Duff Cooper understood wine’s power as ‘firm friend and wise councillor’
This article is taken from the August/September 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
Now Duff Cooper knew a thing or two about wine. He certainly knew how to consume copious quantities of the stuff. As a youth I conceived the fleeting notion that I should model myself on him, even down to the moustache. It did not take me long to realise that I had neither the brains nor the breeding to quite emulate that wonderful warrior, wit, writer, poet, diplomatist, gambler and bon vivant, though I tried very hard. Cooper was worth knowing, his life worth living, his cellar at the Chateau Saint-Firmin surely worth sampling.
“Wine”, he wrote, “has been to me a firm friend and a wise counsellor. Wine has lit up for me the pages of literature and revealed in life romance lurking in the commonplace.” Lit up indeed. For most of his adult life Cooper got lit up, especially as the lights went on again all over Europe. On one occasion, at a dinner given by the Russian ambassador toward the end of the Potsdam conference, Cooper drank no less than fifteen toasts with his American and Soviet counterparts.
For most of his adult life Cooper got lit up, especially as the lights went on again all over Europe
Ambassador Bogolomov’s secretary collapsed in the middle of the floor, Bogolomov himself gagged on the vodka whilst Cooper spent the next three days in bed nursing a monumental hangover. Nonetheless, duty was done and though the Russian could not keep his national drink down, Duff kept the British end up. He also kept up a giddy social schedule; his was a world of The Ivy and Maxim’s; of chemmy tables and Monte Carlo; of plovers’ eggs and champagne.
Champagne features frequently in his diaries where he made free with Pol Roger, Churchill’s favourite. Indeed, it was Duff that introduced Churchill to Odette Pol-Roger, the chateau’s matriarch, at a lunch in his embassy, cementing the great man’s affection for the house. Pol-Roger returned the favour, sponsoring the annual Duff Cooper Prize for literary endeavour. When he was not sipping champagne, Cooper had a particular penchant for white Burgundy. In a diary entry from April 1916, amidst all the horror of the trenches, Cooper recorded crossing St James’s Park “feeling half drunk with Burgundy and the beauty of the day”. He was often to be found in Berry Brothers at the bottom of St James’s discussing choice wines with the proprietor. And little wonder, for Messrs Berry and their descendants, now in their much extended premises, provide a perfect opportunity to look and learn about wine.
Take, for instance, their Mâconnais. The 2018 Mâcon-Vinzelles Le Clos de Grand-Père is ready to drink now and makes for a very pleasant summer slurp. Bottled by Bret Bros, a relatively young post war domaine, the Mâcon-Vinzelles is rich in depth and vitality. There is the tartness of apple, there is a touch of exotic pineapple and the longer the draw some nuttiness too, all combining to create a fulsome yet fresh finish. Taste it and you will appreciate what Cooper meant when he wrote, “what infinite capacity I had for enjoyment”.
Hilaire Belloc dedicated his heroic poem “In Praise of Wine” to Duff Cooper. It begins:
To exalt, enthrone, establish and defend,
To welcome home mankind’s mysterious friend:
Wine, true begetter of all arts that be;
Wine, privilege of the completely free.
In these difficult days, let that stand as wine’s epitaph; and Duff’s.
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