A keen nose and sharp prose

David Womersley reviews Waugh on Wine by Auberon Waugh

What should a wine writer attempt to do? Give envy-inducing evocations of their own oenophilic experiences? Provide technical information about how particular wines are made, either in the vineyard or the cellar? More basically, supply tips about what to pick up from the off-licence or supermarket on the way home? Auberon Waugh thought, at once more loftily and serviceably, that the wine critic should sacrifice his health for the benefit of his fellow human beings, tasting everything that comes his way and advising on what to try and what to shun:

Others may have a more exalted view of the critic’s role — to interpret a wine, book or play, provide a political or socio-economic explanation for it all. But I feel our job is that of the taster at a medieval banquet. If we turn green and choke on our vomit, it is a sign that the revellers should skip that course.

Waugh on Wine By Auberon Waugh – Quartet Books, £10 (paperback)

The purpose of wine-writing decided, immediately a further problem arises. What makes good wine-writing? It is a question worth asking because, as Waugh confesses in the opening essay of this entertaining collection of his own contributions to the form, language is peculiarly ill-adapted to the business of conveying anything of the pleasures and sensations bestowed by wine.

As he remarks, “The number of words which can usefully be used to describe or assess wine is limited.” And this meagreness of vocabulary is particularly grievous on the negative side of the ledger, for “although there is a well-worn vocabulary of praise to describe good wine — it can be muscular, well-knit, complex, fragrant, etc — there is no equivalent glossary to describe what is bad”.

Waugh was more forgiving to his own occasional extravagances of metaphor and simile on grounds of stylistic principle

If Waugh’s terms of praise therefore tend towards the conventional, bad wine was on the other hand his perverse muse. Addressing a flight of young Italian Merlots and Cabernets, he noted that some were good but “they are none of them ready to drink yet (unless, like the Italians, you enjoy the tastes of tannin, stalk, ink, fruit juice, sherbert [sic], iron and sundry fermentation gases)”. The more far-fetched eulogistic comparisons offered by others, especially of wines Waugh had found disappointing, might receive short shrift: “I think I drank a good Chinon about twelve years ago . . . but my last five attempts have been failures, so now I have given up. People say it reminds them of violets and wild strawberries, but I feel they must be mad.”

Waugh was more forgiving to his own occasional extravagances of metaphor and simile on grounds of stylistic principle. He was adamant that wine writing “should be approached from a position which is always several degrees over the top”; it “should be camped up: the writer should never like a wine, he should be in love with it; never find a wine disappointing but identify it as a mortal enemy, an attempt to poison him”. Some of his own more baroque essays in that field got him into hottish water with the Press Council and Race Relations Board, but he managed to escape unscathed.

Waugh started writing about wine for Tatler before moving on to Harper’s and Queen and the Spectator, where he set up and organised the wine club. Despite the occasional extravagances of the prose in which they were couched, these columns were down-to-earth and practical, and were guided by Waugh’s good if traditional judgment about wine.

His own tastes were classic: Burgundy made in the old style (he had a weakness for the sophisticated, sometimes slightly mysterious, English bottlings of Burgundy that were for a long a speciality of Avery’s), the greater clarets, fine Sauternes and Barsac. But he also realised that the prices of these wines were rising to the point where they were beyond the reach of all but the very richest drinkers, and so he was energetic in hunting down delicious, less expensive substitutes.

He scored some palpable hits, which demonstrate how, even though his palate was conventional, his judgment and intelligence were bound by neither convention nor snobbery.

One of his great strokes was to draw attention to the glorious, subtle wines of Château Musar in the Lebanon, when the very thought of Middle Eastern wine would in many quarters have been scoffed at. However, in respect of this wine he must surely have regretted the operation of one of the paradoxes he identified in persuasive wine-writing, for “the effect of making a wine more popular is almost invariably to increase its price”, and therefore the wine-writer is the enemy of his own bank balance, and consequently of his own pleasure. Château Musar now commands a price that rivals some of the lesser second growths of Bordeaux. Another moment of acuity was Waugh’s early alertness to super-Tuscans such as Tignanello and Sassicaia.

His enthusiasm for the wines of the Rhône valley, particularly Hermitage and Condrieu, although of course not discoveries in the manner of Château Musar, was nevertheless very good guidance for the slightly cash-strapped consumer.

Ditto his promotion of the wines of Alsace, still somehow underrepresented in our cellars and wine-lists.

Of course, Waugh was not infallible. Sometimes his advice was bad. Anyone who followed his tip to buy 1975 ports has probably regretted it. Some judgments seem either perverse or slightly ignorant. “I have no German, Alsatian or Loire wines in my cellar — not because I do not buy them occasionally but because, like Californian wines, I do not feel they are cellar material.” Goldkapsel Rieslings from the Mosel? Vendanges Tardives from Alsace? The almost immortal sweet Chenins of Bonnezeaux and Vouvray?

Perhaps we should be grateful he could find nothing good to say about sweet Loire wines. This may have helped hold down the prices

His prognoses could also go awry: “I do not think the British will be able to buy good French wine for much longer.’’ But this is wrong, not because the great French wines have become more plentiful, still less that they have become cheaper, but rather because there is now much more good French wine.

The techniques of wine production — in the vineyard and in the cellar — are now much better understood, and technology has enhanced the winemaker’s control of in particular fermentation. The result is that regions which used to be uniformly disappointing (white Bergerac from the 1970s, anyone?) now produce oceans of cleanly-made, fresh, honest wines. They are not Montrachet but nor are they meant to be.

Waugh may have undergone a partial change of mind on this score, as he noted the good effects that have followed the introduction of temperature-controlled fermentation in Sancerre and Ménétou Salon. However, he still can find nothing good to say about sweet Loire wines. Perhaps we should be grateful. This may have helped slightly to hold down the prices that those of us who love them have to pay.

Waugh died in 2001, and for several years before his death had ceased to write regularly about wine, instead devoting his energies to the Literary Review. As a consequence, there are some areas of silence in these columns that might strike today’s readers as needing comment or explanation. One such area is the wines of New Zealand, ubiquitous and plentiful in English wine lists today, but apparently never mentioned by Waugh. His opinions about Kiwi wines would probably have been divided.

On the one hand, he was always searching (without, alas, recorded success) for Pinot Noirs that could supply something of the pleasure and experience of great Burgundy but at a fraction of the price.

Some of the Pinots of the South Island, and those grown just north of Wellington at the southern tip of the North Island, might well have pleased him on grounds of taste, though he could only have sighed over the prices demanded for the best of them, and he might have found some of them too pale for his liking.

In New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, however, one of the most disruptive and trend-setting wines of recent decades, he would have found confirmation of an aspect of the modern English taste in wine against which he waged a relentless crusade, namely a “depraved taste for semi-sweet wine”.

“We like our wine sweetish with a touch of acid to give it bounce, white and low in alcohol,” Waugh noted, and although he is here thinking primarily of cheap German wine, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc also ticks many of these boxes. People tend to think, mistakenly, that these are dry wines, because they are so vividly acidic (and the grapes are often harvested before phenological ripeness in order to ensure that initial acidic ‘cut’ in the resulting wine).

But wines can be both fully sweet and thrillingly acidic — for example, some of the great sweet wines of Germany and Vouvray. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is of course not fully sweet, but it often contains a surprising amount of unfermented sugar. The prominent acidity conceals the fact that it is really an off-dry wine, and therefore a bit closer to New Zealand Pinot Gris than the very different flavour profiles of those two types of wine would at first suggest.

Waugh might well have concluded that the popularity of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc at English middle-class parties was evidence of our inability to wean ourselves from sweetness in wines. He might also, however, have taken a little satisfaction from the fact that so many of the consumers of these wines think they are drinking something dry, and pat themselves on the back for it. This is the tribute paid by ignorance to discrimination.

However, it remains true that if you serve a truly dry wine (such as properly-made Chablis) to many people they will not really enjoy it, although usually they will pretend to. That honesty about our wine likes and dislikes which Waugh hoped to instill is, just as much as ever, still to seek.

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