Hock is (or at least, should be) a term familiar to any oenophile be they earnest or casual, and – as with many parts of language, has seen its meaning change during its evolution across the years.

One thing has remained broadly constant in that hock is essentially a German wine – a term initially coined for the produce of a narrowly defined area, then to that of an entire region, then a vaguely defined Franco-German hinterland and – with a final twist – back again to that of a specific location, almost to the point of being a single vineyard.

Wine production in Germany has been a staple pursuit of those inhabiting the vertiginous slopes on the banks of the River Rhine since its introduction by the Romans in the first century AD; Emperor Marcus Aurelius Probus Augustus held sway in the senate during this period, during which Roman armies subdued numerous Germanic tribes and established the Rhine and Danube as the north-eastern frontiers of empire; Probus was a shrewd man who, having seen his dominions expanded by force, sought to colonise them and draw them more permanently under his jurisdiction. One of his efforts in this direction was to overturn an existing edict, issued by his predecessor Domitian, which banned the development of viniculture outside of the immediate vicinity of what would now be termed Italian territory; Probus wisely understood that the availability of wine to colonial outposts would both offer the inhabitants one of the comforts of home – softening the blow of perhaps forced relocation, and making life in their homesteads considerably more tolerable – and also provide them with a tradable commodity with which they could forge mercantile relationships with neighbouring “locals”, thus further cementing their foothold in the new territories. Ultimately however, his enthusiasm for the plans proved his undoing as, urging troops under his direct command to drain a marsh with the intention to plant the reclaimed land with vines, he overstepped the bounds of what was deemed to be an acceptable level of authoritarianism on a sweltering summer’s day, and was cut down and killed by his men who took exception to his rather over-eager promptings.

However, the seeds had been sown, and over the following centuries the Rhine valleys saw vines cultivated on an increasingly vast scale by successive dynastic rulers; Dagobert and the Merovingians, Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire, the vast monastic estates of the High Middle Ages and then numerous princelings, electors, counts, barons and self-proclaimed kings of the myriad secular fealties of proto-Germany in its many embryonic stages. Wine production was a constant thread throughout all the convoluted politicking, and by the time that the German state began to coalesce in to some sort of unified conglomerate, it had long since been established as a vitally important trading commodity along the course of the Rhine, underscoring the local economy in places.

Naturally, some centres became more pre-eminent than others, and one such location is the town of Hochheim am Main, a settlement at the forefront of wine production since its establishment in the 8th century, and featuring a two-pronged karst (a wine-growing implement, like a pitchfork but with its tines at 90 degrees to the handle) on the town’s coat of arms to indicate the importance of grapes in its history. It’s actually on the banks of the River Main, some three miles from the confluence of that river with the Rhine itself, but it’s central to and emblematic of the general Rheinish area. Today, almost 100 individual concerns farm tens of thousands of acres of vines, but modern statistics must take a back seat for the moment (more history – woooo !)

Wine growing had, since around the year 1000, been spreading to the farthest corners of the Rhineland. Initially confined to centres of population, as per Probus’s intentions for the establishment of self-supporting townships, the proliferation of religious communities seeking a degree of isolation in the higher, more inaccessible valleys saw vines planted in increasingly remote locations. Forests were cleared, one-time arable lands redesignated as vineyards, and hundreds if not thousands of independent vineyards were cultivated, each one addressing its own problems, devising its own way of overcoming them and adding to the burgeoning regional expertise; market towns such as Hochheim were literally places of ferment for wine-producing knowledge; techniques were refined, grape varieties exchanged and hybridised, methods of pest control, fermentation, production and harvesting all discussed, distilled, cogitated and improved upon and, unsurprisingly on the back of this living, thriving knowledge-base, the region quickly became renowned for the unsurpassed quality of its wines. Trade routes opened up to provide a means to monetise this expertly-produced commodity and by the twelfth century licenses had been issued for the control of the sale of Rheinish wines as far afield as England, the Baltic nations and Scandinavia. The wine-growing knowledge also spread out from the German epicentre, influencing production in Alsace and Lorraine, the Low Countries, up-river southward towards the Alps and beyond in to central Europe. Once the produce from Hochheim reached England, and became popularised not for the last time by the actions of the regent (Henry II decreed that it should be sold at a level of taxation lower than that imposed on French equivalents, to deny England’s enduring foe the revenue from unimpeded sales), it was to enter the English vernacular. Hochheim am Rein was the full name of the town – far too nuanced a construct for the mongrel mother-tongue to take on board – so it signature product became known as “hockamore”, and ultimately just “hock”.

Having chosen to ride roughshod over the specific geographic nature of the original name, the English – ever keen to apply their own interpretations to things – decided that the term hock should probably apply to pretty much any white wine which found its way across the channel having been produced in a vague area roughly bounded by Cologne, Besancon, Zurich and Munich – encompassing five modern-day countries, or parts thereof – and which was then further bastardised to apply, even more crudely, to pretty much anything from Germany or that sort of general area. You could be sampling what would now be a DOC Reislinger from Hochheim itself, a Nerstiener from Mainz or an Ausbruch Moselwein – to the English, it was all a generic load of old Hock.

What’s more, having been initially popular, as the national predilection for stronger brews took hold – be they rich reds from France (on-going warfare or otherwise notwithstanding), fortified wines from the Mediterranean or perfidious English ales and porters – hock became perceived as a comparatively weak, rather insubstantial product, bordering on the insipid and characterised by its pale, clear colouration – clearly half the drink of something robust, blood red or burnt umber which you could use to black your horse’s hooves and burnish the kitchen range. Hock’s fall from grace gathered pace in the latter part of the 17th century and – even when it was still deemed just about fit enough to be served – it began to appear in large-cupped glasses, with could hold substantial servings to make up for its relatively low alcohol content and which, crucially, began to be made from tinted glass (generally a pale brown), to obscure the pallid, unappetising clarity of the wine within – the trend towards coloured hock glasses had begun…

Hock was to remain out of favour with the sophisticated English palate for most of the 1700’s, sodden and dulled as it was with gin, cider and other home-grown intoxicants, as a variety of military contretemps with sundry European combatants rendered imports far less popular than less-punitively taxed domestic products. However, as the successive Hanoverian monarchs of Great Britain were regarded ever more favourably in turn by their subjects, it became more and more seemly to affect a preference for the trappings of the German royal house – a taste for wines of the Rhine Valley included ! These attitudes were at their zenith under the auspices of the engaging if not always universally popular George III, and the regency of his son. Harking back to previous conventions – and their perceived “native” forms, Regency hock glasses mirrored late medieval German and Dutch roemers, taking on an almost goblet-like appearance, including the decorative prunts, substantial and concentrically-collared stems and round funnel bowls which were the salient design features of these particular items. Colouration became more strident, with amethyst, peacock blue, deep green and amber examples all having been produced.

The English fascination of all things German persisted after the dawn of the Victorian age, given renewed impetus by the arrival at court of Queen Victoria’s husband, Albert, the Prince Consort. Yet again it was a Royal intervention which propelled the wines of Hochheim to the forefront of public perception when Victoria and Albert, during a state visit to Germany, toured the Pabstmann vineyard near the town, and granted it a warrant to brand its produce as Konigin Victoriaberg. This unequivocal stamp of approval immediately increased demand for the white German wines back in Blighty, and the design of the glasses intended by now specifically for use with the product took on a more sophisticated appearance which endured well in to the 20th century. These developments saw the integration of all the favoured Victorian decorative features – deeply cut, impressively facetted, vibrant enamelling, flashed colouration – all of which were enthusiastically embraced with particular glee by Bohemian glass manufacturers, who already specialised in just these types of embellishment. As the British fascination with hock waned as the 19th century ran its course, so these South German and Central European manufactories took up the design brief and ran with it, resulting in the myriad of fancy, harlequin-coloured sets of hock glasses which characterised the early years of the 20th century. And so a wine which had endured for almost two millennia, enjoying cyclical rises and falls in popularity depending on the fickle tastes of its English fan-base has left us with several distinct styles of glassware which can all be attributed to it, from the somewhat contemptuous pieces of the 17th century to the decorative jewels of some 200 years later – a collection of hock glasses, should you choose to assemble such a thing, will be nothing if not eclectic, and far from boring !

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