David Womersley reveres Roger Scruton on wine
In the early 1980s Roger Scruton wrote occasional columns for The Times, one of which developed a not entirely serious (though far from frivolous) argument extolling the intellectual and academic benefits of wine. By thoroughly familiarising yourself with, say, white Burgundy, you could acquire a great deal of information about history, geography, chemistry, or whatever. I remember finding this a very attractive argument, partly because it was far from conclusive, and thus, rather courteously, not a matter of coercion on Scruton’s part.
But his serious point was that it is a mistake to view wine as merely a drug like any other. Surrounded as we are by intrusive health “advice” which lumps alcohol in with nicotine, ecstasy and heroin and which is uninterested in differentiating wine from, say, industrial vodka, we sorely need to be reminded of the special place wine occupies in our civilisation, and of the contribution it has made to that civilization. Scruton’s I Drink Therefore I Am: A Philosopher’s Guide to Wine served that purpose.
The book is divided into two parts. The first is a memoir, a kind of Biographia Vinosa, in which Scruton relates how his interest in wine was awakened. In his case the decisive wine was Château Trotanoy 1945 — and we can surely all agree that he fell by a noble hand.
But Scruton is also candid about how certain wines have assisted at particular turning points in his life. The most crucial of these involved his renunciation of an earlier choice of character, when he was “an arrogant outcast in a university whose name I disgraced” and his assumption of the more modest persona of “a contrite and undistinguished follower of foxhounds”. The moment of conversion was graced and facilitated by a memorable Château Lafite 1945, “the greatest year from the greatest of clarets”.
Not only was it priceless and irreplaceable, so that pulling the cork was a final goodbye to a mistaken path. It also prompted me to order and unfold my thoughts, to take things gently and in proper sequence, to look back over failure in a spirit of forgiveness and to face to the future with no thought of success.
It would be difficult to imagine beer or spirits ministering to wisdom in that way. Scruton, however, is eloquent on why wine drinking is different from, say, quaffing cider, and his book is studded with faintly romanticised evocations of its special intellectual benefits. For instance, it would be easy to respond to prose such as this with a vulgar scoff:
Wine, properly drunk, transfigures the world at which you look, illuminating that which is precisely most mysterious in the contingent beings surrounding you, which is the fact that they are — and also that they might not have been. The contingency of each thing glows in its aspect, and for a moment you are aware that individuality and identity are the outward forms taken by a single inner fire, and that this fire is also you.
Prose such as this is not well served by being excerpted in this way. But as I read on and accustomed myself to the way Scruton’s prose moves easily from jokiness to intellectual plangency, I thought I could sometimes see at least the hallucination of meaning in it. And no, I hadn’t been drinking.
The second part of the book locates the drinking of wine in a set of arguments and expositions about the good life, what sustains it, and what threatens it.
I found this slightly less successful, although the section entitled “What to Drink with What” is a nice parody, comprising a list of suggestions of what wine to drink while reading which philosopher (Nietzsche is to be accompanied by “a finger of Beaujolais in a glass topped up with soda-water”). Scruton’s emphatic philosophic preferences are entertainingly on display.
As one might have hoped, there are some worthwhile practical suggestions. Faithful Hound, a South African red blended from Bordeaux’s varietal palette of Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, but with a very un-Bordelais dash of Malbec, is well worth seeking out.
A good recommendation, too, is Scruton’s advice to look for white Pernand-Vergelesses from the lieu-dit Les Noirets, which lies at the foot of the hill of Corton and is thus the neighbour of the fabulous white Burgundy, Corton-Charlemagne. According to Scruton, Les Noirets possesses “the fine clean aromas and deep nutty richness that are the hallmarks of a noble white Burgundy”. Moving to Italy, D’Angelo’s Apulian red, the Aglianico del Vulture, is hard to find, but worth the effort.
Lastly, if the economic crisis has finally driven Yquem, Climens and Rieussec from your cellar, you could do worse than follow Scruton’s advice and replace it with a good Monbazillac, Château Septy. It is nothing like as subtle a drink as good Sauternes or Barsac.
But it is at least properly sweet (or, as Scruton has it, it possesses “all the E major sonority of a golden Sauternes”); and it has none of that harsh afterburn you sometimes get with Monbazillac. Should you buy some, raise a glass to the shade of this undaunted, brilliant champion of all that makes our lives worth living. He embodied independence of mind. May he rest in peace, as he surely deserves.
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