Sabrage And A Disorderly Brexit

‘For wine lovers and wine buyers, this is the first in an occasional blog by Michael Sternberg QC, family lawyer and wine traveller’

(C) Copyright Michael Sternberg February 2019

There is more than just an air about the charge of the Light Brigade in the current series of mistakes, miscalculations and catastrophes that have befallen British foreign policy in the lead up to what might be a disorderly and shambolic Brexit. If you remember the poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, you will recall that he wrote:

  Was there a man dismayed?
  Not though the soldier knew
  Someone had blundered.
  Theirs not to make reply,
  Theirs not to reason why

To date we know that more than at least one Prime Minister has blundered and blundered badly. Although obviously a military catastrophe, the Light Brigade did actually succeed (albeit suffering terrible loss) in reaching the Russian artillery and destroying it. The surviving cavalry did it using their sabres.

My word associations with sabres and brexit are of an old and dangerous way of opening champagne. Both are unnecessary. Both are highly perilous. Both require verve and expertise – something which few of our current politicians possess. Yet the art of “Sabrage,” as it is called, goes back to the time of 19th Century cavalry officers. There are some amusing videos on You Tube about how, if you are very rash, you might do this. The most entertaining one is given by a cavalry officer who rejoices under the name of Captain Rupert Campbell-Jones. You can even buy a small, smart, steel sabre for this purpose from Jeffrey Morgenthaler in New York. So, following the dictum of the late Sir Thomas Beecham CH, that one should try everything in life once, except incest and folk dancing, I tried Sabrage. It was a complete disaster. I really do not recommend performing it in any circumstances at all, unless by any chance you happen to be an experienced officer in the Life Guards or the Blues and Royals.

It is thought that Sabrage was begun by officers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Little if any fizzy wine was made then by its component countries such as Hungary. Maybe that was why their cavalry, as some sort of psychological “compensation,” developed the extravagant performance of Sabrage.

One wine which was made there then, and still is, is the wine of Tokaji. This is often made as a white pudding wine, but a dry white variety is also available. It has a long history. Tokaji was the favourite wine of the 18th Century composer Josef Haydn. European Royalty greatly loved it. HIM Franz Joseph would send HM Queen Victoria one bottle of Tokaji for every month she had lived on her birthday. On her 81st birthday this amounted to 972 bottles!

Tokaji wine was the first to become classified in 1730 as “Appellation Controlled”. This was 120 years before claret was rigidly and ruthlessly categorised in the Bordeaux classification of 1855. As the finale to any grand dinner or lunch, I do thoroughly recommend you try some Tokaji. Majestic Wine at the moment have a very good one. This is their Royal Tokaji. It is made by Karoly Ats. He is a top wine maker. It has a medium amber colour. It smells a little of spiced orange peel. Its taste is sweet, but well balanced, with lean acidity and in no sense cloying. It should be drunk slightly chilled with blue cheese or any fruit pudding. It is usefully only 11 per cent proof. It costs just under £30  and comes in a handy 50cl bottle. Also, Berry Bros stock a wide range of Tokaji with prices starting at about £27 duty paid, so if you are interested, I suggest you look on their website. Tokaji is very different to Sauternes or Barsac, but it is none the worse for that. It is celebrated in literature. In the Sherlock Holmes story, The Last Bow (1917) Holmes offers Watson a glass telling him “It is a remarkable wine”. The Great Detective was seldom wrong.

In contrast to sweet wines, Farr Vintners are selling some wonderful dry white New Zealand Wines. These include the 2017 Vintage from Kumeu River. Prices range from £140 to £275 for a dozen in bond. They are enormous value. The wines comprise four top Chardonnays: Estate, Coddington, Hunting Hill and Maté’s Vineyard. I have sadly neither the time nor space to describe each, but all are excellent. The famous wine writer Neal Martin MW recently wrote of them:

“Amongst the very best Chardonnay producers in the world is Kumeu River in New Zealand. Their Chardonnays were put to the test a few years ago when several were assessed blind, intermixed with some very serious Puligny-Montrachets and Meursaults. Kumeu River triumphed to such an extent that it became almost embarrassing… Factor in the prices: frankly they make a mockery of much of White Burgundy and Napa.”

This is an easy and patriotic purchase from an Old Dominion, non-EU country. You will be well rewarded if you buy some, I promise you.

Michael Sternberg QC KCFO of 4 Paper Buildings Temple EC4Y 7EX