Bruce Anderson

A vintage in retreat

Some wines may turn out to have too much fruit, making harmony impossible

We were pondering the relationship between military history and wine vintages. It is extraordinary to think that the French managed to make wine throughout both world wars. In the late 1980s, Alan Clark had David Owen and me to lunch at Saltwood, his castle near Hythe. It is a proper castle; the stones are still marked by the rust of medieval warfare. According to legend, the knights who slew Thomas à Becket made their final preparations there. How appropriate for a future Clark residence. There was some dispute as to whether Alan went over to Rome on his deathbed, but during the years of swaggering health his sympathies would have been with the swordsmen, not the croziers. He would have had little use for turbulent priests.

Anyway, he produced a swagger wine. In the diaries, he claims that it was a 1916 Latour. Agreeing about the year, I am certain that it was a La Mission Haut-Brion. ‘This should be fine,’ declared our host. ‘I opened it two hours ago.’ I said nothing but feared greatly. With a wine threequarters of a century old, it is wiser to uncork and pour. There is an analogy with opening an ancient tomb. Occasionally, miraculously, the corpse has been preserved. Then the fresh air arrives and it crumbles into dust.

Alan’s wine did not crumble. Over the hill, yes, but it had been a very high hill. There was still plenty of fruit as well as tannin. We wondered how it would have been harvested and bottled. Although Bordeaux was not within shelling range of the Western Front, it would have fallen under the shadow, like the whole of France. Young able-bodied men would have been long gone: some no doubt already fallen; more about to be claimed in the defence of Verdun.

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