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From Vineyard to Grape Harvest

Le Pont du Rialto depuis le Quai au vin, Michele Maieschi, 1740/43 - L'Ermitage, Saint Pétersbourg, Russie

Michele Marieschi (1710-1743)


The Hermitage, St Petersburg

Before the rise of the railways, the wine trade often developed and operated from maritime ports. Venice played an important role in the growth of European wine; the city had a large part to play in terms of trade, but also in wine production – the Riva del Vin (‘wine quay’) still runs alongside the Grand Canal. In the thirteenth century, the Serenissime imported and re-exported large quantities of Greek wine from Malvosia (Monemvasia), on the south-east coast of Peloponnese. This region produced a strong, sweet wine with the taste of muscat, known for aging well, which was very appreciated at the time.

Some Venetians would even move to Greece, specifically Rhodes, to grow the vines. Venetian trade included many different wines, such as Cyprian wine, liquorish and well-reputed; Crete was also a good source of sweet, full-bodied wines, which fetched a price well above the average, even in the fourteenth century! Les ports de Pise et de Gênes ont également joué un grand rôle dans le commerce des vins de Corse et de l’ouest de la Méditerranée. Les Vénitiens conservent le contrôle des vins grecs jusqu’à la conquête ottomane, dans la seconde moitié du XVIe siècle. They also planted vineyards along the Dalmatian Coast, from Trieste to the Albanian border, in the Imola, Ancon and Verona regions.


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1. Bartholomeus Pons, originally from Haarlem, was very active in the Burgundy and Champagne regions. In 1537, he painted this small genre scene, showing three man unloading barrels into a cellar (a mooring post in the foreground shows the coat of arms of the Dinteville family, his Burgundy patrons). This must be part of a larger painting, perhaps an altarpiece dedicated to St Vincent, patron saint of wine-growers and a venerated figure in the Burgundy region. 


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1.  In  Wine Merchants and Taster, "the scene seems to be on a quay in Dordrecht: the monumental gate visible on the left recalls one of those in the city, even if the rest of the urban landscape does not correspond precisely to this city.In the center stand, in front of aligned barrels, three men, certainly merchants, standing in front of a horseman on his horse, this one - undoubtedly a taster - drinks a glass of wine. On the left, a man is drawing the contents of a barrel; at his side, a dog is lapping up a tub. The episode would therefore feature a scene of checking goods. Around the central group, the life of the port unfolds: boats docking, men busying themselves around a crane or barrels, figures going about their domestic chores (a tent and housewives seem to designate, on the left, a market). At the back, on the right, beyond a large expanse of water, stands the steeple of a village. Unanimously recognized as a particularly important painting by van Goyen, this panel illustrates one of the master's favorite fields: the animated landscape" (Source: Notice, Matthieu Pinette, Base Joconde).


In the 17th century, the Dutch exercised an undeniable supremacy on world maritime trade. They rationalize transport, optimize journeys, create counters, adapt supply to demand and thus contribute to the development of certain wine-growing territories, such as that which extends from the Nantes region to Bayonne. The Dutch, who were the first to distribute anonymous wines, import and export huge quantities of wine, especially white, whatever their quality and vintage.


2. The Governors of the Amsterdam Wine Merchants' Guild pose full length and "hold a book or papers, brandish the attributes of their office (the pipette used to pour the wine drawn from the barrel), display a distracted air. Frozen, encased in their quasi-cassock, molded in the wax of the Grévin museum” (source: La Boîte à images,


7. The 18th century was marked by the growth of maritime trade. The Port of Marseille, like those of Toulon, La Rochelle and Bordeaux, belongs to the series of ports in France, ordered by Louis XV in Vernet who was asked to represent the activities specific to the region. Marine painting was an instrument used by power to stage itself, to position France as a maritime nation, to illustrate the greatness of the country in its successes and progress, to arouse national pride. True witnesses of the time, these paintings are teeming with characters, details and fulfill their mission well. Marseille, which made up for the demographic losses of the plague of 1720, was, along with Bordeaux, one of the two major ports for French foreign trade. The barrels here bear witness to Marseille's cabotage activity with the Mediterranean basin.


8. The same is true for the Port of Toulon.


10. In his View of the Port of La Rochelle, Vernet does not hesitate to put barrels in the foreground when La Rochelle was supplanted by Bordeaux for the wine trade and by Saintes for that of the eaux-de-vie produced in the region of Cognac (after having been, from the 12th to the 15th century, the first port for the export of wines in Flanders, in Bruges in particular). On the other hand, La Rochelle in the 18th century had become, along with Nantes and Bordeaux, one of the first "slave ports" in France, actively participating in the triangular trade, organized slave trade (in France, since the end of the 16th century) around exchanges between Europe, Africa and the Americas. The ships carried in their holds textiles, weapons, novelties,... and wine, as well as spirits! 


12. The river ports, like Tours here, have also exercised a strong attraction on the vineyard. Prior to the railroads, the development of commercial vineyards was predicated on nearby seaports and navigable rivers. The Loire shipping industry has played a decisive role in the marketing of wine, and therefore in the very existence of the vineyard. At the end of the 18th century, it extended along the Loire like a long ribbon. When Demachy painted this Panoramic View of Tours in 1787, the city was booming.

A great animation reigns on the river, then navigable, and the traffic is important. Flat-bottomed boats, barges, carry barrels. The white wines of the Loire Valley are mainly intended for export via Nantes and destined for Northern Europe, while the red wines are sent to Orléans and from there to Paris, as is the case here. (this is attested by the presence of the Saint Gatien cathedral on the left bank). The prevailing wind from the west made it possible to go up the Loire without any towing as far as Orléans. From there, they returned loaded with products related to the establishment of processing industries along the river; from Nantes, they returned laden with colonial products (sugar, spices, coffee, cocoa, cotton, indigo, etc.).

13. Luis Paret, a Madrid native born to a French father and a Spanish mother, lived in Bilbao for many years. It was here that he was commissioned by Charles III, King of Spain, for a series of paintings of Cantabrian ports in the style of Claude-Joseph Vernet (see above). View of El Arenal, Bilbao accurately portrays the animation of this port. The foreground, showing the Nervion estuary, depicts men loading goods onto the quay, notably barrels.


18. Rouen - like Bordeaux, Nantes and Porto, is at the junction of river traffic and maritime traffic. In the Middle Ages, and particularly from the 10th to the 15th centuries, its port could thus have been a major player in the wine trade between the countries of the Seine and the British Isles. The merchants of Rouen met there the formidable competition of Cologne which, with the Rhine and the North Sea, also benefited from this double identity of sea and river port.The "wines of France", from Île de France and Auxerre, arrived in Rouen on large river barges, some of which could carry up to one hundred barrels, or even one hundred and eighty (source: History of the vine and wine in France: From its origins to the 19th century, Roger Dion, CNRS Editions, 2010).


21. The traffic attracts to Rouen products intended for the Paris conurbation, such as wines from Algeria. Before the war, Algeria exported nearly 60% of its exports there, while the balance passed through the Mediterranean ports, headed by that of Sète. In 1950, only 30% of the tonnage exported was sent to Rouen, le commerce des vins tendant à abandonner le mode d'expéditions en fûts pour celui des navires citernes dont les ports méditerranéens, et en particulier Sète, had a whole flotilla of tankers. To this, it should be added that rail communications between Sète and Paris were already very fast (23 hours). It will allow them to transport the wines from Algeria to Paris in five to six days. (source: René Streiff, Le Port de Rouen, L'Information Géographique, 1951).


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3. The Paris wine market, found along the river Seine on the Quai Saint Bernard, has been the domain of the capital’s wine merchants since the mid-17th century. The market was open to all wine merchants, including foreigners, on payment of a fee. Better laid-out and better located on the Seine, the market replaced the nearby Port de la Tournelle, previously the main site of the Paris wine trade. Parisian wine consumption began to rise from the start of the 19th century. In order to deal with this trend, in 1808 city planners decided to build a new wine market, which was finally completed in 1845. However, the building had insufficient storage space and could not cope with the changes brought by the arrival of the railway.

In 1869 the government decided to build new warehouses in Bercy, on the other side of the Seine. In 1905, Parliament obliged large wine merchants to open branches on both the Bercy site and the Paris market. Until the start of the 20th century, the two Parisian warehouses were equally important. However, the Saint Bernard market’s gradual specialisation into fine wines and spirits and the extension of the Bercy site in 1910 meant that the latter soon gained precedence. The traders of the Saint Bernard wine market finally moved off the site in 1964 and their stalls were transferred to Bercy.


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Bordeaux’s wine story began during the Roman period, with the transport of amphorae down the river from the Gaul of Narbonne*. Situated 100 km from the Atlantic coast, the settlement benefitted from its status as both a river and maritime port (in the same way as Nantes and Porto). To prioritise its own wines over those of its haut-pays** (‘High Country’) rivals, Bordeaux acted as a handy buffer between neighboring areas and the sea. Gradually, over the course of the 13th and 14th centuries, the city implemented a code of commercial practice – the so-called ‘wine police’ favored local wine over that of its neighbors. This system was tolerated by the English rulers, primarily because it decentralized tax collection. The “Bordelais privilege” accorded to local growers allowed them to sell their own wines first: the arrival of wines from up-country was blocked until November or December. This privilege was very important at a time when wine was hard to store. Hugh Johnson adds: “In all probability, these wines were often better, stronger wine than most of what Bordeaux made locally, and the Bordelais were correspondingly jealous of them and anxious to sell their own production first.” (Story of Wine, Easten Press, CO, 1998). The privilege remained in force after Bordeaux was restored to France in order to quell any uprising from those who may have benefited from the tax system under English rule. It wouldn’t be abolished until 1776***.

The Bordelais also wanted to guard against potential competition from their neighbours. To put the brakes on the strengthening Médoc region, and to halt the success of Gironde’s smaller ports, in 1401 Bordeaux obtained a ban on the loading of wines bound for foreign export at any point beyond the city’s Chartrons dockland (and up to the sea, if the wine did not pass through Bordeaux). Although this measure stayed in place officially up to the Revolution, “from the 17th century, and for reasons still unknown, the obstacles to vine-planting were removed. The plantations spread out from the small ports on the banks of the Gironde (Macau, Lamarque, Pauillac, Saint-Estèphe and others); progress here was fast because the terrain allowed for very easy growing” (Roger Dion, Histoire de la vigne et du vin en France, des origines au XIXe siècle, CNRS Editions). It’s sometimes said that Louis XIV granted privileges to certain Médoc vineyards to reward their loyalty or the quality of their product. This might be how Château Margaux, Château Lafite and Château Latour acquired patent letters allowing them to export their wine directly to England, Holland or Germany without having to pass through Bordeaux.

Although Bordeaux was by no means exclusively a wine port, barrels were to be seen on every quay, regardless of the period. Many painters recorded such scenes.

3. The Chartrons area became famous after the arrival, in the late 17th/early 18th century, of wine merchants from London, Liverpool and Bristol, followed by others from Amsterdam, Germany and Denmark. Unable to lodge in the centre of the city, due to lack of space, these traders set up home on the edge of the city, near the Garonne. The quai des Chartrons and its European trading houses quickly came to symbolise the prosperity of the Atlantic ports. The great wine domains were established during this period. However, if Bordeaux enjoyed remarkable growth at this time, its success was not only due to trade with England and Northern Europe, but also transatlantic exchanges with destinations such as the Caribbean. The enrichment of the urban elite and the push for modernisation combined to make south-western France’s principal city a model of Enlightenment values.

22. The Memphis was a mineral trading vessel, transporting iron. In Bordeaux, this type of boat would often be seen beside the barrel-laden quay.


*    The Gaul of Narbonne stretched from Toulouse to Antibes, and from Marseilles to Vienne.

**  The wine-growing area upriver from Bordeaux, along the Garonne, is known as haut-pays (‘upcountry’). Recognized as wines of quality, they served to color those of Bordeaux. The area became known for this. The wines were named after the port from which they were sent (Bergerac, Cahors, Moissac…) or after the producer (wines sent from the port of Rabastens were known as Gaillac because they came from the Abby of Saint-Michel de Gaillac).

*** Turgot’s royal edict of 1776 annulled all Bordeaux’s privileges in relation to wine. After a very poor reception by Bordelais politicians, a 1778 ruling reversed most of the bill, but continued to allow wines from up-country to be brought to Bordeaux for export at any time. 


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A pictorial technique similar to that of frescoes or miniatures, illuminations were very popular during the Middle Ages. Done by hand, illuminations decorated or illustrated texts, usually on handwritten manuscripts. Until the 12th century, manuscripts were copied out in religious settings, such as abbeys, where they were used to support prayer and meditation. From the 13th century, private artisans began to produce literature for the secular market. This was due to the greater literacy that had resulted from the growing university and administrative sectors.

Find out more: Wine in Illuminations, From Vineyard to Cellar  >>


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The ‘Muses’ companion’, wine is present across the artistic spectrum, be it in literature, music, decorative or fine arts. Wine is an essential witness to our social and cultural history. Although the Virtual Wine Museum is mainly concerned with painting at present, some examples drawn from other artistic formats permit us to illustrate the universal role of wine, to ‘bear witness’ to it.

A few examples on the same theme: 1) Port of Bordeaux (Le Port de Bordeaux, vu devant le Château Trompette sur la Garonne et vu du quai des Farines), shows a view of the port at the time of La Fayette. A barge in the foreground permits the transport of barrels. The embarkations allow goods to be carried between the sloping quay and the large ships. The engraving, illustrating an everyday scene from 1776, is highly evocative. 2) Abolition of fees for Entrance (L'Abondance, Bacchus et Cérès entrant dans la capitale), Musée Carnavalet, celebrates the 1791 scrapping of duty on goods entering Paris. Ceres is the goddess of agriculture and the harvest. 3) There has been a wine market on the Quai Saint Bernard since 1662. With wine consumption continuing to rise in the capital, in 1808 it was decided that a larger and more modern market should be built. 4) After having proven itself in mines and industry, steam power was used on boats from 1818, and on the railways a little later. The first steam-powered vessel would sail through Saumur in 1823. In this 1836 Vue de Saumur (Fine arts Museum, Saumur), steamboat and barges (one full of barrels) are shown side by side.


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