Grapes of Mourning

J.K. Huysmans’s high priest of decadence Des Esseintes had a penchant for gothic grub. But which vintages would best match a stygian supper?

History Wine

When we think about matching wine with food, we tend to focus on what we like to think of as the more substantive dimension of taste, and (congratulating ourselves on our sophistication) to be comparatively relaxed about colour. So, setting aside our normal ideas of what goes well with what, we are guided by taste and recognise, for instance, that there is no better accompaniment to cold game birds than old vintage champagne. On the same principle, we are happy to have light, chilled red wines with certain fish dishes.

But for other, more whimsical but also in one sense more severe palates, colour is the dominant consideration. The Augustan History tells us that the Emperor Elagabalus would give “summer-banquets in various colours, one day a green banquet, another day an iridescent one, and next in order a blue one, varying them continually every day of the summer.” This was surely the text which gave J.K. Huysmans (1848-1907) the hint for the monochrome dinner with which his high-priest of decadence, the enervated aristocrat Des Esseintes, commemorated the loss of his virility in the Franco-Dutch writer’s notorious novel A Rebours.

Nothing on this wonderful occasion was allowed to escape the dominant theme of sombre negritude. The dining room was draped in black, and opened out on to a garden where the paths had been covered in charcoal and the pond fringed with basalt and filled with ink; and where the shrubberies had been planted with cypresses and pines. In the dining room, a black cloth was spread over the table, decorated with violets and scabious. Black tapers shed an eerie green light over the room. A hidden orchestra played funeral marches, while naked negresses, wearing only slippers and stockings in cloth of silver embroidered with tears, served the guests an array of black foods on plates edged with black. The menu comprised turtle soup, black Russian rye bread, black olives, caviar, mullet botargo, black puddings, game served in the darkest of sauces, truffle jellies, chocolate creams, plum puddings, nectarines, pears in grape-juice syrup, mulberries and black cherries.

Huysmans matched the drink at this dinner scrupulously to the food, although some of his specifications — both what he included and what he omitted — are puzzling to us today. We are told that Des Esseintes’s guests were supplied with dark-tinted glasses, from which they drank the wines of Limagne and Roussillon, of Tenedos, Valdepeñas and Oporto. After coffee and walnut liqueur, they concluded the evening with kvass, porter and stout.

“The wines of Limagne?” I hear you ask; what wines are those? They have now almost completely vanished from our cellars and shelves, but in the nineteenth century they were important for the domestic market in France. Limagne is a plain in the Massif Central. Vines are still grown around the towns of Corent and Châteaugay, under the appellation of Cotes d’Auvergne. These had dwindled to the level of VDQS, but the process has begun to have them elevated to appellation contrôlée status. What kind of wines are they? The grape types grown today are chardonnay and gamay, and the wines, whether red or white, tend towards the light and fragrant. Hardly suitable, then, one would have thought, to accompany Des Esseintes’s black food. In the paperwork supporting the bid for elevation to appellation contrôlée status, it is specified that yields of up to a very generous 55 hectolitres per hectare will be permitted in the Cotes d’Auvergne.  It seems that no one in Limagne wishes any longer to make dark, heavily extracted wines. And yet, if Huysmans is to be believed, in the 1880s some such wines were made in Limagne, and in sufficient quantities for it not to be an evident false note for Des Esseintes to have specified them for his “black dinner”. What were these wines made of, and what did they taste like? How has such a viticultural tradition disappeared so completely?

If the wines of Limagne are a surprising inclusion, there are also some surprising omissions. The backwardness of Italian viticulture in the 19th century would perhaps explain the absence of any wine made from the negroamaro grape — “the black and bitter one”— from Des Esseintes’s dinner. It is only comparatively recently that these forbiddingly tannic and dark red wines have been exported in any quantity from the heel of Italy, where they are grown just north of Lecce. It would be astonishing had Huysmans ever heard of, let alone drunk them.

We might pause longer over another surely striking omission, namely that of the famous “black wine” of Cahors. Long ago this wine, made from the Malbec (or, as it is called locally, the Auxerrois) grape had a reputation for depth, durability and complexity (sometimes it seems achieved by the artifice of boiling up the grape juice) which eclipsed the comparatively thin wines of Bordeaux. Why then did Huysmans ignore them? Here we encounter a striking coincidence. A Rebours was published in 1884.  Just four years beforehand, in 1880, the vineyards of Cahors had been devastated by phylloxera — the small aphid and natural ally of the temperance movement whose sole food is the roots of vines. Given the tendency in France to drink young even wines which are capable of ageing, it may be that had Des Esseintes wished to serve the “black wine” of Cahors at his dinner party, there would have been none available.

So much for the omissions and puzzling inclusions.  Roussillon and Oporto still produce dark red wines which would be worthy accompaniments to Des Esseintes’s black food. We might pause, however, over Tenedos. This island in the Aegean — according to Aeneas, the place where the Greeks hid their fleet to deceive the Trojans into thinking that they had actually abandoned Troy — did enjoy a reputation for its wines, but they could hardly have been imported into 19th-century Paris. Is Huysmans nodding here, and — moving from southern France to Spain as he seems to be doing — did he really mean to write “Penedès”? It is tempting to think so, because although the wines of Valdepeñas at least nowadays tend towards the lighter end of the spectrum, being a blend of red and white grapes, the region of Penedès, in the north-eastern corner of Spain, produces some exceptional reds. Perhaps the most arresting come from an area a little further down the coast, just beyond Tarragona. Here the burnt, volcanic soils of Priorato produce astonishing and uncompromising wines. 

Some years ago I bought some Priorato from John Armit, as part of a Spanish wine offer he was then running. I drank most of them far too young, but a few bottles got lost in a corner of the cellar. When I chanced on them again they were ten years old, and a complete revelation: still unfathomably dark in colour, but wonderfully complex in flavour and scent. They would have been the perfect accompaniment to Des Esseintes’s dinner, and I urge you to try them for yourself — while of course hoping that you have a much more genuinely happy occasion on which to drink them.