as I think many others today would as well. 
In the 19th century, Hock was often served in tinted-color wine goblets (light green, light amber) because these distinctive wines, after fermenting for as much as seven to ten years before bottling, were oftentimes of an inperfect brilliance; hence, “the custom of drinking wines of this description from colored glasses, as in the matter of wine it is always desirable to consult the eye as well as the palate” (Treatise on Wines and Spirits, n. p.).

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.  Rummer, Germany or Netherlands, early 19th century. MRAH, Collection of European Decorative Arts, Jubilee Park, Brussels
This research leads me to want to drink more German white wines, and I am glad to know that other countries, including the United States, Australia, and Canada, produce some very fine Rieslings that compare in quality to the finest wines of Germany.  I have always loved the Roemer style glasses, remembering so fondly my first trip to the Rhine and Moselle regions when I was an exchange student, drinking wine in various Gasthofs and bars near my host family's home near Koblenz.  I am uncertain at this point if Cunard ships served these wines in the distinctive Roemer glasses.  Perhaps some visits to maritime museums will answer this question for me.

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