Quaffing the cup that cheers

Readers should savour this book, as you might one of the delectable bottles that compose the enticing strophe of the book’s narrative


This article is taken from the July 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

You probably know that Magritte picture of a tobacco pipe that bears the legend “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”. It was a favourite among the epicene, black-clad, Derrida-quoting crowd a couple of decades ago. The picture portrays a pipe. But the caption says it is not a pipe. Heavy.

Waugh on Wine by Auberon Waugh, Quartet, £10.00

Or not. Auberon Waugh, novelist, cultural gadfly, maestro of Literary Review for many years, died at the shocking age of 61 in 2001. He loathed those Derrida-spouting, pseudo-intellectuals as much as I do. But my act of homage here is a bit like that surrealist morceau. Since the book was first published in 1986, it would be absurd to call this appreciation of this new edition a “review”.

Accordingly, I am not going to review this ebullient, if sometimes naughty, vade mecum. Rather I am going to invite you to savour it, as you might one of the delectable bottles that compose the enticing strophe of the book’s narrative.

The antistrophe, by the way, is money. I think it was W. H. Auden who pointed out that when it came to the social dynamics of pelf, Jane Austen made Trollope look like a piker. Wine writers cut their teeth at the knee of the divine Jane. If the wines are the talent, the curvaceous temptresses, of Bron’s narrative, their cost is the obligato. Very few of the columns that compose this chrestomathy — they’re collected primarily from Tatler, Harper’s and Queen, and the Spectator — omit some anxious discussion of the cost of the beverages under discussion.

What gives this a special poignancy is time. These columns were written mostly in the early 1980s. So one can only sigh enviously when one hears lamentations that a First- or Second-Growth Bordeaux is selling for the outrageous sum of £30 or even £35. Pop down to Berry Bros. now and see how much sympathy you get.

Writing about wine is an odd trade. There is a certain technical side to things. Grape varieties, acid and alcohol, terroir and tannin, sweet and sour. But most readers want three things. 1. They want to know whether wine X is any good, and, if possible, how good. 2. They want to know if it is worth the asking price. 3. They want to be entertained.

And it was in fulfilment of entertaining his readers that Bron really shone. Yes, he knew what he was talking about when it came to what the Catholic Mass invokes as fructum vitis et operis manuum hominum. How could anyone who filled nine — nine — vaulted cellars under his country house with wine not know? But it was as a raconteur that he really came into his own.

His first turn as a writer about the cup that cheers and also inebriates was for Tina Brown’s Tatler under the pen name Crispin de St Crispian. His ambition was “to make the world a better place for wine drinkers”, partly by humiliating hosts who skimp on their wine, partly by approaching the task of wine writing “from a position which is always several degrees over the top”.

It was in fulfilment of entertaining his readers that Bron really shone and as a raconteur that he really came into his own

Breathed back into life by the late Naim Attallah, most of this book is taken up with wines from France. But Spanish wines, especially bad ones, seem to have stirred Bron’s literary invention most vividly. He was especially piquant on bad Rioja. Avoid it. It “furs the tongue, turns the breath sour, upsets the stomach and produces a murderous hangover. Some of the unwritten tragedies of the period,” he writes, “are surely to be found among those hopeful and idealistic nurses and secretaries who lost their virginity with a foul taste in their mouths, a bad tummy ache and incipient headache to lovers whose breath stank of sewage.” Noted.

You will learn things by reading this book. It travels with authority, if also some eccentricity, through the wines of Burgundy, Champagne, parts of Bordeaux, the Loire, the Rhone, and Sauternes. There are sections on port, the wines of Spain, Lebanon, Italy, a few words about Australia, South America, and even California.

Waugh on Wine was written after the great Stephen Spurrier declared that a Cabernet from Warren Winiarski’s Stag’s Leap Vineyard outdid all the Bordeaux First Growths in a blind tasting, so Bron couldn’t (as I suspect he wanted to) dismiss California out of hand. “There can be no doubt that the Californians, for all their psychobabble and personal hygiene, are producing very good red wines indeed.” But.

There’s also a subtle failure in the California wine to achieve the grandeur with the rudeness of its French equivalent … this is probably because of filthy French habits — not washing their hands before winemaking, working with a dirty, yellow cigarette hanging out of their mouths, breathing garlic over the Wine press, etc. Even the best California wine has only one taste — delicious but homogenized, clean but somehow unexciting … I’m afraid it may be the result of too much hygiene.

Unfair? Probably. But gloriously, amusingly so.

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