A Victorian Epicurean

As all schoolboys ought to know, Parnassus has two summits: one is sacred to Apollo, the other to Dionysos. This column about wine and literature is devoted to this little detail of Greek mythological geography. But a great predecessor in those devotions was the man whose name your columnist has had the effrontery to pilfer, namely George Saintsbury.

Saintsbury was born in 1845, the son of the superintendent of Southampton docks, who instilled in him “some knowledge of good wine and an unlimited horror of bad”. In 1863 he went up to Merton College to read Greats, where his education in wine continued. Perhaps — he would, after all, not be the first to have done so — Saintsbury failed to strike the most prudent balance between the various competing kinds of education on offer in Oxford. A first in Mods was followed, sadly, by only a second in Schools, and so the fellowship on which he had set his heart was denied him. Faced with the need to earn his living, Saintsbury turned first to schoolteaching, briefly in Manchester, and then for six years in Guernsey. Here Saintsbury’s knowledge of drink advanced briskly, for it was a place where “not only was liquor cheap, but it was not nasty”. Throughout his life Saintsbury was an unrelenting foe of prohibition — indeed, his Notes on a Cellar-Book, which for the most part is bathed in a mood of rapturous reminiscence, has at moments a polemical edge when Saintsbury attacks what he called “that Blatant Beast (by Tyranny out of Folly)”. His residence on Guernsey taught him two things about cheap, good drink. Firstly, that access to plentiful and inexpensive good liquor did not lead to displays of mass public drunkenness. Secondly, that — perhaps unexpectedly — cheapness “was a remarkable preservative of quality”: 

The genuine article was so moderate in cost, and the possible profit on selling it was so limited, that adulteration was hardly at all tempting.

From schoolmastering Saintsbury turned to journalism, before becoming in 1895 the Regius Professor of English Literature at Edinburgh. During the 20 years he held that post Saintsbury was formidably productive, writing a series of literary histories (of literary criticism, of prosody, of prose rhythm, of the English novel) and editing, selecting, contributing to, or introducing a further — can it really be true? — 450 volumes. And all that time he was deepening, if not always extending, his knowledge of wine.

For Saintsbury’s taste in wine was classic, tending perhaps towards a certain narrowness. He relished very good champagne (almost the first wine he bought for his cellar was an 1865 Krug). His taste in claret was a shade more flexible. The first growths, of course, he appreciated deeply. But he was no slave to the 1855 classification. The claret he writes about with greatest fondness is a second growth, Léoville Barton; and he goes out of his way to praise Ch. Citran, a sound Médoc cru bourgeois, but one he bought and drank in very large quantities. Sauternes was Yquem, Coutet, or La Tour Blanche, and those wines alone — no Rieussec, or Climens, or Suduiraut. Overall, his palate in Bordeaux led him to the left bank and away from the Merlot-dominated wines of the hinterland. St.-Emilion he frankly admits never to have cared for, and Pomerol he seems never to have bought, perhaps even never to have drunk. 

In Burgundy, Saintsbury’s preferences were for the wines that still today command the most fearsome prices: Romanée Conti, Richebourg, Montrachet, La Tâche, Musigny. Corton he loftily referred to as “humble”, Clos Vougeot he thought over-rated, and Chambertin (more puzzlingly) he would wave away: “The fact is that it has never been a favourite of mine. It may be blasphemous to call it ‘coarse’, but it seems to me that it ‘doth something grow to coarseness’ . . . It was Napoleon’s favourite; and the fact rather ‘speaks’ its qualities, good and not so good.” 

But in the other French wine-growing regions, Saintsbury found little to please him. Hermitage he revered as “the manliest French wine”, and he rather charmingly makes the mistake of referring to the great Condrieu, Ch. Grillet, as “white Hermitage” — certainly a compliment and probably, in his eyes, a promotion. But the other wines of the Rhône valley he could esteem as nothing more than “beverage wines”. From the white wines of the Loire, he turned away without regret (“I never cared much for the wines of Anjou, Touraine, and their vicinage, either sparkling or still”); and he never so much as mentions red Loire, such as Chinon. German wines he would drink only “for curiosity’s sake”. Chianti he grudgingly allowed “can be drunk”, but other Italian wines he viewed with aversion. Sparkling Lacrima Christi, grown on the volcanic slopes of Vesuvius, he memorably condemned as tasting of “ginger beer alternately stirred up with a stick of chocolate and a large sulphur match”. He claimed to be, in respect of wine, “a (very minor) Ulysses, steering ever from the known to the unknown”, but there is surely some self-flattery here. Saintsbury never really dropped far below the horizon of his vinous Ithacas: Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Champagne.

This severity of judgment and readiness to dismiss make Saintsbury sound like the most tremendous snob about drink. In fact he was quite the reverse. He appreciated common drinks with the same gusto as he did great burgundy or claret. “There is no beverage which I have liked ‘to live with’ more than Beer”, he claimed. And it was cider, rather than any grander drink, that inspired his most ingenious and precisely-angled argument against the sanctimoniousness of the Prohibitionists:

. . . cider-apples furnish one of the most cogent arguments to prove that Providence had the production of alcoholic liquors directly in its eye. They are good for nothing else whatever, and they are excellent good for that.

Saintsbury’s motivation was pleasure, and he linked his love of wine to the other things he loved. An admirer of the female sex, Saintsbury frequently associated wine with women, and one senses that he preferred to drink in their company rather than that of men. He was a voracious reader, and so naturally his prose when writing about wine was saturated, sometimes to the point of incomprehensibility, with allusions. Take, for instance, his dense commentary on absinthe: “the supposed wickedest of all the tribe — the ‘Green Muse’ — the Water of the Star Wormwood, whereof many men have died — the absinthia tetra, which are deemed to deserve the adjective in a worse sense than that which the greatest of Roman poets meant.” Which other writer on wine has managed to bring the twin summits of Parnassus so close to one another?

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