Turn of the Corkscrew

In Henry James’s The Ambassadors (1903) Lambert Strether is sent to Paris by a rich American widow, Mrs Newsome, to discover what is detaining her son Chad in that “vast bright Babylon” of a city.  Strether discovers that Chad has fallen under the spell of Mme de Vionnet, a beguiling woman of a certain age; although for a long time he mistakenly assumes-or rather, is adroitly misled by Chad and Mme de Vionnet into assuming-that Chad’s affections are focused instead on Mme de Vionnet’s daughter. The revelation of the truth (handled by James in the most brilliantly managed and unexpected fashion) produces a complex effect on Strether. Alongside the inevitable trace of dismay, he feels also a measure of revulsion at the moral harshness of his homeland, and a tenderness towards the contrasting humane delicacy of Europe. It is a delicacy, however, which is, as Strether recognises, inevitably entangled round and stimulated by what severe judges would denounce as moral weakness or failure.

Shortly after his arrival in Paris at the outset of his impossible mission, Strether is having dinner in his hotel with his fellow-American, Waymarsh. Strether experiences the meal as almost the essence of that place and that time: “The Paris evening in short was, for Strether, in the very taste of the soup, in the goodness, as he was innocently pleased to think, of the wine, in the pleasant coarse texture of the napkin and the crunch of the thick-crusted bread.” “Innocently” hints that Strether does not have much experience or knowledge of wine. Nevertheless he relishes it. While he explains to the comparatively bluff Waymarsh the delicacy, difficulty, and obscurity of the situation on which he must report back, and if possible resolve, he uses his wine as a kind of punctuation:

Strether fell into inquiry. But he wound it up as before. “I don’t know.”

The way he wound it up, accompanied as this was with another drop back, another degustation of the Léoville, another wipe of his moustache and another good word for François, seemed to produce in his companion a slight irritation. “Then what the devil do you know?”

So Strether is drinking Léoville. But which Léoville? Before the French Revolution the Léoville estate had been the largest in the Médoc, running to more than 450 acres-a truly prodigious size. It occupied the best land in the commune of St-Julien, occupying more than a mile of vineyards next to the left bank of the Gironde, running from the southern boundary of Château Latour in the north almost to the village of Beychevelle in the south, and enveloping in its stride the village of St-Julien-Beychevelle. Its owners were the Abbadie-Léoville family, from whom the wine took its name.  

After the Revolution this great estate was divided into three parts. The largest and northernmost portion of over 200 acres was retained by the original family, and was re-named Léoville Las Cases (the marquisate of Las Cases was a title in the Abbadie-Léoville family). The southernmost portion became, after its purchase by the Irish Barton family in 1821, Château Léoville Barton; while the central portion, including the great house, became Château Léoville Poyferré. These last two are very much junior relations to Léoville Las Cases, at least in terms of area, being respectively approximately half and two-thirds the size of their northern sibling.

The reputations of these three châteaux, all classified in 1855 as second growths, have gone up and down over the years. Today the underachiever is Léoville Poyferré, whose wines by general agreement are harder, more acidic, and less pleasing than those of Las Cases and Barton. They also seem not to be imported by British wine merchants on the same scale as the other two. Perhaps as a consequence of this they are often found in French supermarkets. The wines of Léoville Barton are often brilliant and are always very fairly priced. This means that they are not beyond the reach of enthusiasts of ordinary means, and so are encountered fairly frequently. But Léoville Las Cases is in most years the best of the three, combining extraordinary structure with great richness of fruit-a classically-styled claret requiring sometimes decades of cellaring to reveal its magnificence.

The Ambassadors is set in no specific year, but the action seems to take place around the turn of the twentieth century, so it is certain that the Léoville estate had been long since broken up when Strether ordered that bottle of Léoville in his Paris hotel. It would have been interesting had James been more specific about the wine he makes Strether and Waymarsh drink that evening, and said which of the three Léovilles they had. But perhaps his slight vagueness serves a larger point. It is tempting to think of the left-bank communes of the Médoc as forming a spectrum of taste, extending from the harder, more durable wines of St-Estèphe in the north, through the almost miraculous poise and completeness of Pauillac, on into the greater softness and richness-in some châteaux, not without a whiff of decadence-of St-Julien, before terminating in the fragrance, delicacy, and refinement-in poor years, thinness-of Margaux. In this way of organising Médocain wines, those of St-    Julien have a transitional role and character, in which the manly virtues of the more northerly communes of St-Estèphe and Pauillac (structure, tannin, longevity) are blended with qualities we more readily think of as feminine (sweetness, richness, a potential for charm which, however, when poorly handled in the cellar, can result in plump or even blowsy wines). St-Julien is thus a deeply appropriate wine to drink when, as is the case with Strether, you are on the threshold of a world of pleasure and subtlety which far exceeds your previous imaginings. James’s striking use of the French term dégustation also hints at Strether’s incipient immersion in a foreign element.

A later European novelist also used one of the wines of St-Julien to mark the dangerous passage of a character from a familiar to a strange and sinister world. In The Magic Mountain (1924), on his first evening at the sanatorium, Mann’s protagonist, Hans Castorp, has a particularly lavish dinner with his cousin, who is already a patient there:

They ordered a bottle of Gruaud Larose, which Hans Castorp sent back to be brought to room temperature. The food was excellent. There was asparagus soup, followed by stuffed tomatoes, a roast with several vegetables, an especially well done dessert, and a tray of cheese and fruit.

Château Gruaud Larose lies on the southern boundary of the commune, alongside Château Beychevelle. These wines epitomise St-Julien in its most feminine form, where structure has been subordinated to a voluptuousness which can be intensely pleasurable, but which in poorer years may lead to a kind of soupiness and lack of definition.  

Like Strether, Castorp has just strayed into a region that is as much a moral and emotional locale as a physical place. Mann, like James before him, alighted on the liminal wines of St-Julien as the proper libation with which to mark that perilous moment.

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