Brideshead is one of those books you feel you’ve read. Like Sebastian Flyte, Waugh’s classic novel of country houses, Catholicism and class charms all before it. Downton look downright shabby comparatively. Brideshead is to Oxford as Oliver Twist is to London or Bonfire of the Vanities is to New York. Those dreaming spires, emerald quadrangles and golden hours – “an enclosed and enchanted garden” just waiting.
“You couldn’t escape it,” says Adam, who was at Oxford in the 1970s. “Even if you rejected the whole Sebastian aesthetic, you were aware of it.”
“There was always a sense that Brideshead was somewhere close,” says Simon, a more recent Oxford graduate. “The book almost seems more real.”
I didn’t go to Oxford but all Brideshead readers feel they have. As crisp as a collar for a college ball, as louche as a pair of flannels, it harks nostalgically to a pre-war golden age describing the intense infatuation between the bourgeois Charles Ryder and the hedonistic Lord Sebastian Flyte. Silvery, yet so much deeper than it’s cultural shorthand, all does not end well.
‘I’ve got a motor-car and a basket of strawberries and a bottle of Chateau Peyraguey’
It would be easy to blame booze. Charles first encounters Sebastian when he vomits drunkenly into his rooms through an open window. When they meet properly Sebastian, divine in dove-grey flannel, sweeps Charles up saying: “I’ve got a motor-car and a basket of strawberries and a bottle of Chateau Peyraguey- which isn’t a wine you’ve ever tasted, so don’t pretend. It’s heaven with strawberries.”
“Peyraguey is perhaps too sweet for strawberries,” says Adam. “That’s why I shortlisted the Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Auslese Goldkapsel Joh Jos Prum, Mosel 2012.” It’s £52.25. “Sebastian didn’t care about budgets so we mustn’t either.”
“It actually shimmers,” says Simon. “It smells like it’s going to be too sweet, pear-like, but then it bites.” I’m a huge Riesling fan and adore the characteristic petrol note which deters so many. Unlike, say Tokaji, it’s not unctuous. Pleasingly, and entirely coincidentally, Prum was established by a man called Sebastian Alois!
This bibulous-o-graphy is our biggest so far – almost as extensive as Brideshead’s cellars. Wine-tasting rarely features in books but here are Sebastian and Charles happily confusing Bordeaux and Burgundy:
“We warmed the glass slightly at a candle, filled it a third high, swirled the wine round, nursed it in our hands, held it to the light, breathed it, sipped it, filled our mouths with and rolled it over the tongue, ringing it on the palate like a coin on a counter.
‘It is a little, shy wine like a gazelle.’
‘Like a leprechaun.’
‘Dappled in a tapestry meadow.’
‘Like a flute by still water.’”
And on they go. “It’s almost like they’re making fun of us,” laughs Simon. Almost.
Sebastian’s drinking soon becomes a problem but it’s also a symptom – he is profoundly unhappy and, as his sister notes, ‘ashamed of being unhappy’. He’s beautiful, young, rich and adored. But he also longs for his father, hounded out of England to Venice; loathes his vampiric mother and is unable to be as at ease with his sexuality as Anthony Blanche, the scandalously out and happy star of their set. He feels doomed so sets out to destroy himself first. “Sebastian drinks to escape,” says Charles.
“Things start going wrong in Venice,” says Adam. “Where his father’s mistress warns them about their closeness. Then, as now, Valpolicella had a reputation for being rough but if this had been around then they would have drunk it knowingly. It’s made very nearby.”
He uncorks Quintarelli Valpollicella Classico Superiore, Veneto 2008 (call now to order). A juicy blend of Corvina, Rondinella, Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo, Croatina and Corvinone. “It’s ruby,” says Simon. “It tastes so fresh but somehow also very old.” Deep and light, youthful yet wise, it redefines and rescues Valpollicella.
“My final bottle is Château Branaire-Ducru, Saint-Julien 2010,” says Adam. “Sandwiched between the more famous Pauillac and Margaux, Saint-Julien is overlooked because it lacks a first-growth chateaux. During their epic tasting they would certainly have tried one and even if it wasn’t their favourite they’d recognise it as the best.”
The bulk of this Bordeaux is broad-shouldered Cabernet Sauvignon. “It’s really big,” says Simon. “Macho – like Sebastian’s older brother.” In ten years it might be gentler, more Sebastian – certainly it will age well.
Even with its bite, the Riesling is too sweet for a book with more shade than light. The Bordeaux, although superb, is too autocratic. The Valpolicella is our surprising #NovelPairing – at once young and old, fresh yet charmingly world-weary, summer with a hint of autumn to come: well worth revisiting.
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