First, an apology. In my last column, I appeared to be saying that good champagne does not age. This must have been the impact of Brexit fatigue, for I had meant to write the exact opposite, along the lines of age cannot wither it (as it were) nor custom stale. Good — and especially great — champagne can taste youthful at 20 years old. If I alarmed anyone lucky enough to have such bottles in the cellar, they should relax.
The UK is not the only country where political contentiousness causes stress. The other night, in a repast organised by the Hispania restaurant, I tasted some superb wines in the excellent company of thoughtful Spaniards. That admirable nation has its current troubles, but the wines might have been chosen to lend long perspectives. We started with a Fino 4 Palmas from Gonzalez Byass, a splendid sherry, before moving on to a Vega Sicilia, the finest Spanish wine. This one, from 2016, was barely ready. But it was the perfect accompaniment to a boeuf Wellington; what dish could be more appropriate for an Anglo–Spanish gathering? The Great Duke was a hero in Spain as well as in Britain. A less robust and stoical race might find it hard to forgive Badajoz, one of the few deplorable incidents in British military history. But the Spaniards understand, in Wellington’s own words, that war means a butcher’s bill. He was the glorious commander who forged the alliance which drove the French out of Spain.
A grateful monarch, Ferdinand VII, rewarded him with regal munificence. As well as becoming a Grandee of Spain, he was granted an estate, a Spanish dukedom and the Order of the Golden Fleece, that chivalric dignity which is only rivalled by the Garter (as a Scot I suppose I should assert the primacy of the Thistle, but would not expect overwhelming support).
Although my Spanish friends were delighted to raise a toast to the house of Wellesley, there was a mildly rueful note. Wellington was also given 83 paintings from the Spanish royal collection. Joseph Bonaparte, ludicrously miscast as King of Spain — he was to monarchy what John Bercow was to speakership — had been trying to make off with them. They now adorn Apsley House. It is understandable if Spaniards should wish that King Ferdinand had been less generous, especially with his Velázquezes. I tried to cheer them up by pointing out that there were still a fair few in the Prado. But my companions replied that there ought to be another one in London. In the early 1970s, Velázquez’s ‘Juan de Pareja’ was sold to the New York Met for a mere £2.3 million. In one of the most in-famous pieces of governmental incompetence in post-war history, the Heath government refused to find the money. Ted Heath: what is a strong word for contemptible? Thinking about him almost made one feel better disposed towards Theresa May. Is that Velázquez the best painting in North America? A painful thought — the natives do not deserve anything that good — but at least we can console ourselves with the treasures of Apsley House.
Thinking about Velázquez led us on to a subject which is endlessly absurd, and endlessly fascinating. Who is the greatest painter? By now we were drinking a Pedro Ximénez, 50 years old, also from Gonzales Byass, with an intensity of sweetness: a perfect way to usher the palate in the direction of brandy and a cigar. Good drink gains momentum from the occasion. On that evening, although one would not come to such a conclusion during a tasting at midday, the PX almost seemed the equal of any port or Madeira.
As for Velázquez, he is at least the equal of any other painter. We toasted the Anglo-Spanish victories of 1813/14.