Chateau Larrivet Haut Brion’s experiment concerning ageing wine under the sea reminded me of the fashionable Les Vins Retour des Indes that were all the rage from the mid/late 1800s right up to the First World War. The craze was founded by Louis Gaspard d’Estournel (nicknamed ‘The Maharaja of St. Estephe’) and apart from being a clever marketing ploy it could have actually had some truth to the claim that these wines were superior to their peers.
It all began when Louis Gaspard found himself with a shipment of his wine, Cos d’Estournel, being returned from India. We don’t know why the wine was unwanted – at the time there was a market for claret in India. Claret was popular with the British Raj and Maharajias, princes and gentry who were sent to Oxford and Cambridge to be educated in the early part of the 19th Century had brought back the love of claret with them.
Louis Gaspard was an innovative man (he decided to act as his own Negotiant and bottle his own wine a hundred years before anyone else thought of doing so in Bordeaux) and on tasting his wine that had been returned from India he found that it had improved – he marked the labels on these wines with an ‘R’ for Retour des Indes or ‘to India and Back’ and sold them at a higher price.
Old banqueting menus show that Cos d’Estournel Retour des Indes was served to royalty and nobility, setting a trend that was quickly taken up by Negotiants who realised that Louis Gaspard was deliberately sending wine out to India and back. There are records of Chateau Lafite Retour des Indes (1870) as well as Pontet Canet and Chasse Spleen Retour des Indes (1864). There were even Burgundies that underwent the round trip. Cocks and Feret refer to the Vins Retour des Indes in 1896 describing them as ‘wine aged by a long journey, to improve it’.
At the time it was thought that the swaying of the boat and changes in temperature improved the wine, accelerating the ageing process. There was a precedent – the menu from the 1867 Three Emperors Dinner (King William I of Prussia requested a meal to be remembered and at which no expense was to be spared for himself and his guests: Tsar Alexander II of Russia, his son the tsarevitch (who later became Tsar Alexander III), and Prince Otto von Bismarck) show Madere (Madeira) Retour de l’Inde 1810 and Xeres (Sherry) Retour de l’Inde 1821 on the wine list.
It was during the long distance sea voyages taking cargoes of Madeira wine to the New World that it was discovered that the travel and the heat had turned the Madeira wine into something completely different. The wine was known as “Returned Wine” or “India Circuit Wine”. At the time, the general consensus of opinion was that the secret behind this special wine had to be somewhere along the journey over the equator. Thus the barrels were shipped back and forth over the equator until 1794 when a technique was discovered of artificially heating the wine in large ovens or wine hot houses (called estufas in Portuguese).
The question of whether the Bordelaise Vins Retour des Indes were simply improved by their time away at sea, giving them months to mature or by the rolling of the waves I’ll leave to the experts. However the expense, steam powered ships replacing sail (reducing the travelling time) and the First World War brought the fashion for Les Vins Retour des Indes to an end. I can’t help wondering what the wine tasted like, it’s a shame I’ll never know.