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The lesson of France and Italy - the worse the country, the better the wine

25 May 2013

9:00 AM

25 May 2013

9:00 AM

Although I promise to move on to drink, forgive me for beginning with a less interesting but even more complex subject: government. It is easy to patronise the Italians. The Risorgimento was a failure (See David Gilmour’s superb The Pursuit of Italy). Since the days of Cavour’s Machiavellianism and Garibaldi’s Cav and Pag bravura, the Italian political system has suffered a steady haemorrhage of authority and prestige, with the partial exception of the Mussolini era.

By the 1950s, the serious people in Italy had come to one of three conclusions. The first lot decided that the Italians were not fit to govern themselves. This explains the Euro-enthusiasm of the Montis, the Draghis, the Prodis (though he, that most afflicted of mankind, a stupid intellectual, is not worthy to be bracketed with the first two). They all hoped that a man would arrive on the flight from Brussels and tell the Italians what to do. Fair enough. But they also hoped that the Italians would do what they were told. No Italian had been more deluded since Tosca. The second group were the Marxists. They too believed that the Italians were not fit to govern themselves, but they thought that this applied to the whole of mankind. Gradually, a sophisticated and humane Marxism in the Gramsci tradition displaced the Stalinist brutalities of Togliatti. Given the persistent hopelessness of Italian politics, it is surprising that the Italian Euro-communists never managed to come to power. For that, we have to thank the Catholic Church — and the third group of serious Italians.


They, the largest of the three, had a radical solution to the problems of the Italian state. They gave up on it. On an average day, the Italian government was incompetent, corrupt and chaotic. On a bad day, the cocktail would take on the flavours of organised crime, and homicide. So wise Italians conserved themselves for private life. We Brits might regard that as unsatisfactory. We expect to take pride in our country and its institutions: to participate in the life of the polis. The Italians, cynical inheritors of a more ancient civilisation, laugh at such fantasies, and content themselves with an unsurpassable quality of life. ‘The expense of spirit in a waste of shame’: is that the beginning of the most intense and tortured poem in the language, or was Shakespeare merely describing an Italian foolish enough to embroil himself in politics?

The French are betwixt and between. They make more fuss about national pride than we British do. True, there is the odd national delusion, such as the belief that they won the last war single-handed. Aided by that grande illusion, their institutions are in crisis. The Fifth Republic started with éclat: De Gaulle, the underrated Pompidou. Since then: Giscard, Mitterrand, Chirac, Sarkozy, Hollande — only comparable to the useless French monarchs of the 1560s onwards, between Henry II and Henri Quatre. Mitterrand is almost an exception, because he was so formidable: a saturnine and amoral figure who ordered the death of at least one political opponent (though he earns much forgiveness because he did enjoy eating ortolans).

If France were a Dickens character, she would be Miss Havisham. Yet again, however, la douceur de vie comes to the rescue. There is a Burgundian vigneron called Grégoire Bichot. He comes from a family which produced wine in large quantities. But Grégoire is a perfectionist, until they invent something better. He only has six hectares, in Beaune and Nuits St George. The other evening, I drank some of his ’05 Beaune 1er cru les Avaux, Domaine de Clos. Barely ready, it harmonised fruit, subtlety and goût de terroir. A beautifully made wine, it will keep for years. Because of their short supply, Gregoire’s wines are neither easy nor cheap to find. But his reputation is growing, deservedly. He still provides us with a reason to raise a glass to ‘vive la France’.


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