I: Felix culpa
According to legend, a vineyard owner in France once left on a journey,
giving instructions to his workers not to touch the grapes during his absence.
As fate had it, however, he was delayed in his return, and his workers,
following instructions, left the grapes hanging on the vines well past usual
harvest. Upon his return, the vintner was dismayed to see his shriveled grapes
still on the vines, covered with a mold whose roots had penetrated the fruits
and drawn off much water, leaving the shrunken remains with a sugar
concentration nearly double that of typical wine grapes. With nothing else to do
that winter, he ordered the grapes picked and crushed, their juices fermented
and bottled. The wine yield per acre was severely reduced. There were probably
no meats at the Yule table that year.
Later, however, when the owner tasted his first bottle, he is said to
have sworn never again to pick grapes until they were shriveled and moldy. The
miracle born in the bottle that season was christened “Sauternes” after its
locale, the mold on the grapes henceforth regarded as “noble rot”, and the
amber-hued queen of dessert wines began her undisputed reign. For a hundred
years or more, she has castled at Chateau d’Yquem.
I cannot afford d’Yquem, and have never had one. But as Chesterton once
remarked about the classical symphony, I take it on faith that it is beautiful,
not on experience. Wiser people know these things, they tell me it is so, and I
have no reason to doubt them.
Happily, there are several other fine sauternes on the market that
domestic drones like me can afford and, second only to port, nothing gives
Angela and me as much pleasure as sharing, or introducing, sauternes with
friends. Besides the wine, which I feel deserves one’s undivided palate,
sauternes is an opportunity to revisit an important scene from Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead
Revisited, and to reflect on a difference in vinoculture that existed
between Evelyn and his wine-writer brother Alex. Let’s do that in our next