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Wine and warfare part 3: Pedro Ximénez

The legend of Pedro Ximénez

A 17th century musketeer

Remaining in the Low Countries after the last installment, this is a tale clouded in myth.

It concerns a grape variety and possibly a man too – the name? Pedro Ximénez…or maybe Siemens…or Ximen; one immediately senses trouble with the story’s veracity.

Having not indulged the Shiraz/Syrah Roman myth let us indulge two possibilities here, particularly as both involve tales of military conquest and some of Europe’s most interesting dynastic wrangling.

The most far-fetched story holds that the grape originated in the Canary Islands, made its way to the Rhine by means largely unexplained and was then brought back to Spain by either a Spanish soldier or a sailor – we shall imagine he was a soldier.

All in all, an extremely fortuitous circle of events.

Some readers may be perplexed by the use of the phrase, “Spanish Netherlands” which has cropped up intermittently in the story thus far and a brief explanation is required as it explains how the idea of a Spanish soldier bringing home a grape from the Rhinelands gained any credence – or at least how the myth took shape.

What follows is an extremely brief explanation of some wonderfully complicated European dynastic genealogy, it may be a little off topic but it will hopefully prove enlightening.

From the late 14th century, the Dukes of Burgundy (incidentally the first of them, Philip the Bold, banning Gamay from the Côte d’Or), descended from king John II of France, had acquired huge territory, wealth and power through clever marriages and inheritance.

Their territories stretched up from the Burgundy we know and love today to the Low Countries where they enjoyed control over the wool trade based in Flanders and Artois.

Mary “the rich” of Burgundy, the most eligible heiress in Christendom

In 1477, the last great Duke of Burgundy, Charles the Bold, was killed at the Battle of Nancy having foolishly started a war with the Swiss cantons, Holy Roman Empire and French monarchy all at once.

His only heir was his 20 year old daughter Mary which made her (wait for it): Duchess of Burgundy, Brabant, Guelders, Limburg, Lothier and Luxemburg, Margravine of Namur, Countess Palatine of Burgundy (the Franche-Comté then in the Holy Roman Empire and distinct to the duchy), countess of Artois, Charolais, Flanders, Hainault, Holland, Zeeland and Zutphen.

Although she only remained Duchess of Burgundy in name, the lands being ceded back to Louis XI, “Rich Mary” was still courted by all the most eligible bachelors in Europe and Maximilian I of the Holy Roman Empire was the successful suitor.

By all accounts it was something of a love match and the couple lived happily – not forever after though.

Out riding with Maximilian one day Mary took a bad fall from her horse which broke her back. She died a few days later in Bruges aged just 25. Despite the tragedy, their short years of marriage had produced two children, a daughter, Margaret, and the all important male heir.

The son, Philip, inherited Mary’s Burgundian titles and would pass them down to his heirs. Philip would also become king of Spain thanks to his marriage to Joanna of Portugal in 1496, Joanna being the daughter of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile (more on them later).

He ascended the throne in 1506 though he was to rule for a paltry four months before dying of typhoid, nonetheless it was through him that the Spanish Netherlands came into being, he and his heirs being the legal overlords of the two states and the reason the Spanish Habsburgs used the red saltire of Burgundy as their standard.

Philip’s son, Charles V, became one of the greatest European monarchs, inheriting the thrones of Spain from his father, the Holy Roman Empire from his grandfather as well as the possessions of his Burgundian ancestors in the Low Countries.

He split the throne in 1556, giving his brother Ferdinand I the German half and keeping Spain where he ruled as Charles I before abdicating in favour of his own son, Philip II, thus creating the Spanish and Austrian Habsburg clans, the former of which would rule until replaced by the Bourbons following the War of the Spanish Succession in 1714 and the latter ruling until 1918.

Spanish troops, indeed all troops, in the various Wars of Religion were renowned for their indiscriminate violence against civilian populations.

It was under Philip II that the Eighty Years War broke out in 1568, largely as a result of rising friction between the Catholic overlords and Protestant subjects but also because of a number of other issues, taxation being chief among them.

The conflict raged on and off, with Spanish armadas roaming the North Sea and the famous tercios storming Dutch cities and subjecting them to the sack.

There was little love lost between Catholic and Protestant during all the Wars of Religion and the campaigns of the time were marked by severe brutality. In a time of religious intolerance, army commanders were probably little concerned with the fate and welfare of people they considered already damned to hell as heretics or papists anyway.

Spanish troops raped and plundered the wealthy Dutch towns and countryside, fuelled in no short measure by drink and the search for it. This was not an age of international law or the Geneva Convention and civilian populations were considered “fair game” by most troops who were often forced to supplement their pay and supplies by living off the land, a payroll and supply chain for large standing armies still being somewhat in its infancy.

The cross of Burgundy, a standard of the medieval dukes, used by the Spanish Habsburgs and the flag under which Pedro Ximenez would have fought

So gratuitous was the behaviour in this case however that it gave way to a proverb, “Are we here [in Spain] or in the Netherlands?” one man might ask another, literally, “Is that a proper way to behave?”

The war came to an end with the Treaty of Münster in 1648, which was contained within the Treaty of Westphalia which simultaneously ended the Thirty Years War which had blossomed around the longer-running conflict.

The Dutch Netherlands gained their independence, though the areas roughly corresponding to modern Belgium, Luxembourg and the Pas de Calais remained in Spanish hands. The power of Spain though was now on the wane, France under Louis XIV was to be the next great Catholic superpower.

Striding through this narrative at any point between 1568 and 1648 is our man, Pedro Ximénez, assuming he existed at all of course. So who was he, whoever he may have been?

In all likelihood he was a Spanish peasant, uneducated, inured to physical hardship, religiously dutiful or at least God-fearing but also easily led astray into vice and violence which would appear cruel and shocking to us but which he would scarcely credit with a second thought.

Perfect material therefore for a reliable infantryman, to be drilled, disciplined and moulded into a vital cog in one of the most fearsome military machines of the era of pike and shot – the Spanish tercio.

As it is where his namesake grape flourishes and as it is a common surname in the region, we might safely assume he was from Andalucía, perhaps from around Jerez itself. Maybe he was connected to the wine industry, maybe he’d worked on a vineyard in his youth or was the younger son of a vineyard owner before leaving to join the colours.

He may have been bored, or merely desperate, perhaps he impregnated a girl out of wedlock; there were always a thousand reasons to find a new life as a soldier of the king.

Then again he may have had no connection with wine at all other than drinking it. He may have been just a simple, brutish drunkard to begin with, and why would such a man immersed in the dangerous, nightmarish world of a 16th century campaign bother himself with collecting domesticated flora for use back at home?

On the other hand British troops, no more individually sophisticated than our hero, marching to the Battle of Minden in 1757 picked roses growing by the roadside to put in their hats, so love of natural beauty is not necessarily wasted on those society too easily disregards as its dregs.

But even if he did have a wine trade connection surely his (completely assumed) affinity with vineyards might make him vaguely aware that a grape from the cold north of Europe was unlikely to flourish in the scorching tip of Andalusian Spain?

The story’s only really enthusiastic adherents were German authors some of whom even went so far as to claim that PX and Riesling and Elbing were related but as Pedro Ximenez has no known shared traits with other grapes in the lower Rhine or any where else in Germany this assertion can be ignored.

As ever with grape varieties, the best source for information is Wine Grapes by Jancis Robinson MW, Julia Harding MW and José Vouillamoz, who explain its background and parentage beautifully and to which curious readers are directed.

Granada surrenders to Ferdinand and Isabella, Pedro Ximenez was probably already planted in the surrounding countryside and always has been.

Modern genetic science blows an even bigger breach in the story as it has been shown that is much more likely is that the grape is North African or even out-and out-Spanish in origin and probably never left the southern Mediterranean at all – one parent is thought to be Gibi, an old Arabic table grape which was once grown in Spain and southern France.

It is possible that when the Reconquista had been completed in 1492 with the capture of Granada (by Ferdinand and Isabella – see above), many things of Moorish origin were renamed by the Spanish.

Pedro Ximénez may be a Spanish form of a Moorish name or perhaps a person that the two Catholic majesties deemed particularly worthy of remembrance due to his part in the Reconquista.

As a result, if it was not brought back by a soldier then military adventure would certainly take it out of its homeland as Ferdinand and Isabella were also responsible for beginning Spain on its period of post-Islamic colonisation in the New World.

And after the conquests of Magellan, Pirazzo and Cortés, came the priests bearing wine and the means of producing more wine that was so necessary in the liturgical rites. And one of the varieties they took with them was Pedro Ximénez.

Essentially the Dominicans, Jesuits and Benedictines would go on to lay the foundations of the wine industry in the Americas but that, perhaps, is a story for another day.

Next time: beau sabreurs and gay hussars, how the French cavalry invented the most outlandish way to open Champagne.

Previously: Dutch Courage

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