It is enough to make a man turn to drink. On a distinctly non-abstemious day, I was sitting in one of my favourite places on earth. It is not a great garden, merely a characteristically English one: roses, benign verdancy and the joyous sunshine of gentle summer. My dear friends have just finished restoring their late medieval house. It is not a great house, merely a classically English one. Chillingham Castle, the Wakefield family’s seat in Northumberland, which resplends in grandeur, was described by Walter Scott as bearing the rust of the Barons’ wars. This place, by contrast, is more a case of the gentle patina of manorial peace over long centuries. You feel that if you caught the house off guard, it would be smiling at its latest owners’ enjoyment. History is now and England.
Lunch drew fruitfully on the kitchen garden: vegetables for the risotto primavera (also a non-Atkins day), strawberries for pudding. The main course was succulent local chicken plus morels, accompanied by a ’14 Volnay Premier Cru Champans. Whether or not God was in his heaven, all was right with the world. So why was I feeling seriously ungruntled?
The answer was easy. I had been reading the papers, which were dominated by this wretched government’s latest bêtises. The Wilson administrations were thoroughly flawed, especially after 1974. But one expects an immense amount more from Tories. As the true national party, their governments should draw on healthy prejudices reinforced by patriotism and hard thinking. This lot... thinking? One goes back to Churchill’s onslaught on the Baldwin government: ‘Decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift.’ ‘No worst, there is none’ wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins in one of the poems known as the terrible sonnets. With this government and PM that is never true. There is always tomorrow.
Occasionally, I have been teased for allowing this column to wander from a strictly drink-based curriculum. My reply is always that wine is a crucial part of social life and cannot be treated in isolation. But, writing as a political obsessive of many decades’ standing, there are moments when it is a relief to turn to non-political topics. This is one of them.
Recently, I have tasted a few 2017 clarets while benefiting from expert testimony. There is a consensus. Though not a stellar vintage, it is a thoroughly sound one, producing traditional claret lower in alcohol than the massive jammy monsters so beloved of Robert Parker. The harmony of fruit and tannin suggests a potential for early drinking and for longevity. Comparisons have been drawn with the 1988s, another unfashionable vintage. But the 2017s are less tannic.
Alas, the prices. I did not taste any first growths, said to be worth the large sums the vineyards are charging. Grand-Puy-Lacoste was excellent as was Léoville Barton, but for me the star was Léoville Las Cases. I saw one on offer at a mere £800 a case and was about to alert a rich friend, when I realised it was a case of six bottles. We will just have to hope that sterling recovers on the coat tails of a successful Brexit, plus trouble for President Macron. Can hope live in the same universe as Theresa May?
So back to wine. Before I could advise to the contrary, a friend opened and poured a 2005 Bahans-Haut Brion (since re-christened le Clarence de Haut-Brion). It was much less locked up than I expected, but I still think that the ’05s need time. So, ideally, did a 2008 Batard-Montrachet, except that its owner is terrified about oxidisation. Already superb, it will continue to strengthen.
What a contrast to this PM. Weak but stable: if she were a wine, you would pour it down the sink, not even fit for cooking. Thank God there is real wine to distract one’s thoughts.