In longevity, great wine can march with human life. Creating (better still, maintaining) a fine cellar really is a compact between the dead, the living and those not yet able to appreciate serious claret. There is a sort of comparison with trees and houses, yet in those cases, the time-scales transcend the shortness of our lifespan. I have a number of friends who plant trees in the serene and stoical knowledge that, one day, the offspring of their husbandry will spread a benison over the surrounding countryside, though they themselves will not be here to see it. Nunc dimittis.
Houses are even more germane. One of the glories of England is the number of buildings which have survived in family hands for centuries, preserving a fair proportion of their contents. I was in one such establishment the other day. There was a 1630s portrait attributed to Dobson. I queried this, asking my host whether it might not be a Cornelius Johnson. ‘I see what you mean, but the document-ation is agin you. We have Dobson’s bill in the archives.’ History is now and England.
In comparison, the poor frogs suffer. Some families did manage to recover their châteaux after 1815, but the kit had usually been looted. Since then, the Code Napoleon has enforced subdivision. One suspects that if Bonaparte himself had made peace with the Allies and reigned for a few more stable years, he too would have understood the values of primogeniture. It was not to be.
By no means all British houses have survived. A visit to the Huntington Hartford collection in Pasadena is a bittersweet experience, for that museum is also a memorial to imperial overstretch. I seem to remember a number of portraits of country houses, whose pediments have mottoes such as Hora et Semper. Outside on the front lawn, a faun-like creature is dancing, as if to the melodies of Pan’s pipes. Wreathed in garlands, winsome and demure, shy, with a soupçon of sauciness — Miranda, Rosalind — she is a poem of girlhood. This is English country life in excelsis. Perhaps it is preserved in the heavens. On earth, the girl has been dust for two centuries; the house, pulled down unless it survives as the county lunatic asylum; the paintings, in California.
My thoughts meandered into such melancholy byways during a recent weekend with an old friend. He had built up a cellar in the days when an English squire with a little spare cash could buy first growths: days that will never return. Reviewing his bottles, he had come across a few odd ones. Would I help to drink them? One always rushes to discharge the obligations of friendship, I assured him, and duly reported for duty. I had not seen him for six months; he seemed three years older. ‘You’re looking well,’ I burbled, fatuously. His initial reply was a glint, as if to say: ‘You’re talking balls and we both know it.’
He continued: ‘Discouraging report from my quack last week. No point in planning my 100th birthday party.’ ‘You’re 90 – when – about 18 months, isn’t it? We’d better give those celebrations some welly.’ A grin; ‘On verra.’
I fear that the sorting-out was a testamentary disposition. He is a widower, and despite prolonged encouragement, none of his children has much interest in wine. When they see the lovingly collected contents of a good cellar, their first thought is ‘school fees’.
The bottles were an inspired choice. Two of them, I had already drunk, but years ago. The third had been a drinking ambition for around 45 years. We started with it, a ’59 Haut-Brion. When I was learning about claret, some wise and experienced oenophiles asserted that it was one of the finest wines of the century, better than any of the ’61s. Here was the chance to taste it. The nose was perfect: that characteristic Haut-Brion blend of tobacco and the tack room. But the fruit was fading, which it continued to do, until the final drops. ‘I made a mistake,’ the host averred. ‘Decanted it an hour before we started. This should have been open and pour. But there’s another bottle, though you’ll have to polish off most of it.’ My protests against opening it were feeble, unavailing — and wholly insincere. I was delighted to be overruled. It was a great wine. The gravelly minerality harmonised with fruit, depth and length. I remember writing about a ’45 Latour. Which was the greater wine? There is only one answer: both of them.
At lunch the next day, we started the important wines with a ’64 Ducru–Beaucaillou. Back then, over-shadowed by the ’59s and ’61s, the ’64s were underrated. But they have aged well. I had tried the Ducru–Beaucaillou only once, in or around 1991. I remember thinking that although it fell just short of a blue riband, this was classic claret. For anyone who did not like it, there would always be Diet Coke.
That was a quarter of a century ago, so would it have survived? The answer was a triumphant ‘yes’. It had obviously enjoyed the happiest of upbringings. From the château to my friend’s cellar, then more than five decades in the seven sleepers’ den. It would probably have reached its apogee aged 40. Since then, there had been a slight descent, but from a very high peak. It now needs drinking, to the ineffable pleasure of anyone lucky enough to be a partaker.
In 1981, I covered the French election from Burgundy and still remember a ’69 Chambertin. But the vinous high point was a ’61 Mouton-Rothschild, which had a further advantage; the Burgundians had underpriced it. It was the most subtle, complex wine I had ever drunk: a Hampton Court maze of tastes. But had the conductor brought the orchestra together? I couldn’t decide. Now, 36 years later (a horrifying thought), there was a chance to reassess.
My conclusion: in 1961, the wine had been too young. Today, it was still complex and subtle but all the instruments are playing to the baton. Although there is no scope for improvement, that is not a reason to rush to the corkscrew. This is a superb wine and will remain so for some years.
‘Eat, drink and be merry,’ toasted my host, ‘for tomorrow we die.’ ‘Come on, you old so-and-so,’ I replied. ‘Your friends are all agreed that you should hold off tomorrow as long as possible.’ ‘As you said, a chap should honour the obligations of friendship. I’ll do what I can.’ On which cautiously happy note, Merry Christmas.