What were the customs and social symbolism of wine in the 17th century?
In the 17th century, the wines consumed differed from one social group to another. Although peasants were mostly obliged to make do with acidic white wines and people who lived in winemaking towns with rough reds let down with water in their homes or at the inn, the nobility indulged in Madeira, Malmsey and Cyprus wines, or renowned Burgundy wines. It is interesting to remember that this social differentiation was mainly based on medical thinking. It was actually considered at the time that red wines were better suited to the strong stomachs of the populace, and that the more delicate wines and clarets were more suitable for the tastes of the 17th century elite in France and Europe.
Thus, the Thrésor de santé ou mesnage de la vie humaine (1607) stated that, because of the humoral theories which then guided medicine and food choices, everyone had to drink the wine which matched their estate in life: clarets “suited those who had a dainty lifestyle"; dark wine “was good for wine makers and labourers: as once digested through the strength of the stomach and work, it provided stronger and more copious sustenance and gave men more vigour to work hard". Medicine thus identified this wine symbolism as one of the principles of an ordered society.
At the end of the century, this distinction evolved, however, as the elite classes turned towards more tannic, longer-keeping red wines, like the new French clarets from the Graves or Médoc; the aristocracy also demonstrated its status through the consumption of wine chilled with snow or ice, such as the sparkling wines of Champagne, gradually distancing social customs around wine from the former health based approach.
Philippe Meyzié, University of Bordeaux Montaigne, CEMMC-IUF