The 1870 cellar of Charles Dickens
By John Danza - Chicago
(Originally appeared in Wine, Food & Friends Issue #101, Spring 2012)
When Charles Dickens died prematurely in 1870 at the age of 58, he was an icon of English literature. From humble beginnings and somewhat questionable financial management in his early career, Dickens was quite financially comfortable at the time of his death. In keeping with his social station, Dickens kept a cellar. I can’t properly call it a “wine cellar,” as much more than wine was stored in it as was typical for the times.
Several months after his death the contents of Dickens’s cellar were inventoried and sold with many other items from his Gads Hill Place home. Using the inventory for the auction sale, we’ll take a look at the contents of Dickens’s cellar with context on the vintages and beverages. It demonstrates that Dickens must have been a consummate host for his time, his fame, and his station in life.
Charles Dickens did almost all of his wine, liquor, and cordials purchases from a single purveyor, or more accurately, through a few related purveyors over the years. By 1843, Dickens was making purchases from Joseph Ellis & Son, Wine Merchants, of Hill Street, Richmond. This firm was originally founded in 1831 by Joseph Ellis, who was also the proprietor of the Star & Garter Hotel in Richmond. Dickens would also use the hotel for entertaining guests throughout the years.
Ultimately, Joseph Ellis would turn his attentions to the hotel and the wine merchant firm would fall to his sons Charles and George. At first the firm would become Charles Ellis & Co. of Brickhill Lane, London, and eventually would be Charles & George Ellis, Wine Merchants to the Queen at 21 College Hill, London and Hill Street & Friar’s Style Road, Richmond. There are letters documenting orders to all three firm names, with some of them overlapping.
As we go through the inventory, you’ll see in many places where the grower or winery name is not noted and only the wine type or area is listed. As an example, some Burgundies are listed only as “Volnay” and some Sauternes wines are only listed as “Sauternes.” This practice dates back to the time when wines were typically shipped in bulk to the wine merchant and the merchant bottled the wines upon receiving an order. It was not at all unusual to have wines referred to by their location of origin and ordered that way, because it was felt the quality was in the general area and the wines from that area would be on the same footing. The wines were generally less expensive this way as well, since the merchant could fill the order with any wine from that area (e.g., Sauternes) instead of with a specific winery (e.g., Château d’Yquem).
Charles Dickens had excellent taste in Bordeaux, or he was advised well by Charles Ellis. The cellar inventory shows a good quantity of wines from the superb 1858 vintage, including:
• 1 dozen Château d’Issan
• 6 dozen Brane (sic) Mouton
• 4 magnums unnamed claret
Of special note is the Brane-Mouton of 1858. Baron Nathaniel Rothschild had purchased the Château in 1853 and the wines were not yet known as Mouton Rothschild. The 1858 Mouton was known to be an extremely fine wine that continued to drink nicely, well into the 20th century.
André Simon’s experience with the 1858 vintage includes two bottles of Lafite, consumed a year apart in 1929 and 1930, from the cellar of his good friend, Ian Campbell. The first - “all that a fine Claret ought to be, but, of course, in an attenuated form: sound but feeble of body; its bouquet charming but so faint; its fruit still sweet but so little of it.” The second was noted to be a better bottle – “It was fresher; its colour is fading out, but it has kept its sugar wonderfully, and there is still in its bouquet and flavour that ‘breed’ of the ancien régime aristocrats which is admirable.”
Like many cellar notes of the 19th century, the remaining stock of claret in Dickens’s cellar was either listed generically or with a producer’s name but without a vintage. The remainder of the clarets were:
• 16 dozen Medoc
• 2 dozen La Rosé
• 3 dozen Château Margaux Bourjois (sic)
• 5 dozen Léoville
It is unfortunate that the vintages of the Margaux and Léoville are not recorded. In addition, it was not unusual at the time for the three separate Léoville châteaux (Las Cases, Barton, Poyferre) to be referred to collectively as “Léoville” as if they were still together as they had once been.