The Ambassadors paired with a glass of 1995 Château Beychevelle
Updated: Apr 26, 2019
Wine and art, my two loves in life, but also the two things which are taking up hours of revision, sleepless nights and one too many tears. So along comes my clever friend over at Rambling London with a fantastic idea of matching a glass of wine with a piece of art – and here we are! It's basically a ploy to make me feel a little less guilty enjoying a glass of wine whilst revising my upcoming exam in the National Gallery, but that's absolutely fine with me.
I'm starting off with one of my favourite paintings in the National Gallery, The Ambassadors, painted by Hans Holbein the Younger in 1533. And the wine of choice, a 1995 Château Beychevelle from Saint Julien, Bordeaux in France.
So this isn't my normal choice for a mid week tipple as I sit down for a few hours of revision, this is really something quite special. As is the painting.
The double portrait shows two very proud men. On the left we have Jean de Dinteville, who commissioned the piece, an ambassador from France, living in England, really here to keep an eye on Henry the 8th and his dramas which were enfolding at the time. This young French man (twenty five to be exact, it says so on his knife he holds), is absolutely enormous, wealthy and extremely successful. He wears all his finery, just look at all those different types of fabric, from the salmon-coloured satin shirt, which would have been a fairly new fabric at the time, and the black silk gown lined with expensive lynx fur. He's joined by his friend George de Selve also an ambassador, and the Bishop of Lavaur who appears more sombre and serious, giving little away. It's not actually known why he was here visiting, but it has been suggested that it was to deliver a secret message to Jean. Jean has also been my first link to Bordeaux, as his father Jean de Selve was the first President of the Parliament of Bordeaux. Although it seems a bit of a loose connection, I'll count it.
But there is a stronger link between the painting and a wine from Bordeaux. This region is classed as one of the most famous and grandest wine regions in the world, producing some of the most expensive wines ever seen. Which English King can be described in a similar way? Our most famous and well known, whose grand, and perhaps had an incredibly expensive taste? It's none other than Henry VIII of course. Who just so happened to love Bordeaux wines too.
But first lets link Henry VIII to the painting. I mentioned earlier that Jean was an ambassador here in England at the time when Henry was on the throne. And at first look, many viewers could quite easily assume that the man on the left could well be the King himself. Jean de Dinteville appears in front of us like royalty, important looking, wearing fancy clothes, and his confident wide stance somewhat resembles Henry's in his self portraits. And there's reasoning behind this. The artist Hans Holbein the Younger actually went on to paint Henry and his court after this. Perhaps this was the painting that the King saw, liked so much, and asked Holbein to come and paint for him and his court.
And now King Henry VIII and Bordeaux. I'm sure it won't be a revelation that Henry loved to entertain, hold parties, banquets and generally find any excuse to eat and drink as much as he could. You may have also have heard that a wine cellar of his was discovered under the Banqueting House in Whitehall, where one of his palaces would have stood. And perhaps it would have been in this very wine cellar, that a collection of his Bordeaux wines may very well have been stored. It's been suggested that around three hundred barrels were delivered each year during his reign, travelling via the Thames over from the Gascony (Bordeaux was considered to be within the Gascony area at this time). Back then, the wines would have been shipped young (some around three months old) and would taste very different from what we are used to today. As soon as the barrels were opened oxidation would start turning it into vinegar, and it would be the task of the cellar master to make sure these wines were actually drinkable for the King and his guests. Perhaps watering them down, adding a little sugar or some spices to mask some of those unpleasant flavours. A second shipment would be made later on in the year meaning that the wine would have had a little longer time to mature, and it would be this which would be for the Kings table.
Trading wine with Bordeaux started far earlier than with Henry VIII though. Favourable trade privileges enabled merchants to ship their wines to Britain much earlier than neighbouring competitors. And the first connection with the English and Bordeaux wines, can be dated back to 1152, on the day of the marriage of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. The ninth Great-grandparents to Henry VIII as it happens. Their marriage ensured that Bordeaux and Gascony, and all their vineyards would be under English possession for the next 300 years, thus starting the English love affair with Claret, leading it to become a staple for our diet and in our trade for the next three centuries. It seems like it was somewhat of an overnight success, and we were soon hooked on the stuff. A staggering amount was shipped over to Britain even as early as the 1300's, just under an astonishing 1000,000 hectolitres of wine was estimated to have been exported here. French vineyard owners could obviously see that we were a wine loving nation, and after the Restoration of the Monarchy in the seventeenth century, London was once again a tempting place to live. King Charles II was on the throne after having returned from exile in France, and it seemed he had acquired quite a taste for French produce, including the wine no doubt. Vineyard owners, such as Arnaud III de Pontac came over here to promote their wines and set up taverns. Arnaud went on to establish the very successful tavern "The Pontack's Head", serving his own wine he had produced over in Bordeaux. The wine is question was none other than Château Haut Brion, and if you're wondering why I hadn't paired this wine with The Ambassadors, it's the price. A bottle would set you back by at least £500. Back then, the price was still fairly dear, with the likes of Daniel Defoe, John Evelyn and John Dryden all drinking the stuff, and even Samuel Pepys mentions it in his diary, writing in April 1663 he "drank a sort of French wine called Ho Bryen that hath a good and most particular taste I never met with". The price back then would have been around seven shillings for a bottle, just under forty pounds today.
Now onto the wine, but not moving away from Henry VIII links. Château Beychevelle's history can also be linked to the English monarchy. The estate came to be in the possession of the Foix-Candale family, who just so happened to own Château d'Issan. Remember the wedding between Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine I mentioned earlier? Their wine of choice during the celebrations is said to be from Château d'Issan. This is getting weird right? Ok, so it was actually from Château Lamothe-Cantenac which exists today as Château d'Issan, but still, this is all linking in rather nicely.
So onto actually enjoying a glass of 1995 Château Beychevelle. It's certainly a rich big wine, with plenty of concentration. There's some fruit, deeps notes of cassis, but considering the age, this wine shows a lot of spice, tobacco, some toasted wood notes. And that was the first thing which came to mind, it's that woody smell old churches have, I'm sure you know what I mean by this. A bit musty, a bit sweet. And it's this which sets me up for my last link. See the mosaic floor the two men stand on? It's been suggested that this is take from the Cosmati pavement in Westminster Abbey, where the "church smell" is always prevalent.
Heard in London