Good wine is a ‘somewhere’, not an ‘anywhere’. It is stamped with a place and a year. Rooted, literally. The fancy French word for this is terroir, referring to the way in which environment — soil, geology, even the history of a place — is all responsible for a wine’s character. Terroir is a sense of place in a glass. Roger Scruton often referred to himself as a ‘terroiriste’. And this could describe his political philosophy as much as his philosophy of wine. From 2001 to 2009, Scruton wrote a wine column in the New Statesman, enabling him to smuggle into that otherwise exclusively Left-wing journal, all sorts of reactionary political ideas: about God, about fox-hunting, about beauty, about his love of the countryside.
Wine, for Scruton, was never just about the taste, never a merely aesthetic sensation. Indeed, he was extremely sniffy about all those ‘blind tastings’ — the ones where we delight when an expert fails to spot the difference between plonk and Premiere Cru. They miss the point, says Scruton. Blind tasting, he explained, is like blind kissing — not a good way to distinguish, for example, between someone who is sexy and someone who is not. Indeed, if the experiment on Love Island is anything to go by, it’s not even a good way to distinguish who your own girlfriend is.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
That’s because sexual chemistry, like wine, is a great deal more than some momentary sensation on the lips. It’s a great deal more than a message sent by taste receptors to the brain. It is all about the terroir. And this is not just a comment about wine but about aesthetic experience in general. When we encounter a work of art, we bring a whole hinterland of knowledge that makes sense of that specific experience and gives it its character as art. Music is more than a vibration of the air and its reception by the ear and the brain. So too with wine and taste.
But scientists often get very sniffy about terroir. They think it’s some quasi-spiritual rubbish that has been invented by snotty French vineyards to give them a commercial edge. Writing in Decanter magazine, the geologist Professor Alex Maltman challenges the very idea that geology has any particular contribution to a wine’s taste. “Vines and wine,” he writes, “are not made from matter drawn from the ground, but almost wholly of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen, abstracted from water and the air.”
Scruton wrote about wine very differently — not because he disagreed about the science but because he understood aesthetics very differently. He bemoaned the way in which aesthetic experience had come to be seen as something separable and distinct from questions of the good, or the true, or of politics or indeed anything else. That’s why his wine column ranged so far and wide. Beauty, for example, an idea that lies at the centre of Scruton’s philosophy, is as much a moral as it is an aesthetic phenomenon. There is no wall between them. That’s why Scruton could write about wine like this:
“Visitors to Burgundy … will sense all around them the history and religion. … They will know that this is hallowed soil: it has been blessed and cajoled and prayed for over the centuries, many of the vineyards being worked by monks for whom wine is not just a drink but a sacrament … Even in this skeptical age, their vine is something more spiritual than vegetal, and their soil more heaven than earth.”
I totally understand how all this can be recognised in a glass — or, if you like, brought into the experience of drinking one. I once consecrated a bottle of Chateau Latour for the funeral of a great wine lover. There were only a few of us at the funeral. I carefully laid out several crystal glasses on the altar and carefully poured into them the precious liquor, investing it, through the Eucharistic prayer, with the story of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Do this in remembrance of me. I swear the wine tasted different for having been consecrated. And that was, one might say, because of the theological terroir with which it had been framed.
Yes, his writing about wine could be a bit sentimental maybe. But what is going on in his love affair with Burgundy is as much about Scruton’s politics of place, his conservatism. At the centre of his political thought, was the idea of loyalty to place and to those with whom you share space as being of supreme value. This contains a sense of solidarity with the land – hence his thoroughgoing environmentalism — but also to the history of a place and its spirituality. And here we bump into what is most potentially dangerous about Scruton’s thought. Soil and sacrificial blood are, after all, ideas beloved by fascists.
But it is important to emphasise that he never thought the nation state should be celebrated in terms of race or creed. For him, it was a commitment to place, and the shared and common institutions, customs and traditions that make a place what it is.
Moreover, Scruton’s conservatism wasn’t aggressive. Wine, when drunk properly, relaxes people and introduces conviviality. People fight over oil, he once remarked, but not over wine. As he once put it about wine-growing in the Lebanon, “Invade the producer and you lose the product; trade with him peacefully and you are supplied from year to year.” Indeed, “Hezbollah don’t occupy the Beqaa because of Chateau Musar – if they did, peace would quickly come to southern Lebanon.”
Wine, and indeed terroir-ism, was, for him, the product of, and encouragement towards, peace and civility. What he had in mind here was more the wine of the Greek symposium than that guzzled in quantity by the boorish drunk. His idea of heaven was that of domestic home-loving contentment, with friends sitting around the table drinking wine, sharing ideas. There is nothing remotely fascist about this.
As it so happens, this coming Sunday is the day in the church’s calendar when we remember the first miracle performed by Christ, turning water into wine. This trumps ‘Dry January’. Yesterday, I had the mad idea of consecrating a bottle of Chateau Trotanoy 1945 for the occasion, the taste of which first converted the young Scruton to his life-long dedication to the religion of the grape. But as the helpful gentleman from Berry Bros informed me, this was nearly £4,000 a bottle, and probably impossible to find.
I will obviously have to look for something a little more modestly priced. Maybe the Lebanese Chateau Musar or (better) the totally off-the-clock delicious Chateau Kefraya ‘Comte de M'”. After all, the historic Cana of Galilee is widely understood to be the Lebanese village of Qana a few miles north of the current Israeli border. But whatever I find, this seems like an appropriate way to say goodbye. Roger Scruton once played the organ for us at our little church in South London. Without an organist in attendance, and needing a carol playing, he got up and played it from sight. Scruton had a soft spot for Anglicanism.
He wasn’t a conventional believer, but he spoke to me extremely movingly last year about the need for him to follow Christ’s example and forgive those who had so wronged him last year when he was mischievously disparaged as an anti-Semite and subsequently sacked from his job as the Government’s architectural advisor. You can listen to that Confession here.
His was a philosophy of place and philosophy of peace. Something well worth raising a glass to, consecrated or otherwise. In his life, whether in the Reform club or around his farmyard kitchen table in Wiltshire, he celebrated the miracle of water into wine, and was thoroughly suspicious of all those — whether Puritans or Salafis — who would turn it back again. He will be much missed. May he rest in peace.
Join the discussion
To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.
Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.Subscribe