I have always been intrigued by the etiquette of wine, the social rules and rituals which surround our drinking. And there are few occasions which contain quite so many as dinner at my father-in-law’s house in Somerset.
Sometimes I feel that life is like circling an HM Bateman cartoon, in constant fear of committing a social faux pas, and being mocked as The man who…
I spent a great deal of time myself learning about the rules which govern an English gentleman’s dress. For example, I know which buttons to button on a double-breasted jacket; never to wear brown in town; and that a Brigade tie should not be worn after 6pm. Some of these rules are unlikely to trouble me – I am not entitled, for example, to wear a Brigade tie even before 6pm – but one feels better for knowing them. You should know the rules before you break them.
(It was once questioned, for example, whether Edward, Duke of Windsor, then Prince of Wales, should be wearing brown suede shoes with a blue pinstripe suit. “The Prince knows better,” said one observer, “so it’s alright.”)
So naturally I am intrigued by the rules which surround the drinking of wine. Some rules, like “red wine with meat, white wine with fish” have become so clichéd that they are featured in James Bond films, and seem to exist solely nowadays in order that wine bloggers can find clever ways to contradict them. But they are as nothing to the arcane rules which seem to govern the drinking at an English country dining table.
Dinner at my father-in-law’s is not formal, but suits, ties and skirts are appreciated, albeit not on the same guest. You are expected to be “on parade” (ie dressed) for drinks before dinner at 7pm. Sharp. Shouting upstairs to latecomers begins at about 7.02.
You must pace yourself. After the drink before dinner, there will always be a white wine to start the meal, and the inevitable port to conclude. And in between, some serious claret, often gifted by his son and myself.
On this occasion, we have ended up with three clarets to accompany the main course. My father-in-law’s Tour St Bonnet 2007; my brother-in-law’s Liversan 2008; and my own La Tour de By 2001. All Medoc/Haut-Medoc, all Cru Bourgeois. So, in what order should we drink them?
Well, there’s a rule for that. The rule governing the order of wine service: white before red; light before heavy; young before old. It’s the kind of straightforward rule all, except the most contentious, can agree makes sense. The kind of rule I like. And simple too, misunderstood only once by an elderly chap who grumbled “No youngster’s getting served before me.”
So it was white wine first, and then, on an age basis, young to old, our claret should therefore have been drunk in the order Liversan>St Bonnet>Tour de By. Easy.
However, on a light to heavy basis, it would probably be St Bonnet>Liversan>Tour de By. That order probably reflects the standing of the chateaux as well. And in either of those orders, even given our prodigious consumption, we might never have reached the Tour de By.
So brother-in-law decided that the Tour St Bonnet should be kept unopened, “as a fallback”. First faux pas; “fallback” was a description he then floundered to explain to the lady on his left, who had given it to my father-in-law as a gift.
The table, properly laid of course, glitters in candlelight. But to maintain this splendid appearance, wine is served in small, beautiful crystal glasses; great at reflecting candlelight, poor at enhancing the flavour of wine. Is there a rule that the presentation of a meal is more important than its content? His son and I smuggle classic Bordeaux glasses into the dining-room, the better to appreciate the claret. This receives a baleful glare, not so much of criticism as disappointment.
After eliminating the Tour St Bonnet, young before old was, it proved, the right order. The Liversan was initially a little stern, but it softened in the decanter into a blackberry fruity, rich and earthy claret. (Currently available at Waitrose for £12.15 it is very good value indeed – and with a further 25% off as I write, it is astonishing.) The Tour de By was softer, denser, darker and more savoury by comparison. In this order, it was as if the latter was a fully-opened version of its predecessor, an ideal sequence.
I try to request more – but, another rule intervenes.
It is, according to my father-in-law, vulgar to use the term “more” wine. He will instead offer you “a little wine?” when your glass is low. (Unless he’s telling his story about Clement Attlee and Churchill’s funeral, in which case he won’t notice.) But he will never offer – and you must never ask – for “more”. It’s a rule which becomes increasingly hard to remember as the evening progresses, and you aim at getting through two bottles of claret, but it does add a certain Dickensian quality to the table.
As usual, the meal finishes with port, although on this occasion the decanter contains only what my father-in-law describes as “grocer’s port”, ie Late Bottled Vintage. “Supermarket” is never mentioned; clearly the term “grocer” is considered disdainful enough.
Still, even with “grocer’s port”, the rules obtain; the port must, as tradition demands, be passed around the table to the left. Halting my father-in-law in full declamatory flow is a rare achievement, but his granddaughter managed this by reaching across the table for the decanter. He was rendered speechless – uniquely, in my experience of a gentleman who reminds guests that “A dinner without conversation is, literally, unspeakable”.
And, it seems, one cannot pour port for one’s neighbour; one can only pour for oneself. I transgressed, assuming it was courteous to pour a glass for the lady on my left. I forgot that traditionally, of course, ladies would have left the dining room before the port was served. So this conflict of etiquettes should never have occurred; if ladies now remain in the dining room for port, one treats them as fellow gentlemen…
Why, why do we do all of this? Passing the port, not asking for more, serving wines in a particular order, pouring or not pouring… Why do we surround wine-drinking with arcane rules, which probably dissuade some people from even serving the stuff?
In some cases it is, genuinely, a matter of taste. That rule for the order of serving wines surely makes sense, both in terms of your palate, and in accompanying a traditionally weighted three-course meal. There may be some case for serving an old heavy red before a light young white, but if so, it’s as well to know you might be expected to explain it.
In other instances, it’s simply a matter of enhancing the experience. Like candlelight, it makes it special. The fact that we are partaking in a little shared social ritual must influence our experience of a wine, just as surely as a sight of the label. I will never know how the grocer’s port might taste passed the other way, or the clarets taste in a different order; but I do know that, with all the laughter and comments about adhering to the rules, my father-in-law’s dining table is an enormously enjoyable place to drink it.
And as for arcane rules, well, what else would you expect from a nation that retains peerages and Royal weddings, always leaves the bottom button on a waistcoat undone, and revels in 42 Laws of Cricket ?