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At the City office of an important person connected with the wine trade is the most interesting collection of decanter labels I have ever seen, and probably a collection which has no rival, except in the Brown collection at the London Museum. There are not many people who have taken the trouble to collect these interesting examples of silver work, and I can recommend those who are in search of a new hobby to gather together some of these pretty things. I have many myself, and I was much interested in seeing this collection. I suppose, originally, these labels were put upon bottles rather than upon decanters, because the very earliest are ring-shaped and would drop over the neck of the bottle, and there are plates which are attached to wire rings, and hang from these rings, and they also are intended, I expect, for bottles. The best ring-shaped ones are of ivory or bone and these are rare. It would be remembered that many of the old wine bottles now being carefully collected have badges upon them, a sort of stamp, seal or boss, to show for whom the wine was made, and these stamps vary, and are in some cases of extreme interest, bearing the names of private persons who commissioned the wine, or had the bottles in their cellar marked in that fashion, or the names of the merchants who imported the wine. When these stamps on the bottles were done away with, then came the series of labels, to fasten on to the decanters, generally with pretty chains that hang round the neck of the decanter, and with labels of all sorts of charming shapes.
Some of the very best are shaped like vine leaves and have the name of the wine in perforated letters. My collector friend has a beautiful group of vine leaves in silver, with the word "claret" perforated upon it, and a single vine leaf for an Italian wine has the word "Bronti" in similar fashion, while another pendent vine leaf has upon it the word "Malmsly." Other labels are composed of various groups of these leaves, sometimes associated, as would be fitting, with a decoration representing a bunch of grapes. There is a beautiful label of this description in the London Museum, with the word "Bucellas" upon it; others are labeled "Sauterne," "Claret," "Hock" and "Madeira."
Sometimes the labels are more characteristic still; for instance, there is one representing a cask, and bearing above it the word "Claret"; another white wine label has the figure of Bacchus seated on a barrel, and some of the Port and Madeira labels have an amusing representation of a squirrel upon them, sitting upright, happily enjoying a meal of nuts, and so offering a broad hint to the consumer of the port, madeira, or sherry, that nothing would be more favourable for the appreciation of the flavour of the wine than a few nuts.
Sometimes the labels are exceedingly simple. There are plain circular ones, just a roundel with the word "Madeira" or "Malaga" upon it. There are simple leaves, with hardly any veining, on which appear the words "Hock" or "Moselle," and there are some very plain labels, just bands of silver, one notably being intended for Champagne, and having the name of the wine spelt in curious fashion-" Champaign." In the collection there are many labels bearing the inscriptions " W. Wine," evidently meaning "white wine," and one wonders what was the particular white wine that was so much in favour in the eighteenth century that there was no need of describing it by name, the generic term being sufficient. Then there are some labels, intended for careful and economical people, which bear no name of a wine at all, but a place wherein a little label could be slipped, on which the name of the wine could be carefully printed by its owner, and the same label would do for different wines on different occasions.
Chased upon a few of the labels are figures of men engaged in wine pressing, or in gathering grapes; occasionally there are miniature Bacchi represented upon them, some of whom appear to have lingered too long at the wine-press; and yet again, on others, there are large baskets represented-the type of basket still used in Southern and Central France for gathering up the grapes.
Some people had their crests and their coats of arms upon the labels, showing that they were expressly made for them, and that they were proud that the fact should be recognised--one, a fine Madeira label, appearing to represent a coronet. In the collection there are also some beautiful examples of decanter labels that are simply single letters, M, C, or G (large capitals), beautifully chased and highly ornate, the decoration generally introducing grapes in some form or other; the M could have been used for Madeira, Malaga, Marsala, Mountain, Malmsey, or Moselle, or even for that curious wine called Masdeu, which came from the Roussillon, and which is a wine that we are told was at one time imported as port. In was, by the way, a rather curious thing to find in both these collections many labels bearing names referring to wines about which no one knows very much at the present day. We do not often meet with Hermitage in the wine merchant's lists, although this wine from the Cote du Rhone has recently come back into them in connection with the increasing demand there is for French rather
than for German wines. I have already referred to Masdeu, and there is "Styne" for Stein Hock; Cote Rote, a wine that is imported from near to Lyons; Termo, which is a Portuguese white wine, and which sometimes appears on the list as Termeau ; Sercial, which is a Madeira wine, and others.
One also finds labels for Canary, Cyprus, Tent, Sack, and Malaga, all wines that are little known at the present day. The labels show us what in the eighteenth century were the favourite wines. George IV was much attached to sherry, and there are more sherry labels than any others. Some of them are marked "Brown Sherry," others "Amontillado" (that is to say, the mountain wine grown at Montilla, near to Cordoba), but the majority just "Sherry" alone.
The next favourite wine was Madeira-and there must have been a very large quantity of it consumed in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries-and next, of course, comes Port; and one label from Stafford House, evidently made for the lover of a particularly precious wine, bears the words "Beeswing Port" upon it. Oddly enough, claret is spelt in two or three different ways upon the labels; sometimes it appears as "clarete," sometimes "Clarett," occasionally "Clarret," and one label reads "After-dinner Claret," while the port labels are sometimes written as "Porto," sometimes as "White Port," sometimes as "Red Port," and sometimes the latter is abbreviated to "R. Port."
Champagne is spelled in all sorts of different ways on the labels-"Champaine," "Champain," and "Champaign"--and Sauterne sometimes has the final "e" and sometimes is without it.
The labels are not all silver. In both collections there are some mother-of-pearl ones, and, what are rarer still, there are some beautiful ones of Battersea enamel. I once saw in a friend's house an exceedingly rare set of three labels, in pink Battersea enamel, with the inscriptions in black for port, sherry, and claret ; and I also saw a very fine pink Battersea one, with decorations of bunches of grapes, the owner's crest at the upper part, and the inscription "White Port," but the Battersea enamel labels are the rarest of all, and next to these, perhaps, are the delightful ones made of mother-of-pearl, and which must have looked very pretty, hanging upon the decanters. About some of the names on them it is not easy to speak for certain. "Vidonia" is an unusual word to find. "Sayes" is another; it has been suggested that this should be "Scyes," and have reference to an Alsace-Lorraine wine, and "Vidonia" almost certainly refers to a Canary wine, coming from Teneriffe, and not imported at the present time.
Liqueurs were also labeled in the same way; there is one label having simply "Liquer" upon it, another Curacoa, spelled in a very odd fashion -"Currosos," and one finds "Ratifee," "Cherry Brandy," "Kummell," and "Maraschino," while the British wines are represented in the collection by labels bearing the words "Shrub," "Elder," "Ginger," "Cowslip," "Orange," and "Raisin." There are cider labels, but the word as a rule is spelled "Cyder." Some of the labels are shellshaped, some very good ones are in the shape of a large crescent, many are square, some are formed of the letters of the word combined in a pretty monogram, as, for example, one which represents the word "claret," others take the form of twisted ribbons, sometimes tied up in bow fashion, some times arranged in a twist. Some of the labels are rectangular, others are square. Sometimes they have beautiful decorated borders, and at other times the borders are quite simple and plain. In date, about the earliest is 1738, and they go on, down to the beginning of the nineteenth century. There are labels, of course, still being made, but I am only dealing with the old ones, and very pretty many of them must have looked on the decanters then in use. It strikes one, by the way, as being odd to find so many champagne labels, but it was the custom to decant champagne, and not to bring it to the table in bottles; even now, this habit is always adopted at the Royal table, and at the tables of many of the older members of the aristocracy. There is one old-fashioned table, at which I have sat on many occasions, on which champagne is invariably served in tall, narrow-mouthed glass jugs, and the silver label hangs round the jug, and looks very pretty.
Taken altogether, wine labels form very attractive objects to collect. They are of infinite variety and dainty charm. They have the advantage of being delightful things to use in one's house, and a group of them, in a glass case, is a very pleasant thing to possess.