Auberon Waugh’s provocative wine reviews just get better with age

Waugh argued that Italians made better wines than the ‘careless’ Spanish (Getty)

Waugh on Wine
By Auberon Waugh
Quartet, 180pp, £10/$13

Though Auberon Waugh (Bron to his friends) sometimes remarked that journalism was to be read and thrown away, his own endures 18 years after his death, aged 61, in 2001. The proof of this has been shown this year in two books, both published by Quartet. The first was A Scribbler in Soho, edited and narrated by Quartet’s chairman Naim Attallah. Now there is this gem, a reprint, including William Rushton’s original illustrations, of a 1986 book featuring columns Waugh wrote for the Tatler, the Spectator (whose wine club he directed) and Harper’s and Queen.

The original book was not the first time that Waugh had belied his stricture on the ephemeral quality of journalism, for by 1986 he had already published books of his Private Eye diaries, and columns originally appearing in the Spectator, the Evening Standard and even the New Statesman.

Waugh reveals in his introduction that it was Tina Brown, his former protégé who was then spicing up the staid Tatler before her departure to New York, who encouraged him to write about wine. As the Tatler’s wine correspondent, he disguised himself as Crispin de la Crispian, a Pimpernel-like pen name he dropped in future wine columns in Harper’s & Queen and the Spectator.

Waugh was the most consistently entertaining writer of his generation. He could make his articles enjoyable even to those less than fascinated by the subject. Reading him again on wine, I was reminded of the knowing tone that made Ian Fleming’s writing so compelling. Waugh shared Fleming’s knack for conveying perceptions as certainties and making readers feel that they were in the know.

Reading Waugh gives one that agreeable feeling, not only that one wine is better than another but that one knows why. We get a sense of why we were better off avoiding the then popular favourites, such as Mateus Rosé and “semi-sweet table wines imported from Germany” favoured by “over 70 per cent of wine-drinkers in Britain”, such as Sichel’s Blue Nun Liebfraumilch and Langenbach’s Crown of Crowns.

Just as Fleming could be confidently authoritative with regard to countries and regions in a way unknown in our timid times, so too could Waugh when expressing judgments on the local wines.

The reason why “most of the enormous quantity of wine produced in Spain is pretty poor stuff and some of it is horrible” was because “the country is too hot … the natives … too careless in their wine-making”. Italian wines were better but not treated with enough care.

California’s inhabitants, “for all their psychobabble and personal hygiene are producing very good red wines indeed”. If Californian wines failed to reach “the grandeur or rudeness” of their French cousins, it was “probably because of filthy French habits – not washing their hands before wine-making, working with a dirty, yellow cigarette hanging out of their mouths, breathing garlic over the wine-press, etc. Even the best Californian wine has only one taste – delicious but homogenised, clean but … unexciting … I am afraid it may be the result of too much hygiene.”

All this is good-natured fun with nothing xenophobic about it, any more than when Waugh used the example of a cousin, much richer than Waugh himself, with “acreage of fat fields in Somerset and Devon”, to denounce “the English upper-class habit of serving cheap wine at meals”; in this case “the cheapest jug reds from Spain which he buys in ten-gallon plastic containers”.

Waugh was wrongly accused of being a snob by those who failed to grasp his teases. His priority in praising a wine invariably depended on its cost, just as he would tick off a book if it was too expensive. A self-proclaimed “Burgundian” who also adored a good claret, he often found the price of French wines too high. Again and again he looked for quality at a reasonable price in the reach of even the most modest budget. As Naim Attallah observes in his foreword to this new edition of this book: “Part of the questioning about any bottle that took his fancy was whether it was worth the price … he did not want anyone diddled.”

Waugh wrote that his “life’s ambition”, once his youngest child left university, was to fill the nine wine cellars in his house (once owned by his father, Evelyn) retire from journalism and settle down to “an early retirement at about 51 … in a benign alcoholic haze and write drivelling novels which few people will want to read”. As a fan of the underrated novels he wrote in his youth, I wish he had achieved this ambition.

He ended this delightful collection with an essay on “Evelyn Waugh’s Wine” in which he describes his too often misunderstood father as “a gentle, humorous man – sometimes sad, sometimes gloomy – and nowhere near as bad-tempered as he appeared to the Press.” His explanation for his father’s abandonment of claret, which Evelyn had once loved, is a must for devotees of “Waviana”.

One can only pray that Quartet will give us more treats from the great, much-missed Bron.