Raffles Hotel, Singapore

If you, dear reader, are contemplating putting together your “bucket list”, that is things to do before it’s too late to do them, you could do worse than to take afternoon tea in some of the Grand Old Colonial Hotels that you will find around the world. These grand institutions will give you the opportunity to take in the history, tradition and style of a bygone era. It’s for that reason that these hotels remain a must for the tourist, for the afternoon tea enthusiast and for the traditionalist.

Some of the best of these hotels, like The Peninsula Hotel, Hong Kong; Raffles Hotel, Singapore; The Galle Face Hotel, Galle, Sri Lanka; and Reid’s Hotel, Madeira, all have a common theme: they have attracted distinguished guests over the years and benefited from a visit at some time by Ernest Hemingway. Or so the tale goes. Certainly he went to some; as for the others, well when did the truth ever get in the way of a good story.

Hemingway’s amazing life and career is more often than not subject to legend rather than fact and trying to sort the wheat from the chaff is not easy. An ambulance driver in World War 1, war correspondent in the Spanish Civil War and World War 2, Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954, Ernest Hemingway was unique. Widely travelled, heroic; a bon viveur par excellence where alcohol in its many forms and fine dining were foundations for his existence. He spent much time in the cigar kingdom of Cuba where the noted cigar maker Partagas still produces a top of the range cigar under the name of Hemingway.

Hemingway’s clean, almost dry writing style is a tribute to his lifestyle; his love for good food and fine wines were often cited in his work. He honed his writing style to a sparse form, never writing two indifferent words if a single significant one would do. The New York Times wrote in 1926 of Hemingway’s first novel, “No amount of analysis can convey the quality of The Sun Also Rises. It is a truly gripping story, told in a lean, hard, athletic narrative prose that puts more literary English to shame”.

Hemingway with one of his many cats and, of course, wine.

Hemingway had much to say on the subject of wine. “My only regret in life is that I did not drink more wine” … “A person with increasing knowledge and sensory education may derive infinite enjoyment from wine”… “Wine is one of the most civilized things in the world and one of the most natural things of the world that has been brought to the greatest perfection, and it offers a greater range for enjoyment and appreciation than, possibly, any other purely sensory thing that may be purchased and I would rather have a palate that will give me the pleasure of enjoying completely a Chateau Margaux or a Chateau Haut Brion”.

“Wine is a grand thing; It makes you forget all the bad.” (A Farewell to Arms).

“This wine is too good for toast-making, my dear. You don’t want to mix emotions up with a wine like that. You lose the taste.” (The Sun Also Rises).

“In Europe we thought of wine as something as healthy and normal as food and also a great giver of happiness and well being and delight. Drinking wine was not a snobbism nor a sign of sophistication nor a cult; it was as natural as eating and to me as necessary” (A Moveable Feast).

“I drank a bottle of wine for company. It was Chateau Margaux. It was pleasant to be drinking slowly and to be tasting the wine and to be drinking alone. A bottle of wine was good company” (The Sun Also Rises).

Hemingway enjoyed the ultra fine wines of Bordeaux without becoming bogged down in tastings and ritual. He acquired a good relationship with Chateau Margaux that reached down to his family. Margaux Hemingway, Hemingway’s grand-daughter, was so named after the bottle of Chateau Margaux which her parents were drinking the night she was conceived.

Chateau Margaux estate in Bordeaux.

Bordeaux, the world’s most important wine region, is situated in South West France; it has 22,000 winemakers. Of these, 7,000 are ‘Chateau’ or individual wine growing estates, officially recognised as such for their particular qualities. Of these 7,000 no more than 1% will contribute to the regions great reputation and only a handful have the names which many wealthy wine buyers are prepared to die for, being the famous names of Chateau Lafite, Chateau Latour, Chateau Margaux, Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, Chateau Haut-Brion, Chateau d’Yquem. In the hierarchy of things Bordeaux, the above six key estates, five red wine, one white and sweet, are the ones that feature as the top dogs in the classification of the wines of the Medoc, being graded as Premier Cru – First Growth.

Which of these occupies the place as The Best Of The Best depends on who you talk to but certainly Chateau Margaux is right in there. The Bordeaux Bible, “The Bordeaux Atlas and Encyclopaedia of Chateau”, rather floridly describes Chateau Margaux thus:

“The essence of this wine can be summoned up as being elegant strength. In its aroma and taste, finesse and concentration are brilliantly combined. It presents an intense, multi dimensional fruitiness coupled with the best possible oak aromas, a long reverberating finish with mature tannins. This is one of the greatest and most refined of the world’s red wines. The chateau itself has the air of a palace, a long and splendid drive leads up to broad steps and a four column portico. A new cellarage has been built, of astonishing aspect, designed by architects Norman Foster”.

The vineyard area is a modest 90 hectares; some 33,000 annual 12 bottle cases of wine being produced. The wine is a blend of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, the remainder being Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Of all the Premiers Crus, Margaux needs TIME to reach its peak of perfection. It took the great vintage of 1982 twenty years to get there and it is still hanging in there at aged nearly 40. Not that I will ever get my hands on a bottle unless some distant and aged aunt dies and leaves me a fortune, for that bottle will cost a fortune.

It is understood that Ernest Hemingway dined at Chateau Margaux; the range of wines at the feast included a fine 1920’s Ch. Margaux of impeccable vintage. The seated guests oohed and aahed appropriately; guest Hemingway sniffed, sipped and swallowed, commenting in true Hemingway style as the wine being “not bad at all”. Now that’s a wine tasting opinion I understand and value.