My palate and the plague

13 February 2021

9:00 AM

13 February 2021

9:00 AM

Later this week, on Spectator.co.uk, I will resolve a mystery that has featured in a lot of Zoom traffic around St James’s — plus a lesser–known puzzle. The first: why has Anderson been absent from The Spectator? The second: why has he been more or less off the grog for a month? The two are related. I have had the plague, and though I am recovering, my superb doctor thinks I should stay dry for a little longer.

I have no wish to become a virus bore. Those who would like more information can read Coffee House; those who are already yawning with tedium will know what to avoid. But just before my little life may have been almost rounded by a sleep, there was an outstanding tasting: suitable for a condemned man’s last drop. It was organised by my friend Jim Guiang: oil-man, huntsman, more than useful with a musket, oenophile and all-round bon œuf. He wanted to appraise some champagne and some claret from his cellar.

We started with a Veuve Pelletier, non-vintage, but with a fair amount of bottle-age. De gustibus: Jim thought it was mature, rounded and altogether delicious. For me, it was past its best and was becoming slightly blowsy. We moved on to an ’06 Dom Perignon, and changed sides. To Jim it was thinnish and insufficiently assertive. I thought it delightful: youthful, fresh, a splendid stimulant and an ideal aperitif champagne. There was no dispute about the claret, beyond a rush for the superlatives. It was an ’02 Gruaud-Larose. It had structure, fruit, length: and a wonderful provider of mellow satisfaction. Ready now, but with no shadow of age, it was everything a wine of such provenance ought to be.

Still unbeknown to me, shadows were gathering and moving rapidly in my direction. Nearly four weeks later, the shadows dissipated, I was back for a short session in the office I can use as a key worker. Jim rang. ‘You’ll find a bottle on your desk. Tell me what you think, but only take a sip.’ It was a merlot from the Veneto, and as memorable as one would expect it to be. If you never drink a worse wine, you will be leading a spoilt life. I told Jim and asked what the fuss was about. ‘But was your palate working?’ ‘Fine, I think.’ ‘That’s the main point. I’ll pop in and then be back in a couple of hours.’ After my hospitalisation and plague-down, he had decided it was time for me to be reintroduced to wine, but wanted to make sure I would be able to taste it. As he had decanted an ’85 Margaux, that was prudent, as well as gloriously generous.

Magnificent in every respect, it also seemed extraordinarily youthful. If I had been asked to guess, I would have picked it out as a very serious drop of stuff from around the beginning of the century. The fruit was huge on the nose. Moving to the palate, it was elegant beyond elegance. I cannot remember drinking a more charming wine, but there was also plenty of tannin. It probably does not have the long depth of a great Pauillac. We are dealing with a gazelle, not a lion. But I suspect that it will not be far over the hill on its 50th birthday. What a perfect way to celebrate the disease’s failure to push me over the hill.

In one respect, a return to normal life had a Rip van Winkle quality. When I fell ill, everyone was grumbling about the lockdown. Now they still are. I have some sympathy with the government. Earlier attempts to offer mitigation then had to be declared inoperative, in the language of the White House press office under Nixon. Next time, it is vital that they get it right. With the pace of vaccinations, not to mention those of us who have already had the damned thing, we must be approaching some version of herd immunity. Before that, I assume that I will have been released from bottle-down. The next wine I drink is unlikely to be a First Growth — but it will be almost as welcome.

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