Tranquil recollection

Writers of the past celebrated wine as an ever new adventure

After seven years of writing this column, it seemed only reasonable to put my thoughts about wine between hard covers. My publisher agreed, and now the book is finished, insofar as anything can be finished that depended at every stage on a half-empty glass.

I found myself looking back to my own early days as a wino, and to the wine writers who had preceded me along the path to perdition. I recalled my fascination with the names of the French and German vineyards; the excitement with which those precious bottles were opened, in the days when they were hardly affordable; and the great sighs of relief with which I would descend from the train at the Gare du Nord at the start of each vacation, to go straight to the nearest bar and order a kir. Wine in those days had the mystery and charm of sex – not forbidden, but not permitted either. It was a danger to be negotiated and a joy to be earned.

That was the view of those old wine writers, too – people like Morton Shand and Maurice Healy, for whom wine was ever a new adventure, a journey into foreign parts and foreign habits, which could be miraculously accomplished at the desk.

Such writers were never tempted by winespeak, but simply entered the glass and settled down there, recording their thoughts and impressions as they journeyed peaceably through other and stranger landscapes. They were full of knowledge concerning history, geography, climate and vineyards, but it was knowledge of an old-fashioned and literary kind. Just think of the title of Maurice Healy’s book Stay Me With Flagons. How many wine writers today would spontaneously quote in that way from the Authorised Version, or find in the intoxicating Song of Solomon the archetype of the wino’s joy?

Or consider Notes on a Cellar-Book by the literary critic Professor George Saintsbury. Written in 1920, towards the end of his life, this little volume records journeys in the glass along the rivers of France and Germany, and Saintsbury’s childlike astonishment that the world can deliver such a quantity of pleasure to so undeserving a traveller.

Saintsbury deplores “wineslang”, as he calls it, and devotes himself to the “recollection in tranquillity” of experiences that were clearly the high points of a sedentary life. He invokes a wine culture entirely different from that of today. Not once in the book does he mention a grape varietal. The entire focus of his critical remarks is the vineyard, the vintage, and the history, geography and associations that endow those things with more than sensory interest.

Naturally, he lingers over tastes and endeavours to describe them. But far more important, to Saintsbury, is the celebratory joy with which he once encountered those things, and the remembrance of wine as a light shining from time to time into a life of shadows, and making the whole thing worthwhile.