Trellises of perfume

A difficult grape produces heavenly wine that even goes with baked beans

Among the dry white wines of the northern Rhône, none is so widely esteemed as that of Condrieu. Its history, however, is an unhappy one. Following a local rebellion the Emperor Vespasian, who blamed the trouble on the wine and the habit of drinking too much of it, had all the vineyards torn up. His successor Probus saw matters more clearly, and recognised that if the wine is good and freely available, rebellion will occur only in a state of incapacity. In the year 281, therefore, he replanted the vineyards, importing the white Viognier grape from Dalmatia.

It is a difficult grape, prone to disease and flowering when there is still a threat of frost. The granite soil of Condrieu, and the steep slopes on which the vines are planted, add to problems faced by the local vignerons; postwar migration to the towns meant that, by 1965, there were only eight hectares remaining under vines.

All that has now changed, as reverse migration, farm subsidies and social mobility have combined to revive the withering limbs of rural France. More than 100 of the available 200 hectares are now planted, producing half a million bottles a year.

The wine is justifiably famous for its delicate apricot aroma, for its fine combination of opulence and citrous acidity, and for its robust attitude to even the most impertinent foods. But it is appallingly expensive - usually at least £20 a bottle, and sometimes rivalling the first growths of Burgundy.

The good news, however, is that across the river in the Ardèche, the Viognier has been successfully planted on soil not dissimilar to that of Condrieu, and enjoying a comparable climate. The resulting vin de pays des Côteaux de 'Ardèche is now exported by several growers, and some versions of it can be meaningfully compared with Condrieu, even if they do not equal it. On offer recently from the excellent Yapp Brothers of Mere was a 2006 Viognier from the Vignerons Ardéchois, at roughly £5 a bottle - a ludicrous price for a distinctly luscious wine, which we have enjoyed as an aperitif, with fish, with salad, with baked beans and sausages, and even with Mahler's Tenth Symphony, with scarcely a hiccup at those painful discords.

I do not mean to imply that the quality of this wine should be attributed purely to the grape, as though the same effect could be achieved in South Africa, New Zealand or Argentina. We have a local Viognier in Virginia which rivals the aroma and finish of the French original, and which has confronted many a dish of pork and beans with credit.

Nevertheless the Ardèche version shows the virtues of climate and soil, and its trellises of perfume are raised on stone foundations that cannot be matched in Virginia, or anywhere else, save Condrieu itself.

Roger Scruton is a philosopher and countryside campaigner as well as an author and broadcaster. Widely regarded as one of Britain’s leading right wing thinkers, his publications include the Meaning of Conservatism. He has also written on fox hunting.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Now it gets really dirty

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.