Hock was a term used for a selection of high-quality white wines available in England during the Regency. These wines came from Germany and had been known and enjoyed by an exclusive number wine connoisseurs in Britain for well over a century by the time the Prince of Wales became Regent. However, after his niece became Queen, and developed a fondness for that type of wine on a visit to Germany, its popularity soared among the British middle classes. But all of that was in the future during the decade of the Regency.
Hock, from its origins through the Regency . . .
Archaeologists have found evidence of viticulture, the growing of grapes, in prehistoric Britain, though it is not known if those grapes were used for the making of wine. It is known that wine was imported into the British Isles from Italy even before the Roman invasion of Britain. The Anglo-Saxons did grow their own grapes and made their own wines, though not on a large scale. Viticulture continued in Britain through at least the fifteenth century. However, by then, the cooling climate made the cultivation of grapes very difficult and such efforts were restricted to a few monasteries. The wine produced by these monks was mainly for their own use. But there were many more people in Britain who enjoyed drinking wine, so even before the Middle Ages, wine had been imported in significant quantities from most of the wine-making centers of Europe.
From the seventeenth century, wines had begun to be imported into Britain from Germany. That trend steadily increased when Britain also imported a German to take the throne, as King George I. These imported German wines were white wines, mainly from the central region of the Rhine. The town of Hochheim am Main was a center of wine trade in the Rhine region, where wines of the very best quality were sold. Wines from this trading center were known as "Hochheimer" wines, and were the wines most often shipped to Britain. As often happened in England, foreign words were typically corrupted and "Hochheimer," meaning "from Hochheim," became "hockamore." Over time, "hockamore" dwindled down to simply "hock." By the end of the eighteenth century, the term "hock" was the standard term used to refer to any German white wine which was imported into Britain. That held true right through the Regency, the reign of George IV, and on into the nineteenth century.
It was in the Rhine region of Germany that the Riesling variety of grapes originated. Riesling grapes are aromatic and high in natural fruity acid. They are best grown in a cool climate. Wines made from these grapes are generally light in alcoholic content and can range from dry to semi-sweet to sweet. These wines have a vibrant character, with a crisp and fruity flavor. For this reason, Riesling wines are pleasing to the palate of even novice wine drinkers. Wines made from Riesling grapes do not have to be aged for long periods to produce a pleasant and drinkable wine. However, they can be aged for several decades and will continue to improve with age. In fact, white wines made from Riesling grapes can age for much longer than can many red wines. Younger wines are aromatic, with a crisp and fruity flavor, due to the naturally high acidic content. These young wines tend to be fairly dry, while wines aged for longer periods tend to become increasingly sweet over time, though they usually retain their fruity flavors.
The majority of the German wines imported into England during the Regency were high-quality Riesling white wines. It was these wines which were collectively known as hock. Red wines, imported from places like Portugal and Spain, tended to be less expensive and therefore were popular with a broader range of people in England into the nineteenth century. Hock, or white wine, was expensive in the early decades of the century, so it was usually only to be found in the cellars of the members of the upper class who appreciated its quality. Hocks of younger vintage would be dry, and were most likely to be served with a meal, while hocks aged for longer periods were semi-sweet or sweet and were most often served with the dessert course.
During the Regency, red wines, particularly high-quality red wines, imported, legally, or illegally, from France, tended to be expensive. They also had complex flavors which were a taste which had to be acquired over time, with practice and experience. However, even people who had never tasted wine before tended to enjoy the taste of the lighter German wines known as hock. The wines were crisp, fruity and refreshing. Many ladies also enjoyed drinking hock, not only for its pleasant taste, but also for its lower alcoholic content. A few glasses of hock during the course of a meal would not cause a lady to become inebriated, or leave her with an aching head the next morning. Aged hock was a wonderfully fruity sweet wine which could be enjoyed with fruit or cheese during the dessert course. There were also many older people who considered a glass of hock the perfect mid-morning pick-me-up.
The distinctive tall slender wine bottles in which many German Riesling wines are bottled today were not introduced until the 1830s. During the Regency, hock would have been bottled in any bottles the wine merchant, or the buyer, preferred or had available. All wine bottles that early in the century were made by hand, and were usually green or brown in color. As was usual with most alcoholic beverages in upper class households, there were two methods by which these bottles would be labelled. When the hock bottles were delivered from the wine merchant, they would be stored in the household’s wine cellar, in a wooden bin with a ceramic or metal label which stated the type of wine. When the wine was decanted for the table, the much finer bottle into which it was transferred typically carried an elegant and decorative wine label or bottle ticket which identified the wine it contained. A substantial number of bottle tickets during the Regency were made of silver. There were also bottle tickets made of other expensive materials, which essentially restricted their use to affluent households. There are not a lot of bottle tickets for hock which survive from the Regency. This smaller number suggests that hock was not enjoyed as widely as were other wines at that time.
In 1845, when she traveled to Germany with her husband, Queen Victoria spent some time in the Rhine region. She and Prince Albert stopped at a vineyard near Hochheim where they had a picnic and sampled the local wines. The Queen enjoyed the light and fruity taste of the Riesling wine, and the vintner asked permission to re-name his vineyard after her. Victoria’s preference for the white wines of Germany quickly made them popular among the growing middle classes of Britain. Hock was soon imported into Britain in large quantities. But as often happens when demand rises for a commodity, there were those who produced cheaper, lower-quality versions. By the end of the nineteenth century, the glut of poor quality white wines on the market had nearly destroyed the reputation of hock among knowledgeable wine connoisseurs. Riesling wines are only now starting to be appreciated once again by wine connoisseurs.
In the Regency, Queen Victoria’s effect on hock was decades in the future. Hock in the early nineteenth century in England was a high-quality white wine imported from the Rhine region of Germany, usually made from Riesling grapes. It was typically served only in the upper-class homes of those who appreciated its unique character, but it could be enjoyed by even novice wine drinkers. Hock was typically of low alcohol content, with a refreshing, fruity flavor. Well-aged hock was sweet or semi-sweet, while hock of more recent vintage tended to be crisp and dry. Very few among the British middle or lower classes would have been familiar with hock during the Regency. Though it was expensive, and Bonaparte had control of several of the German states, hock could still be imported into Great Britain, so it was seldom smuggled, as were the best French wines.
Dear Regency Authors, will hock find a place in one or more of your forthcoming romance novels? Might an older character regularly take a glass of hock every day at mid-morning for their health? What will happen if the supply runs out? Perhaps the heroine is a young lady from a respectable but middle class family who is a dinner guest in an upper-class home. She has never had white wine before, but finds she enjoys the fine sweet and fruity hock served with the dessert course very much. Or, might the hero plan a picnic with his lady and select a nice hock as the wine they will enjoy with their al fresco meal? How else might hock be used to embellish the story in a Regency romance?