Wine Talk: The days of port and claret

As UK celebrates Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, we remember Sir Moses Montefiore and his young friend, Queen Victoria.

Sir Moses Montefiore 370 (photo credit: Courtesey)
Sir Moses Montefiore 370
(photo credit: Courtesey)
Sir Moses Montefiore was a groundbreaking humanitarian, a campaigner for Jewish emancipation and a forerunner of Zionism. Arguably, he was the preeminent Jewish figure of the 19th century. Born in Livorno, Tuscany, he spent his life in England, punctuated with seven visits to Israel.
As the United Kingdom celebrates Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee with a drink or two, the Jewish community in Britain has been celebrating with as much fervor as everyone else. The relationship may be traced back to when Moses Montefiore lent the young Queen Victoria the key to his garden on his estate for her private use. This began a mutual friendship and was a noteworthy start to a smooth relationship between British Jews and their monarch.
Rereading the diaries of Moses and Judith Montefiore, I was struck by the references to wine. Considering my family connection and current vocation, I was interested in investigating further. It appears that Moses Montefiore appreciated wine and drank no less than one bottle of wine every day. It may explain why he lived to be nearly 101, a great age in those days.
When wondering what sort of wine he drank, I immediately thought of the two wines most associated with the British: claret, the English slang for a red wine from Bordeaux; and port, a fortified sweet red wine from Portugal.
In Montefiore’s youth, in the 18th century, claret was a weak, slightly insipid and rosé-colored wine that quickly turned to vinegar if not consumed before the spring.
In fact, the wine Sir Moses consumed daily was port. He certainly favored port when giving gifts of a bottle or case of wine to friends and associates, which he did frequently.
The famous quote attributed to Samuel Johnson sums up the pecking order quite well: “Claret is for boys; port is for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy!” However, claret was to improve drastically in quality and image during Sir Moses’s lifetime. The use of cork as a stopper, small oak barrels and the change of bottle shape so wine could be laid down advanced the possibility of aging. Peace between the British and the French helped. The growing importance of London in world trade and a reduction in taxes all combined to change the image of claret, which gradually took over from port.
By the mid-19th century, to own a Bordeaux château became very desirable.
Some Jewish families were notable investors, notably the Péreires of Château Palmer and the Foulds of Château Beychevelle. However, most notable were the Rothschilds. In fact, it was a nephew of Sir Moses’s, Nathaniel Rothschild, who purchased Château Mouton for the Rothschild family in 1853. Nathaniel was the son of Nathan Mayer Rothschild, who was the brother-inlaw and business partner of Sir Moses.
Furthermore, Nathan Mayer Rothschild’s French brother, Baron James de Rothschild, bought Château Lafite in 1868. It was his son, Baron Edmond de Rothschild, who founded Carmel Winery in 1882. Château Lafite Rothschild and Château Mouton Rothschild are arguably two of the finest wineries on the planet. The founding of Carmel in Rishon Lezion and Zichron Ya’acov heralded the rebirth of the Israeli wine industry after 2,000 years. Rishon Lezion was one of the beneficiaries of Moses Montefiore’s last donation in 1884.
However, it would be wrong to suggest that there was no wine in mid-19th-century Israel. In the Old City of Jerusalem alone there were more than 20 wineries, but these were domestic wineries producing wine for religious ritual only. Kiddush wine was produced for Jews, and communion or altar wine was for Christians, who valued wine from the Holy Land.
Montefiore regularly tasted the local wine. Communities would rush to present him with their best wine as a token of appreciation. On one occasion he purchased a small cask of wine as a souvenir.
He even once received a letter from a Yosef in Safed asking if he could prepare a bath of wine for Sir Moses for Shabbat! Sir Moses Montefiore fervently believed that Jews should work for a living, and he recommended agriculture. His diaries often mention the vines and olive trees he saw growing naturally on his travels.
He purchased the first Jewish orchard, which later became known as the Montefiore Quarter in Tel Aviv. When he bought land outside the Old City of Jerusalem, he called it Moshe’s and Yehudit’s Vineyard. Part of the area became known as Mishkenot Sha’ananim, which was to become the cornerstone of modern Jerusalem. Each resident was given a “plot of ground large enough to cultivate olive trees, the vine... so as to give a taste for agriculture.” The remaining land was later named Yemin Moshe.
The two wineries that are remembered from the Old City of Jerusalem are Shor and Efrat.
The Shor Winery was founded in 1848 by Rabbi Yitzhak Shor.
Daniel Rogov, the late esteemed wine writer, wrote: “Preceding the days when Baron de Rothschild made a massive input to the local wine industry, the inspiration of Rabbi Shor was Sir Moses Montefiore, who visited the Holy Land on numerous occasions and, while here, encouraged the Jews to work the land and plant vines.”
Today, more than 160 years later, the Shor family is still making wine, but the growing family has since split into three separate wineries – Arza, Hacormim and Zion – and they are all situated on the same street in Mishor Adumim. Conditon, produced by Hacormim, is a particularly well-known brand of kiddush wine. Recently, Zion and Arza have started to make top-quality table wines. Zion’s 1848 brand and its Armon and Erez labels have gained recognition for representing good quality and excellent value. Likewise, Arza has recently released its new Tel Arza wines and the top of the range, Auteur. These show evidence of a new striving for quality.
In 1852 the Teperberg family were drinks distributors, specializing in supplying the Christian market. In 1870 Zeev Zeida Teperberg founded Efrat Winery. Today renamed Teperberg 1870 and situated at Tzora, it has become the fourth-largest winery in Israel and the largest family-owned winery. A success story, indeed.
If Moses Montefiore were alive today, he would find that claret is still the most soughtafter of all fine wines but that port’s popularity is in decline. I can’t help thinking he would be pleased that the Shors and Teperbergs are still making wine. He would be delighted that Israeli wine has developed so magnificently, with vineyards all over the country. He also might be amused to know that the first member of his family that made aliya is working for a winery founded by the Rothschilds!
Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine in Israeli and international