Debunking the Greek wine myth

25 May 2019

9:00 AM

25 May 2019

9:00 AM

A book, a bottle, a bower set in an ancient garden: you think that if you walked round the right corner, there would be England, putting manure on the roses. Kipling reminds us that gardening is hard work and that beauty depends on bent backs. True enough, but they also serve who only sit and admire.

There was a further contrast between hard work and sedentary admiration, for the book was the first volume of Kenneth Rose’s journals: the easiest of reads, yet the product of hard labour. Kenneth was an exemplar of his craft. There has never been a more meticulous journalist. If only the same were true of those who edited the volume. Kenneth did not believe in an afterlife, but if he turned out to be wrong, he will have begged leave of absence from whichever region he found himself inhabiting, in order to inflict haunting and persecution on those responsible for the apparatus criticus.

That said, there are delights on most pages. In the 1920s, Cosmo Gordon Lang, then Archbishop of York, was painted by William Orpen, a better artist than he deserved. But he complained to Hensley Henson, the great Bishop of Durham, that the finished oeuvre made him look ‘proud, prelatical and pompous’. Henson replied: ‘May I ask Your Grace to which of these epithets Your Grace takes exception?’ None of them prevented Lang’s promotion to Canterbury, where his sanctimonious attitude during the abdication crisis provoked a gloriously vicious piece of doggerel, including the line: ‘You auld Lang swine, how full of Cantuar.’

At Eton, it was customary that the parents of leavers should reward their boy’s housemaster with a gift. A beak called Richard Martineau, who had evidently retained a surprising degree of unworldliness even after decades spent among boys, once received a case of magnificent claret. ‘This is far too generous,’ he said. ‘I shall keep two bottles but please return the other ten to your father.’ The other ten were drunk by the boy and his friends within the next few hours.

The Cecils’ family motto is sero, sed serio: late, but in earnest. Prime Minister Salisbury provided his own translation: ‘Unpunctual, but hungry.’ Hungry was appropriate for our party — and thirsty. As we were feasting on asparagus, from the garden but supplemented by Waitrose, we decided on a tasting of crisp young whites. There was some Muscadet. Whenever I drink Muscadet, I feel transported to the harbour of Honfleur or one of the other fleurs, with the perfect accompaniment to a Walrus and Carpenter helping of oysters. There was also a Sancerre and a Pouilly Fumé, both from Henri Bourgeois, both excellent. But the gold award went to a novelty: Assyrtiko from Santorini.

That wonderful island was part of Minoan civilisation, until it was rent apart by a huge earthquake circa 1600 bc. There are theories that the resulting tsunami did much to destabilise and destroy Minoan Crete. It has also been suggested that Santorini inspired the legend of Atlantis. But the destruction also brought benefits. Volcanic ash preserved those superb and joyous frescos, a high point in early European civilisation.

Equally, Assyrtiko flourishes in the minerality of volcanic soil. Crisp, piquant, structured and subtle, with a pleasant and lingering finish, it would serve well as a substitute for Sauvignon Blanc. It triumphantly refutes any notion that Greek wine is only palatable when resinated, and best used as a libation. Berry Bros sells a good one, but I suspect any Assyrtiko which finds its way to these shores will not disgrace itself in the glass. As the English spring, on some days as shy as a girl at her first ball, plucks up the courage to blossom into summer, this is a wine to grace sunny hours in enchanted gardens.

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