Thursday, 26 May 2011

I Drink Therefore I Am: A Philosopher's Guide to Wine by Roger Scruton

I’m slowing devouring this between other books, taking in a chapter or so at a time. Describing itself as a good-humoured antidote to the pretentious clap-trap that is written about wine today it’s a brilliant meditation on the philosophical pleasures attendant to wine. Provided you’re drinking the right stuff, of course.

Scruton appears to be a stickler for terroir. From very early on in his wine drinking career, he took it upon himself to investigate wine through the hallowed names that adorn the labels. All French, of course:

I learned thereafter to love the wines of France, village by village, vineyard by vineyard, while retaining only the vaguest idea of the grapes used to make them, and with no standard of comparison that would tell me whether those grapes, planted in-other soils and blessed with other place-names, would produce a similar effect. From the moment of my fall, I was a terroiriste, for whom the principal ingredient in any bottle is the soil.

The problem is that as wine has become more available, the consumer has become a little less demanding:

But the concept of terroir has now become highly controversial, as more and more people follow the path to perdition that I trod those forty-five years ago. Poetry, history, the calendar of saints, the suffering of martyrs – such things are less important to the newly flush generation of winos than they were to us lower-middle class pioneers. Today’s pagan drinkers are in search of the uniform, the reliable and the easily remembered. As for where the wine comes from, what does it matter, so long as it tastes OK? Hence the tendency to classify wines in terms of the brand and the grape varietal, either ignoring the soil entirely, or including it under some geological category like chalk, clay, marl or gravel. In short, the new experience of wine is that of drinking the fermented juice of a grape.

Oh dear, guilty as charged at 120 Units. Scruton is emphatic about the importance of terroir:

There in the glass was the soil of a place, and in that soil was a soul.

He illustrates his point by quoting Napoleon:

“Nothing makes the future so rosy,” Napoleon remarked, “as to contemplate it through a glass of Chambertin”, and we instantly respond to the sentiment. But suppose he had said, “nothing makes the future so rosy, as to contemplate it through a glass of Pinot Noir”? The word ‘contemplate’ would have lost its resonance, and the remark, no longer associating the greatest risk-taker of his day with a tranquil plot of earth in Burgundy, would have been flushed clean of its pathos and its spiritual truth.

And for all my dalliances and flirtations with Chilean Merlot and Bulgarian Cab Sauv, I have to admit that he’s right.


  1. First time here for a while! A good book review and a glass of wine are a great combination, and the wine theme makes it even more multi-sensory.

  2. I'll drink to that! And Scruton proves that a glass of red can be intellectually improving. No argument there...

  3. Guess I fall under the 'New-age Pagan' drinkers lot when I can really only identify them by names like the 'Chateau Neuf's and 'Saint Emilion's, and of course a particular favourite, the 'Madiran's. However that is how my parents drink.
    Excellent reviews, though I comment far more rarely than I should.

  4. Au contraire, dear boy. It's the modern day pagans who are ordering bulk by the grape: usually Pinot Grigio, or for those with delusions of grandeur, Malbec. Madiran has been an Appellation since 1948. Bone up on a few of the individual winemakers and we'll make a terroiriste of you yet...

  5. I loved this book too. It's very sad though. One pictures Scruton, Lear-like, railing against the modern world glass in hand and then retreating to the stable to share a glass of Greek rose with Sam the horse. I hope you don't mind if I put a link to my interview with Mr Scruton:


  6. Thank you for the offer of a link, that would be great. There is an element of sic transit gloria mundi about the book as we sink under a tidal wave of £4 per bottle table wine, but without the deluge of cheap slosh, would his argument be as powerful? I also use the Napoleon quote to justify splashing out on a decent bottle of wine every now and then...

  7. After a few two many bulgarian cabernets I was once sic in a transit.

  8. I remember Bulgarian Cabernet from years back, well, I remember the first few glasses at least. What ever happened to that stuff? Is it still available outside of the Balkans?