Thinking man's tipple
Who brought wine and philosophy to Gascony? Roger Scruton raises a glass to the Greeks
Concerning August, the advice from Scrutopia has been consistent down the years: don't go trashing the planet and tanning your body. The first can still be rescued and the second is past all hope. So stay at home with your bottles, and explore the world in your thoughts. And for the person at home on a cold, wet day in an English summer, there is no place to visit more inspiring than Gascony - that corner of south-west France that has exported its wine to England since Chaucer's day.
Gascony is the home of Armagnac, and a great many other "acs", testimony to the pleasure the Romans took in this countryside and its aquae. But the vine was planted before the Roman settlements when the Greeks brought to Gascony the two commodities for which they were renowned, and which suffice for a life lived in fullness and truth, namely wine and philosophy.
Wine, like philosophy, suffered a setback in the Dark Ages; but both are always on the lookout for their new protectors, and found them when the Benedictine abbey of Saint-Mont was founded in 1050. The abbey has bestowed its name on the regional red, a vin de qualité délimitée supérieure that, like the adjacent Madiran, makes use of the dark Tannat grape, lightening it, however, with Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Fer.
No producer of this wine is a more worthy successor of the Benedictines than the Plaimont co-operative, a singularly creative establishment and a long-time partner of Corney & Barrow. Plaimont's Côtes de Saint-Mont is a clean, fragrant wine, with firm mineral backing and a full flavour of the grape. It will improve with keeping, but is already a suave accompaniment to roast beef or lamb.
The whites of Gascony use grapes such as Arrufiac, Corbu and Manseng - names that can hardly be uttered except in the regional accent, and which bring with them a real taste of the Gascon villages. The Petite Gasconne from the Plaimont co-operative is a charming, fresh aperitif, not at all too dry or strong, and bursting with flower and fruit. This is the wine to cheer your summer days, and a glass or two before supper will tell you many a charming tale of Gascony.
The two wines from Italy have their own tales to tell, and those who like exploring localities without trampling on them will be particularly interested in the Trullari Primitivo del Tarantino, from the Puglia district - the heel of Italy's boot. Trulli are the ancient whitewashed, conical-roofed houses still found in this area, and the trullari are the people who build them and produce this heady wine (a bargain at the price) from the local Primitivo grape, ancestor of the Zinfandel.
Drink this at home, and you will be encouraging people to live in their local manner, while laughing off the burden of living in yours.