Kings and pilgrims

Wine - Roger Scruton recalls his apprenticeship in decadence

I lived for a while, aged 21, on the coteaux de Jurancon, the incomparably beautiful foothills of the Pyrenees, which begin above the village of Jurancon, across the river from Pau, and roll for 30 miles until breaking in a white surf of scree against the mountains. On wave after wave of pasture, the broad-roofed farmsteads bob like covered fishing boats. From my window in one of these farmsteads, I looked down on terraced vineyards, which furrowed the hillside in their own wavelets before disappearing over the horizon in a precipitous rush. But not a single vine was growing: all had been left to die, poisoned by the gas extraction plant at Lacq, which sent clouds of toxic fumes across our hilltops. The Lacq plant was a state enterprise, conducted by decrees from Parisian offices, and entirely immune to local protests.

Happily, although the French economy is still in the hands of the state, public opinion has moved against those old immunities. Lacq no longer poisons the country of the Bearn, and vines again grow in Jurancon. The appellation divides in two - Jurancon sec and plain Jurancon, once the most famous sweet white wine in France, and the first wine to be legally controlled, following its adoption by Henri IV. Both Jurancons are made from strong-flavoured local grape varieties, the Manseng and the Courbu. Sweet Jurancon - served at the baptism of Henri IV and subsequently at all the royal ceremonies of the house of Navarre, and praised by the poet Lamartine as an accompaniment to religious thoughts - is made by the passerillage method. This involves pinching the grapes just above the clusters shortly before they are picked, so cutting off the sap from the fruit, and leaving the grapes to shrivel. In this way, the wines can obtain their legal minimum of 15 per cent alcohol - which is also a near-maximum, since higher concentrations will kill off the yeasts.

I have looked in recent years for a sweet Jurancon to match the dusty bottles of 1953 and 1955 that my neighbour, old Monsieur Boulet, would open after his cassoulet on Sunday afternoons. Those oily, caressing syrups, with their incense-laden aroma, would change Monsieur Boulet's monologue in the space of half an hour from a peasant grumble to a hymn of praise. Somehow, no Jurancon since has equalled his. But three million bottles of the stuff are now produced each year and, given the care with which it is made, some of it must be good.

More easily obtainable on the English market is the dry white wine. This, at its best, far surpasses any Sauvignon or Chardonnay of comparable price: aromatic, lively and with a golden yellow colour, it attacks with sweet, challenging flavours, and then goes clean and dry on the palate like a sudden smile - the perfect accompaniment to both pious thoughts and fish. From the excellent Les Caves de Pyrene in Guildford - a firm that specialises in French regional wines - you can obtain the Lapeyre 1999, a firm, fruity wine, 13 per cent alcohol, and a bargain at £6.76.

The nearest red wine district to Jurancon is Madiran, and this, too, I would drink during that first apprenticeship in decadence, appreciating its deep, virile character almost as much as its absurdly low price. During the Middle Ages, Madiran was the wine of the pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela, who took it with them rather than suffer the wines of northern Spain. It is a generous, flavoursome product of the local Tannat grape: purple, spicy, long-lived and - after a few years' bottle-age - as smooth as a press release from Alastair Campbell. Les Caves de Pyrene has three to choose from: a supple 1995 from Chateau Bouscasse (£9.40), an oaky 1998 from Berthomieu (£7.99) and a deliciously forward Chapelle Lenclos 1997 (£8.99). A close rival to the last, and at the same price, is the Chateau Bouscasse 1996, from Handford of Holland Park, west London (020 7221 9614). All these wines are of the highest quality, all will keep, and an evening polishing off the lot of them left three of us without a single headache, other than that which necessarily precedes a columnist's deadline.

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 28 May 2001 issue of the New Statesman, And men shall speak unto men