Noble rot

Wine - Roger Scruton discovers some Homeric virtues

Odysseus and his crew drink sweet wine, and their adventures have a single form: ordeal, escape, sacrifice, feast and then the glukon oinon that restores the world. If you like sweet wine, then follow the Homeric example: drink it alone, after dinner, with no wine before. And if you can precede the meal with some Cyclops-blinding, Charybdis-skimming or Siren-resisting, so much the better. For people like myself, with chivalric but conservative values, life abounds in hair- raising adventures. So why shouldn't we reward ourselves, after a day of dragon-slaying, with a bottle of sweet Bordeaux?

Unfortunately, in this as in everything else, fashion goes against us. The habit has arisen of drinking Sauternes and Barsac with a meal; they are even called "pudding wine" by those who wish to suggest a deliciously untroubled childhood in a large country house. Yet worse than this Mitford-like affectation is the habit of drinking Sauternes with foie gras - as though excess becomes success if you double it. Far better to finish your dinner (roast pork and crackling, no dessert) and then put the wine, cool, clear and golden, on the table. You could even decant it, because old Sauternes has tartar crystals that dance like bottled fairies in the lees.

The vineyards that produce the great sweet wines of Bordeaux are all clustered around the place where the Ciron joins the Garonne. The chill waters of the Ciron cool the vapours of the warm Garonne, creating a microclimate of "mists and mellow fruitfulness". The Botrytis cinerea - "noble rot" - then settles on the grapes and shrivels them. The grapes are harvested one by one, so that the vines must be picked several times, and the quantities are tiny. Vintages depend on long warm autumns, and if the noble rot does not appear, the wine is written off entirely. Fifteen pounds is therefore not too much to pay for a bottle, and caution should be exercised when spending less.

Chateau Yquem, widely held to be the greatest sweet wine in the world, is priced accordingly (that is, according to its reputation, not its quality). Other first growths, such as Chateau Suduiraut, while less than a third of the price, are still overpriced. But the second growths include affordable wines of comparable quality. I have an affection for Chateau Doisy-Daene, a bottle of which, consumed with the wrong sound effects, caused me to be thrown out of my student lodgings. The 1997 is available from Lea & Sandeman at £12.34 per half-bottle by the case. This is a truly great Sauternes from a great year, worth every penny of the cost, and it will last a lifetime.

The unclassed growths of Sauternes and Barsac are often as good as their illustrious neighbours - although the variety of subsoils affects the taste, and careful choice is needed. My own favourite, which I have been buying for a decade now, is the Chateau Briatte from Chateaux Wines in Bristol. The 1997 has all the lush, nutty flavours and intoxicating aromas of a great Sauternes in a great year, and is a snip at £14.63. For a slightly more mature cru bourgeois, I recommend the Chateau la Chartreuse 1995, available from Berry Bros at £10.95 per half-bottle.

Across the river from Sauternes and Barsac are the villages of Loupiac, Cadillac and Sainte-Croix-du-Mont. These are planted with the same grape varieties (Semillon, Sauvignon and a little Muscadelle), enjoy the same microclimate and are vinified in the same way. In a great year, and in the right hands, they can almost reach the quality of Sauternes, while selling for half the price. For a mere £7.99, Corney & Barrow is selling a 1997 Chateau Peyruchet from Cadillac - an unbeatable bargain which, we discovered, has enough strength, depth and flavour to last through Bruckner's Eighth Symphony.

To the north of the Bordeaux region, in the neighbourhood of Bergerac, is the village of Montbazillac. Here, too, you can find the near-equivalent of Sauternes. I recommend the curiously named Chateau Tirecul la Graviere 1996, available from Lea & Sandeman in 50cc bottles at £8.95 by the case. Such a bottle is a useful quantity: not enough for Bruckner, but just right for Brahms.

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 17 September 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the open society?