Meeting to taste wine, we started by talking about dogs. Roy Hattersley is good on the subject, which ought to be impossible. For he is opposed to shooting, and the partnership between gun and gun-dog, the dog’s tail-wagging joy as it luxuriates in its master’s approval, is one of the highest expressions of man’s commonwealth with the animal kingdom. Well, tot sententiae. But Roy understands one point. Human life is enfiladed by tragedy and the brief span of animal life is one aspect of that. In our relationship with animals, love and loss are intertwined.
There was a splendid labrador called Hector, bred in Lincolnshire by Sir Brian Wyldbore-Smith. A general, he was an equally formidable Tory fund-raiser a generation ago, partly because he exploited an asset. In those days, be it war service or national service, most senior businessmen had served in the colours. So General Brian often had phone calls with very important industrialists along the following lines: ‘What d’you mean sending me such a measly cheque? You were the idlest, scruffiest subaltern I ever came across and clearly you haven’t changed…’ Even though his interlocutor might well be a knight of the realm, it was as if the relationship had been frozen when the CO was handing out a roasting and a dollop of extra orderly officer. A supplementary cheque would rapidly arrive.
But the dog Hector had not been crushed by discipline. Always impeccable at a shoot, he was equally unreliable within a hundred yards of a pantry, or a couple of miles from a bitch on heat. He fathered several much-prized legitimate litters, plus an unknown number of interesting cross-breeds .
We started by toasting his memory in Champagne. I had never come across Diebolt-Vallois, a small house. Its Blanc de Blancs Prestige was excellent. As the owners spend little on marketing, it is also excellent value. Still commemorating the distinguished canine, we moved on to New Zealand. The Palliser vineyards in Martinborough produce serious Pinot Noir. They always name their Reserve after a distinguished figure with a connection to the winery. So the 2013 was christened The Great Hector. Hew Blair of Justerini and Brooks, who helped alert the world to Palliser’s merits, was Hector’s owner.
The wine is a worthy memorial to the mutt. Given its freshness, finesse, delicacy and structure, I would have assumed that it was Premier Cru Burgundy; Hew suggested a resemblance to Chambolle-Musigny. I suspect that if anyone from Palliser had been with us, they would have been mildly irritated. Justifiably confident in their own wines, they see no reason to wear another regiment’s cap badge. They look forward to the day when someone will say: ‘This Chambolle-Musigny: reminds me of Palliser.’
Despite its youth, the wine was ready to drink, but will keep. The same is true of Justerini’s Barolos. Nebbiolo is a long-lived grape, especially when worthy to be bottled as Barolo. But some producers have adjusted their techniques to create a wine which matures earlier. We were to try some. I was sceptical. Was there not a danger that commercial pressure would compromise the product’s integrity? Not so, judging by the bottles we sampled. 2011s, they were all good. To drink now, they would need several hours in the decanter, but they were accessible. I thought that two stood out. Bricco Fiasco is a small producer, and the wine had a certain rusticity, but was full of power and promise. For me, the gold medal went to a Cannubi, which had a controlled intensity with a hint of bitter cherries. At a late stage in the proceedings, I could easily have mistaken it for a Pomerol. Anyone who wants to know more about Barolo, perhaps intending to visit Piemonte, could learn a lot about its foothills in the upper reaches of St James’s Street.
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