The trouble with taste

Preference in wines is, of course, subjective, but what does it all show? asks Roger Scruton

How do you write about wine, and what is a wine critic trying to convey? I am prompted to ask these questions by the appearance of two fascinating books, each in its own way a bold departure from the po-faced catalogue of flavours and smells that now dominates wine-writing.

A Matter of Taste: a History of Wine Drinking in Britain and Questions of Taste: the Philosophy of Wine are as close in their titles as they are distant in their themes. The first is the work of Jon Hurley, a witty, poetic and surely only fleetingly sober writer, whose lively prose describes the place of wine in our island history and merrily reflects on our native capacity for merriment. The second is a sober collection of papers, edited by Barry C Smith of Birkbeck College and devoted to the deep philosophical question of taste in wine: what is it, and why should we get it right?

It is bad form to recommend a book to which one is a contributor, but if you like this column, you will like Barry's book.

We all know that taste is a difficult idea: only rational beings have it, and yet it seems to have no rational foundation. From one point of view, it matters not a jot that you like Australian Shiraz and I like Pauillac; but, from another point of view, it is the beginning and the end of our relationship.

How can I sit through the Schubert Quintet in C beside someone drinking Australian Shiraz? But how could I have got into that predicament without the bottle that we shared? Why does it matter that we share our tastes, and what is it, in any case, that we share? Sam the Horse, it is true, likes Sauvignon. But he does not relish it; his character is not bound up with it as mine is bound up with white Burgundy.

The contributors to Barry's book have persuaded me, however, that taste in art is a phenomenon distinct from taste in wine. Art has a meaning, and invites you to a long-lasting personal relationship. Through works such as Mozart's opera The Magic Flute, the David of Michelangelo or Milton's Paradise Lost, you come to understand life in this world and your own humble place in it. Nothing like that can be gleaned from wine, not even from the bottle of 1945 Lafite with which I celebrated my original arrival, 15 years ago, in Scrutopia.

The joy of wine lies in its sensory presence, and in the associations that crowd in behind the flavour, like a train of cherubs behind an angel's gown.

However, Jon Hurley has persuaded me that taste in wine is as significant in the evolution of society as taste in art. The British have relished wine by way of relishing the world. And the French and Germans have shaped our temperament as much through their wine as through their spasmodic attempts to invade and annihilate us.