The Rothschilds

My bank holiday treat was a two-day cycling trip to try out my new bike. It is a Specialized Tricross, and although largely a road bike, it is by all accounts supposed to be strong enough to handle off-roading. Perhaps what the manufacturers and reviewers define as off-roading is just a bone-dry, unsealed track on an arid plain somewhere in Arizona. They probably do not mean bridle paths in rural Buckinghamshire after several days of heavy rain. It was slow going, and on the second day I persuaded the organiser of the trip to take a route that involved more road, which, since he is a mountain bike fanatic, I don’t think he was terribly pleased with.

We cycled from Aylesbury to Waddesdon, largely by road, and decided to go around Waddesdon Manor. After paying £6.30 just to get into the grounds (there is an additional fee to view inside the manor house), we were rather irritatingly directed to a cycle parking rack that is still quite a long trek to view the manor. It is the most ludicrously twee building I have ever set eyes on, and built by someone with an awful lot more money than taste. This impression of parvenu delusions of grandeur was accentuated by a little tour of the wine cellar. The man on the door decided that cycling helmets and water bottles needed to be left with him, but large rucksacks, and the muddy cycling clothes we were wearing, were absolutely fine. Presumably making up and enforcing some sort of rule was preferable to just saying “hello, the wine cellar’s down on the right”.

We went down into the cellar via some narrow but immaculately kept white stone stairs. This gave way to the kind of “wine cellar” that one frequently finds in California; as if someone with massive insecurities about their place in the world has decided what a wine cellar should look like, and has set about creating an all too perfect version, with exposed brickwork, worn-looking wooden bench and display cases of old wine bottles – except that on closer inspection, the bottles were not actually old, merely ciphers on which to display celebrity signatures from big Rothschild dinners. Diana’s signature took pride of place at the top of every label she had signed – there were quite a few, usually magnums or Jeroboams.

We watched the 15 minute “history of the estate”, which waxed lyrical about Philippe de Rothschild’s awe-inspiringly craven half-century of lobbying to get Mouton-Rothschild upgraded from a deuxième cru to a première cru, according to the sadly far from obsolete snobbery of the 1855 classification. He eventually succeeded in 1973, but in the meantime rather bizarrely decided to buy Lafite, one of the première cru chateaux. I find it hard to believe that a classification system that is 150 years old, and that ranks vineyards in Bordeaux in a very general sense, and according to definitions and eligibility rules that are no longer applicable, defines anything more than the amount people are prepared to pay for a “name”. It merely tells us that in 1855, Chateau D’yquem, the most prominent Sauternes producer on a rather small vineyard in Graves, produced masterful Sauternes. Of course, the première cru label itself becomes self perpetuating in so far as it attracts high prices, and can therefore afford to pay for the best wine producers in the business; but there is no reason why Chateau Suduirault, a Sauternes producer with the immediately adjacent plot, would not be able to produce the same wine if they use the same techniques.

People in the trade, like Robert Parker, always seem to be wittering on about “terroir” (although actually being American I think he has the grace to leave that expression to the French), meaning some sort of ineffable combination of soil, altitude, angle to the sun…I don’t really think it’s that different from one square metre to the adjacent square metre of a different vineyard – except in the price some lunatic is willing to pay for it.

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