Q: I often see “claret,” “hock,” and “sack” used in British novels for what I take to mean red wine, white wine, and sherry. Where do these terms come from?
A: The word “claret” now refers to a French red wine, especially one from Bordeaux, while “hock” is a German white wine, especially one from the Rhineland. “Sack” is a historical term for a sweet white wine that was once imported from Spain.
Here’s the intoxicating story.
When English borrowed “claret” from Old French in the 15th century, it didn’t mean red wine. The term referred to “wines of yellowish or light red colour, as distinguished alike from ‘red wine’ and ‘white wine,’ ” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The dictionary cites a passage in French showing that in the late 14th century vin claret meant something other than red wine. Here we’ve expanded and translated the passage:
“et puis ils aportent de très bone cervoise et des bons vins; c’est a savoir vin claret, vermaille et blanc” (“and then they bring very good cervoise [beer] and good wines, namely claret, red, and white wine”). From La Manière de Langage Qui Enseigne à Parler et à Écrire le Français (circa 1396), a handbook intended to help the English improve their French.
The dictionary’s first example of “claret” in English is from Promptorium Parvulorum (c. 1440), an English-to-Latin dictionary: “Claret or cleret as wyne, semiclarus.” (In Latin, semiclarus means half-bright or half-clear.)
The OED’s first English example that clearly shows “claret” as a wine other than red or white is from Colyn Blowbols Testament (c. 1500), an anonymous poem about a drunkard: “Rede wyn, the claret, and the white.”
Oxford says that since about 1600 “claret” has meant a red wine, adding that it’s “now applied to the red wines imported from Bordeaux, generally mixed with Benicarlo or some full-bodied French wine.”
The dictionary’s earliest definite example of “claret” meaning a red wine, which we’ve expanded, is from the early 1700s:
“To be sold an entire Parcel of New French Prize Clarets … being of the Growth of Lafitt, Margouze, and La Tour” (The London Gazette, May 22, 1707).
We found this earlier example in an Oct. 17, 1634, letter by the British historian James Howell:
“As in France, so in all other Wine countries the white is called the female, and the claret or red wine is called the male, because it commonly hath more sulpher, body and heat in’t.” From Epistolæ Ho-Elianæ (“Letters of Howell”), Vol. 2, published in 1747.
As for “hock,” it’s a shortening of “hockamore,” an Anglicized form of Hochheimer, a Rhine wine from Hochheim am Main in Germany, the OED says. The dictionary’s earliest citation, which we’ve expanded, is for the shorter term:
“Nay, truly, he had as good a study of books, I’ll say that for him, good old authors, Sack and Claret, Rhenish and old Hock” (from Juliana, a 1671 tragicomedy by John Crowne). The passage refers to a proud cardinal who collected wines instead of books, and who “would not stoop to pray.”
The dictionary’s first example of the now-obsolete term “hockamore” is from Epsom Wells (1673), a comedy by Thomas Shadwell: “I am very well, and drink much Hockamore.”
Finally, “sack” refers to a sweet wine imported from Spain in the 16th and 17th centuries. The earliest example in the OED is from a 1531 Act of Parliament during the reign of Henry VIII, setting retail prices for imported sweet wines:
“It is further enacted … that no Malmeseis Romeneis Sakkes [Malmseys, Rumneys, Sacks] nor other swete Wynes … shalbe rateiled aboue .xij. d. the galon.”
The dictionary adds that “sack” was also used “with words indicating the place of production or exportation,” as in “Malaga sack,” “Canary sack,” and “Sherris sack.” (Málaga is a Spanish province and the Canary Islands a Spanish region in the Atlantic. “Sherris” is a transliteration of “Jerez,” a city in southwestern Spain and the Spanish word for “sherry.”)
As for the etymology, the OED says the term “sack” is derived from vin sec, French for “dry wine,” though it notes that “some difficulty therefore arises from the fact that sack in English … was often described as a sweet wine.”
Julian Jeffs, who has written books on sherry and other wines, has suggested that “sack” is derived from sacar, Spanish for to “draw out,” and saca, the wine extracted from a solera, a tiered cask for blending different vintages.
In his book Sherry (2014), Jeffs notes that wine exports were referred to as sacas in the minutes of the Jerez town council for 1435. However, he doesn’t cite any English evidence connecting sacar and “sack,” and we haven’t seen such evidence.
Was the “sack” of the 16th and 17th centuries similar to the fortified wine that we now know as sherry?
Jeffs says it’s “difficult to say exactly what Elizabethan sack wines were like,” but he adds that “they were certainly fortified.” As evidence, he cites a passage from Chaucer about the power of sack.
We’ll end instead with Falstaff’s praise of sack in this prose passage from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2
A good sherris sack hath a two-fold
operation in it. It ascends me into the brain;
dries me there all the foolish and dull and curdy
vapours which environ it; makes it apprehensive,
quick, forgetive, full of nimble fiery and
delectable shapes, which, delivered o’er to the
voice, the tongue, which is the birth, becomes
excellent wit. The second property of your
excellent sherris is, the warming of the blood;
which, before cold and settled, left the liver
white and pale, which is the badge of pusillanimity
and cowardice; but the sherris warms it and makes
it course from the inwards to the parts extreme:
it illumineth the face, which as a beacon gives
warning to all the rest of this little kingdom,
man, to arm; and then the vital commoners and
inland petty spirits muster me all to their captain,
the heart, who, great and puffed up with this
retinue, doth any deed of courage; and this valour
comes of sherris. So that skill in the weapon is
nothing without sack, for that sets it a-work; and
learning a mere hoard of gold kept by a devil, till
sack commences it and sets it in act and use.