Trade in wine

Tell me what kind of wine you drink, and I shall tell you where you come from

The famous Polish historian and diarist of the 18th century priest Jędrzej Kitowicz wrote that the territory of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth could be divided into separate regions: Hungarian wine was popular in Krakow, French wines from abroad were popular in Lithuania, and people in the territory of current Ukraine enjoyed wines from Valachia and the region of the Balkans. All over Europe wines were appreciated not only for their properties but also for the possibility to obtain them, as well as their price. The greater the distance between the manufacturers and the consumers was, the more expensive the wine was. Therefore, wine from neighbouring Naples was traditionally enjoyed in Rome for a long time. People in Paris drank wine from neighbouring Orleans, and wines made by Hungarian producers were popular in the lands of Poland, Lithuania and Germany. It was only in the second half of the 18th century, after domestic trade in Europe had intensified and cognitive journeys had become popular, that wine was started to be valued irrespectively of the place of its origin. In 1788, the French playwright and writer Louis-Sébastien Mercier offered his readers to taste red and white French wines, as well as Hungarian Tokaji, which was “wine number one in the world and only rulers of this world drank it.”

Hungarian wine held the leading position in Lithuania from the 16th to the end of the 18th century. The distance, the price and the possibility to bring it without mediators determined the popularity of Hungarian wine in Lithuania. This guaranteed the quality of wine because it was often counterfeited and diluted.

French beverages were expensive and marketable: Burgundy wine and wine from Champagne region, as well as sparkling Champagne, became popular among the aristocrats of Europe at the beginning of the 18th century.

Wine’s road to Lithuania

The largest consignments of wine reached Lithuania through the ports of the Baltic Sea – Königsberg and Riga, further wine was transported by land through the territory of Poland from Hungary. Hungarian wines (only in smaller quantities) reached Lithuania through the territory of Prussia (by sea) rather than through the territory of Poland (by land). Laws and decrees of the executive authorities of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania devoted exceptional attention to the most expensive wines the quantity of which increased during the period of reforms in the second half of the 18th century. Duties and taxes increased. In 1786, a barrel of Hungarian wine cost 20 gold roubles, and in 1789, one had to pay the customs duty of as much as 50 gold roubles on it. One had to pay a smaller customs duty of 36 gold roubles on a barrel of Champagne or Burgundy wines in 1789.

In the 18th century Hungarian, German, French and “foreign” wines reached the fairs or markets of cities and small towns (e.g. Žagarė) of Lithuania. Lots of obligations established by the administration of the estates for the peasants and town-dwellers, as well as instructions to bring wine from Riga, Liepāja or Klaipėda, testify to a growing popularity of wine and a decreasing demand for local beverages among the noblemen. On solemn occasions, keeping up with the noblemen, town-dwellers also drank wine. Quantities of wine imported to the territory of Lithuania were large. For example, during the months of June and August 1786 alone, 3 739 barrels of different kinds of French, 1 326 small barrels and 2 781 bottles of Champagne and Burgundy wine were brought through Jurbarkas customs from Prussia to Lithuania.

Lithuanian noblemen were unsurpassable purchasers who brought hundreds of barrels of wine and thousands of bottles of wine every year to Lithuania.

Fight against counterfeit

With demand for wine growing, control and supervision of trade in wine strengthened. In 1788, the Treasury Commission of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania established special customs where goods of foreign merchants were labelled and sealed, documents were begun to be issued in which the place of sale of the goods had to be indicated. Trade in Hungarian wine was also made stricter. Instructions were given to pay customs duties on them on the border, it was forbidden to pay them later upon reaching the large town (or not to pay them at all by way of exception). Champagne and Burgundy wines could be imported only having a separate permission and documents issued by the Treasury Commission of the GDL in which the quality of wine had to be confirmed, its quantity and the place of sale indicated. Everybody had to obey the new stricter order – the nobility, the noblemen and the town-dwellers. It was sought to block the way to swindling: counterfeiting and diluting of wine, as well as the measures thereby it was tried to preserve young wine (pouring milk, adding eggs, sulphur). According to the contemporaries, it was difficult to get “clean wine”, however, in the 18th century the situation gradually changed when wine was begun to be bottled from the barrels.

Do You Know?

As early as the middle of the 17th century it was noticed that wine kept in bottles made of dark glass preserved its properties and did not go sour. Gradually barrels were refused to be used.

Passion for luxury was criticised

Wine is an expensive drink. Seeking to strengthen the economy of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the initiators of the reforms started a discussion about import of wine. They were worried about huge expenditures of the citizens on wine because excess buying of foreign goods was faulty according to the understanding of that time and taking the money away from the country ruined the economy. Publicists of other countries became involved in the discussion.

Foreign newspapers wrote ironically that the noblemen of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth bought everything (from clothes to a pin) abroad, and not so much because of the goods but sooner because of their convictions and fashion.

French enlighteners sneering at the disorder in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth drew attention of the people to the inadequate expenditure of the nobility on luxuries (including wine), offered to lead a more modest way of life and take into consideration small incomes of the state. In this way an anecdote about the nobleman of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth who admired wine from the vineyard that grew at the foot of the Vesuvius called Christ’s tear (Lacrima Cristi) appeared in the West. The character of the anecdote cried out: “Oh, God! Why didn’t your tears fall on our lands as well?”

In 1787, an article by a Polish citizen appeared in the newspaper Dziennik handlowy i ekonomiczny in which he urged the people of his country not to buy expensive foreign drinks and to ban their import to Poland and Lithuania:

“Beer that we can brew from our land is sweeter than the wine, which, when bought from unfriendly foreigners, bring us captivity.”

The author praised beverages produced in Poland and drew attention to those made in neighbouring Lithuania: “Lithuania also has excellent beverages because it has Kaunas (district) linden mead that was popular earlier and which was not only drunk by the noblemen at larger tables but was also sent as presents to the King of France who drank it at table and praised it in public. Why do we have to be ashamed of it now? Perhaps because it is not foreign or does harm to health? I know that linden mead is used in pharmacies and, of course, not for poison but for medicine and health.”

However, the attempts to develop frugality and the invitation to refuse imported wine came to naught.

Wine remained the most popular drink of the aristocracy in Europe and Lithuania. The number of kinds of wine that reached Lithuania was on the increase. As far as 1785, Vilnius Voivode Karol Stanislaw Radziwiłł bought 600 bottles of “American” wine from Königsberg.

Liudas Glemža