Emptying the bins

Drink - Victoria Moore on how Sebastian and Charles drank their way through the Brideshead cellars

By his own admission, the book that brought Evelyn Waugh fame and fan mail is a disappointment. Part of the reason is that it is "infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language". For this, Waugh makes as his excuse the time of writing - the first half of 1944, "the period of soya beans and Basic English".

Whatever the reason for its extravagances, Brideshead Revisited is my least favourite of Waugh's oeuvre. Nevertheless, the profligate references to wine, cocktails, champagne and spirits have a story of their own to tell. It is not just the obvious excesses - such as the Alexandria cocktails that the flaccid Anthony Blanche orders four at once, and all of them for himself - that make an impression.

Even now, in this time of abundance and relative richness, the wine cellars that are lustfully described, and which Sebastian treats with a kind of lip-smacking joy that barely masks insouciance, are greatly to be envied. At Brideshead, the cellars are, we are told, not what they once were, yet still the bins are well stocked, "some of them with vintages 50 years old". And the wines need drinking. Accordingly, Sebastian and Charles have bottles brought up from every bin, making every pretence of some sort of intellectual interest, consulting a book on wine-tasting as they swirl the wine in front of the candle flame they have used to warm the glass.

Who could begrudge them their studenty assumed gravity? They have a great time. So much so, in fact, that one cannot help but think that these vintages have been enjoyed more properly than if they had been served at some splendid feast to gouty individuals with taste buds on the point of imploding with the richness of flavours set before them.

In describing their flavours Sebastian and Charles lark seriously around, pre-empting the madder wine critics of our own day.

"It is a little, shy wine like a gazelle."

"Like a leprechaun."

"Dappled, in a tapestry meadow."

". . . a necklace of pearls on a white neck."

All remains English: even these phrases throw their grand surroundings, redolent of the fading English nobility, back into the glass. But they do not stop until the wines they have been so solemnly tasting are absolutely mixed up and they themselves are absolutely drunk.

It soon becomes clear that Sebastian and Charles are drinking on different footings. Sebastian, whose family cellars are neglected, drinks with the aim of oblivion. He swallows privilege so greedily that he seems to be trying to drown in it.

Despite having a drunkard for a teacher, Charles manages to acquire a proper taste for wine. Later, in Paris, he ensures that the brash, divorced Rex provides him with a bottle of 1906 Montrachet and a 1904 Clos de Beze. "I rejoiced in the Burgundy," Charles tells us. "It seemed a reminder that the world was an older and better place than Rex knew." And, at the end of the meal, when Rex is contemptuous of a very fine French brandy (it is too subtle for him), it is made quite clear that Waugh himself suffuses his sensual desire for wine with a sort of rigorous intellectual manifesto for how and what one might decently drink.

Charles drinks properly. That is, he understands and learns from the wines he is tasting. He remembers their flavours and notes how they have changed in the bottle when he revisits them several months later. He also honourably refuses a pre-dinner cocktail - "It would choke me" - when the alcohol-addicted Sebastian is sneakily deprived of one by his concerned family. Lord Marchmain knows how to drink, or at least to live, too. On his deathbed, he sips champagne as though it were aqua vitae, and goes on and on refusing to die.

Few families now possess the sort of cellars that feature with an almost vulgar prominence in this book. And fewer people are discerning and analytical than drink. One cannot help but wonder what Waugh would make of the dull uniformity of the New World wines we now swallow with such lazy gratitude for their consistent flavour. It is still less easy to imagine one-tenth of the contempt in which he would hold such fripperies as alcopops. It is no doubt better that we shall never know.