The London Library, in alliance with the Pushkin Press, has just published a second batch of six titles in its “Found on the Shelves” series of interesting but forgotten books drawn from its collections. One of these is a little book on wine by Thomas Tylston Greg, Through a Glass Lightly: Confession of a Reluctant Water Drinker, first published in 1897 and made up of 11 short essays originally published in the Pall Mall Gazette and the National Observer.
Greg had been born into an exceptionally wealthy Manchester cotton and industrial dynasty. The foundations had been laid by Samuel Greg, a Scottish Presbyterian from Belfast who at the age of eight had been sent to live with his childless uncle Robert Hyde, a Manchester linen merchant, to learn the textile trade. On Hyde’s death Greg inherited the firm and developed it aggressively, buying up mills and establishing what by the 1830s was the largest coarse spinning and weaving business in the country. This was the source of the wealth which allowed his descendant, Thomas Tylston Greg, to shun the ways of trade and instead to explore the world of wine.
It is fascinating to compare the way Greg writes on wine with the way we write about it today. Modern wine-writing is preoccupied with how wine is made. The peculiarities of terroirs and their intersection (happy or otherwise) with particular varietals; the tending of the vineyard and the dressing of the vines; green harvests; the rituals and ceremonies of bio-dynamic viticulture; the sorting and selection of the fruit; how the juice is obtained; the length and temperature of fermentation, and whether it takes place in stainless steel or concrete; racking, fining, and bottling — these are the topics that modern wine writers delight to dwell upon.
Greg mentions none of these subjects. He shows not the slightest interest in how wine is made. In his essay on claret, for instance, he mentions a few châteaux — Pichon Longueville, Beychevelle, Léoville (which he speaks of as a single property, even though it was divided into three after the French Revolution) — but entirely ignores the wines of Graves or St Émilion or Pomerol. He appears to have no knowledge of the various different grape types which are usually blended to produce claret, and he shows no sign of being aware that those blends can vary dramatically both between and within individual communes. He must have been aware that the left-bank wines of Bordeaux were grouped into communes, because often they were simply sold by that name — Victorian wine lists tend to offer “St Julien” or “Pauillac” or “Médoc” much more often than they do individual châteaux. But he cannot have considered this to be important enough to comment on.
Nor does Greg well understand why it is that the wines of the Médoc can be so extraordinary. Listen to him as, in his flowery way, he puzzles over the contrast between the immiserated appearance of the vineyards and châteaux of Bordeaux and the glorious wine they produce:
But to the name itself [claret] there clings a romance no politician nor any touting advertiser can wholly degrade or dispel. His father-grape is himself a true patrician, abiding in fair Châteaux, with ancient honey-sounding names and yet so poor withal that, if truth were told, the most of these holds are unfurnished and dismantled, and many are not in France at all, but (alas!) in Spain. The soil of his garden is of such magnificent sterility that any of less lineage would starve.
But of course, it is precisely the thinness of the soil of the Médoc which obliges the vines to send their roots deep and wide into the gravel banks which, experience has found, produce the finest wines. If you plant a vine in rich soil its root system will remain shallow. In poor soil the plant is obliged to forage for water and nutrients, and so its roots will extend downwards and sideways for many metres. The benefits of this are twofold. In the first place, the vine will feed normally through floods and droughts.
Secondly, once the vine is established conditions on the surface of the soil will not greatly affect it. What is essential is that the subsoil should be well drained, so that the roots of the vine do not drown. This is why clay is not a good soil for wine-growing, and why the wines of Bourg and Blaye, over the river from the Médoc and where the soil is made up of clay over limestone, are less fine, developing less complexity and fragrance.
Greg writes solely from the perspective of a wine consumer with very deep pockets. Most of us will take only an academic interest in his essay on butlers and how they should be managed. The essay on cellars, again, will be of practical interest to few of us, although it is interesting to see how demanding Greg is in the matter of cellars. The door should face to the north, and preferably there should be two of them at least four feet apart; the temperature must be constant 50 degrees; the degree of moisture must be meticulously controlled to prevent both the growth of mildew and the drying out of corks; odours are to be excluded. This exactingness seems to have been provoked by dismay at too many spoiled bottles. But it is much more likely that the wine was not sound to begin with or had been badly bottled with a poor cork than that its storage was at fault.
However, on other subjects Greg has good advice to impart. On glasses, for instance, he is very correct. He is a determined foe to heavy cut glass and still more to coloured glass. The best ports, clarets, and burgundies, he says, “should only be savoured from pure white glass of wafer thinness, light as the fancy he inspires, large as the greatness of his soul, transparent so that his ‘purple tide’ may ebb and flow in full vision”. On champagne, he is even more sound, stipulating that a champagne glass “should be so thin that it clings to the lips as a membranous transparency — a bubble divided in twain, and floating on the wings of the wind. It should be wider in the middle than at any other point; should taper thereto from the bottom, or therefrom to the top — so that the soul of the wine comes concentrated into the mouth of its high priest.” And he anathematises both the saucer-like champagne glass (from which he says it is impossible to drink satisfactorily), and glasses with hollow stems, on the practical grounds that they cannot be kept clean.
At £4.99, this little book would be a perfect stocking filler for any of your friends who have an interest in wine, and, at just under 100 pages, would keep them amused through what can sometimes feel like the longueurs of the afternoon of Christmas Day.