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Through A Glass Lightly
December/January 2016/17

The London Library, in alliance with the Pushkin Press, has just published a second batch of six titles in its “Found on the Shelves” series of interesting but forgotten books drawn from its collections. One of these is a little book on wine by Thomas Tylston Greg, Through a Glass Lightly: Confession of a Reluctant Water Drinker, first published in 1897 and made up of 11 short essays originally published in the Pall Mall Gazette and the National Observer.

Greg had been born into an exceptionally wealthy Manchester cotton and industrial dynasty. The foundations had been laid by Samuel Greg, a Scottish Presbyterian from Belfast who at the age of eight had been sent to live with his childless uncle Robert Hyde, a Manchester linen merchant, to learn the textile trade. On Hyde’s death Greg inherited the firm and developed it aggressively, buying up mills and establishing what by the 1830s was the largest coarse spinning and weaving business in the country. This was the source of the wealth which allowed his descendant, Thomas Tylston Greg, to shun the ways of trade and instead to explore the world of wine.

It is fascinating to compare the way Greg writes on wine with the way we write about it today. Modern wine-writing is preoccupied with how wine is made. The peculiarities of terroirs and their intersection (happy or otherwise) with particular varietals; the tending of the vineyard and the dressing of the vines; green harvests; the rituals and ceremonies of bio-dynamic viticulture; the sorting and selection of the fruit; how the juice is obtained; the length and temperature of fermentation, and whether it takes place in stainless steel or concrete; racking, fining, and bottling — these are the topics that modern wine writers delight to dwell upon.

Greg mentions none of these subjects. He shows not the slightest interest in how wine is made. In his essay on claret, for instance, he mentions a few châteaux — Pichon Longueville, Beychevelle, Léoville (which he speaks of as a single property, even though it was divided into three after the French Revolution) — but entirely ignores the wines of Graves or St Émilion or Pomerol. He appears to have no knowledge of the various different grape types which are usually blended to produce claret, and he shows no sign of being aware that those blends can vary dramatically both between and within individual communes. He must have been aware that the left-bank wines of Bordeaux were grouped into communes, because often they were simply sold by that name — Victorian wine lists tend to offer “St Julien” or “Pauillac” or “Médoc” much more often than they do individual châteaux. But he cannot have considered this to be important enough to comment on.

Nor does Greg well understand why it is that the wines of the Médoc can be so extraordinary. Listen to him as, in his flowery way, he puzzles over the contrast between the immiserated appearance of the vineyards and châteaux of Bordeaux and the glorious wine they produce:

But to the name itself [claret] there clings a romance no politician nor any touting advertiser can wholly degrade or dispel. His father-grape is himself a true patrician, abiding in fair Châteaux, with ancient honey-sounding names and yet so poor withal that, if truth were told, the most of these holds are unfurnished and dismantled, and many are not in France at all, but (alas!) in Spain. The soil of his garden is of such magnificent sterility that any of less lineage would starve.

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