Irish Merchants in Bordeaux
Irish Merchants in Bordeaux: The Irish Role in the Invention of Grands Crus Wines
Researcher: Dr Charles C. Ludington, Visiting Fellow from Department of History, North Carolina State University.
This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No 660618.
This Marie Curie project investigates the creation of one of Europe’s great cultural treasures: fine wine from Bordeaux. Modern historians have generally sought to explain the creation of Bordeaux grands crus as a result of wealthy English consumers whose demand for fine wine inspired and funded Bordelais wine-makers, or else the result of superior geography (terroir) and centuries of French wine-making skill. But these explanations, even when synthesized, overlook the necessary role of middlemen, the “British” (in fact mostly Irish) merchants who “raised” the wines in their Bordeaux cellars, blended them to their customers’ tastes, and then got the wines to market in Northern Europe. In many ways, these merchants were as much the “winemaker” as the maitre de chai at the chateau. Indeed, in French, the merchants were known as “negociants-eleveur,” or wholesaler-growers, as it was they who purchased the wine within weeks of production and then “grew” or “raised” the wine in their cellars by racking the wine from its gross lees (sediment), fining (clarifying) the wine with egg whites, and blending the Bordeaux wine with wine from the Northern Rhone Valley (Hermitage) and Eastern Spain (Benicarlo and Alicante). The importance of these merchants has long been acknowledged by French historians, but their role in producing the wines has never been fully explained. This project has uncovered the activities of leading wine merchants in the creation of fine Bordeaux wines, and placed those activities within a broader network of trade that was centred on Bordeaux and Ireland, but included northern Europe, West Africa, and the Caribbean. In so doing, my project shows that neither terroir nor wealthy consumers–nor even a synthesis of the two–can explain the birth of fine Bordeaux wine; instead, the chain of causality must include the entrepreneurial and wine-raising skills of Irish merchants and vast networks in which they operated.
This project is important because it shows that our most esteemed consumable commodities are not products of human skill or nature or alone, but instead of human innovation acting with natural resources, and within technological and cultural limitations, in order to meet consumer demand. Specifically, this project shows how Bordeaux grand crus wines, among Europe’s most famous luxury commodities, were gradually invented by (mostly) Irish merchants over the course of the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, as they purchased the most expensive and esteemed young wines from around the Bordeaux region, and then manipulated these wines in order to satisfy the demands of wealthy British and Irish consumers. This project should provide a helpful case study for business students and commodity historians, as well as provide a fascinating story for Bordeaux wine lovers the world over.
The overall objective of this project is to synthesize established research with previously unused private archives to show how one of Europe’s iconic commodities was invented. This research will be disseminated through multiple lectures, interviews available on podcast, publications, and ultimately, a publicly available website. A secondary goal of my research is to strengthen ties between researchers in Ireland, France, and the United States.
Methods and Sources
Archives consulted include the following:
- Private Archives of Tastet-Lawton, wine brokerage originally established in 1740, Bordeaux, France
- Private Archives of the Barton Family, of Barton Family Wines, originally established in 1725, St. Julien, Medoc, France
- Private Archives of Nathaniel Johnston et Fils, wine wholesalers, originally established in 1743, Bordeaux, France
- Private Archives of the Hennessy Family, James Hennessy and Co., originally established in 1765, Cognac, France
- Archives Nationale, Paris, France
- Archives Departementale de Gironde, Bordeaux, France
- Archives Bordeaux Metropole, Bordeaux, France
- The National Library of Ireland, Dublin, Ireland
- Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, Belfast, Northern Ireland
- Boole Library, Special Collections, University College Cork, Cork, Ireland
- Trinity College Dublin Library, Manuscripts, University of Dublin, Dublin, Ireland
My Marie Curie Fellowship at UCC ran from 1 September, 2015 until 31 August, 2017:
I have given three radio interviews on my research which are available to the public through in podcast form at
Longer-term deliverables include:
1) A project document website will include Irish wine import statistics from 1698-1829; a complete list of Irish Merchants in Bordeaux and the dates they arrived there; transcriptions of significant letters from the private Barton, Johnston, and Hennessy archives in Bordeaux and Cognac respectively (many of these letters have never before been seen by scholars); statistics from the brokerage ledgers of Abraham and Guillaume Lawton of Cork and Bordeaux.
2) A volume to be edited by me, entitled “The Irish Community in Bordeaux in the Long-Eighteenth Century: Contributions and Contexts.” This volume will be based upon the papers given at the conference of the same name on November 25, 2017. Contributors include some of the most illustrious active historians in Ireland and France, including Louis Cullen, Philippe Loupes, and Jean-Pierre Poussou. I am hoping to find publishers in both English and French and have already had discussions with the French publisher Fayard.
3) A book written by me on the topic of the Irish Wine Merchants in Bordeaux, c. 1689-1855.
The potential impact of these deliverables will be:
1) a better understanding of how Bordeaux grands crus wines were a complex creation of French producers, Irish merchants, and the British and Irish markets
2) a greater awareness that many of Europe’s most iconic commercial products are an artifact of international conflict, but even more so, international cooperation
3) heightened historical awareness among producers and consumers about the slow emergence of the idea of “purity” and “authenticity” in the wine industry and other industries
4) a realization that wine and other products have always been produced for the demands of consumers, and that as wine producers face the challenges posed by global warming, they will continue to have to innovate in order to conform to consumer demands
5) an awareness and celebration of the profound and complex history behind something as simple as a glass of wine
Conferences / Symposiums /Lectures
I have given 16 public lectures regarding my research, 14 in English and 2 in French:
1) Plenary Speaker, “Trade, Tax, and Taste: How Bordeaux and Port Became World Famous Wines,” A Safe Place for Ships: Second Maritime History Conference, University College Cork, October 16, 2016
2) “Les Grands Vins de Bordeaux: Ireland’s Role in the Development of Luxury Claret,” History Research Seminar Series at University College Cork, January 28, 2016.
3) “Innovation among Irish Wine Merchants in Eighteenth Century Bordeaux,” UCC Food Conference: Innovation in Irish Food and Drink: Past, Present, and Future, Cork, Ireland, March 11, 2017
4)“Irish Merchants and the Creation of Bordeaux Grands Crus Wines,” Worlds in a Wine Glass Conference: Perspectives From the Humanities and Social Sciences, King’s College, University of London, United Kingdom, May 9, 2016
5) “Irish Merchants and the Creation of Bordeaux Grands Crus Wines,” 2eme Conference Internationale d’Histoire des Cultures d’Alimentation, IEHCA, Tours, France, May 26, 2016
6) “Quiet Revolutionaries: Irish Wine Merchants and the Creation of Bordeaux Grands Crus Wines, Dublin Gastronomy Symposium, Dublin, Ireland, June 1, 2016
7) “Salt-Beef and Butter: Cork’s Role in the Bordeaux Wine Trade, Cork Harbor Festival, Cork, Ireland, June 9, 2016
8) “Wine in the United Kingdom: A Brief Economic History,” American Association of Wine Economists 10th Annual Conference, Pre-Conference Symposium, Bordeaux, France, June 19, 2016
9) “Irish History and the Development of Port and Bordeaux Wines,” Glandore Classic Boat Summer School, Glandore, Co. Cork, Ireland, July 16, 2016
10)“Irish Merchants and the Development of Bordeaux Wines,” Cork Public Library Public Lecture Series, September 17, 2016
11) “Le Vrai et le Faux: Qu’est ce que le Vin de Porto,” Universite de Toulouse, Jean Jaures, January 26, 2017
12) “Innovation among Irish Wine Merchants in Eighteenth Century Bordeaux,” UCC Food Conference: Innovation in Irish Food and Drink: Past, Present, and Future, Cork, Ireland, March 11, 2017
13) “Le Vin et Deux Villes: Bordeaux et Porto,” Ville et Vin en France et en Europe du XVe siecle a nos jours, Universite de Bordeaux-Montaigne, Bordeaux, France, November 23, 2017
14) “Inventing Grand Cru Claret: Irish Wine Merchants in Eighteenth-Century Bordeaux”, The Irish Community in Bordeaux in the Long-Eighteenth Century: Contributions and Contexts, Bordeaux, France, November 25, 2017
15) “Irish Wine Merchants and the Problems of Heritage”, Association of Franco-Irish Studies, 12th Annual Conference, Limerick, Ireland, 20 May 2017
16) “The MacCarthys of Bordeaux,” The MacCarthy Cultural and Historical Weekend, Dunmanway, Cork, 26 May 2017
Principal Collaborators and Contacts
Hiram Morgan, Senior Lecturer in History, University College Cork
Andy Bielenberg, Senior Lecturer in History, University College Cork
L. M. Cullen, Professor Emeritus of History, Trinity College Dublin
Jane Ohlmeyer, Professor of History, Trinity College Dublin
David Dickson, Professor of History, Trinity College Dublin
Eamon Ó Ciosain, Professor of French Literature and Culture, National University of Ireland, Maynooth
Tara Kellaghan, PhD candidate, Dublin Institute of Technology
Diarmaid Ó Cathain, solicitor and private scholar, Cork
Philippe Meyzie, Lecturer in History, Universite de Bordeaux III, Bordeaux-Montaigne
Stephanie Lachaud, Lecturer in History, Universite de Bordeaux III, Bordeaux-Montaigne
Patrick Clarke de Dromantin, PhD, private scholar, Bordeaux
Philippe Loupes, Emeritus Professor of History, Universite de Bordeaux III, Bordeaux-Montaigne, President de l’Academie de Bordeaux
Jean-Pierre Poussou, Emeritus Professor of History, Universite de Bordeaux III, Bordeaux-Montaigne, former President of Universite de Paris IV, Paris-Sorbonne
Michel Figeac, Professor of History, Universite de Bordeaux III, Bordeaux-Montaigne
Eric Giraud-Heraud, Director, Institut des Sciences de la Vigne et du Vin, Bordeaux
Kym Anderson, Professor of Economics, University of Adelaide
Vicente Pinilla, Professor of Economics, University of Zaragoza
Thomas Truxes, Clinical Professor of History, New York University