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Hugh Johnson March ’10 column: Skip lunch? That’s for wimps

Wine merchants have developed, along with a robust strain of hyperbole, a nicely nuanced vocabulary of mild disparagement for wines they hesitate to describe in superlatives. ‘Elegant’ means ‘on the lean side’. ‘Interesting’ can mean anything you like. ‘Lunch wine’ (or more pretentiously, ‘luncheon claret’) means a decent wine, even a classic one, but with a hint of dilution that would cost it, in the brutal world of scoring, a vital few points. Or does it even mean that much these days, now that lunch has joined smoking, drinking, Irish jokes and querying climate change as beyond the pale?

The late Keith Waterhouse was the last man to stick up for lunch. His The Theory and Practice of Lunch (oh dear, 10 years old already) is the only textbook we seem to have on the lost art. It is time for a revival.

Don’t get the idea that I’m not up for dinner (up, that is, from a gentle nap, brightened by a cup of Darjeeling and a crumpet). But lunch, the most creative moment of the day – we can’t afford to lose you.

Businesses neglect lunch at their peril. Firms seduced by the idea that number of hours at the desk matters more than quality of life lived may plod along. But will they fly? Physiologists have told us what we know by instinct and experience: that tastebuds are on full alert at the end of the morning.

Energy is flowing to the brain. Waitresses are still untired; chefs are straining at the leash. It is the unjaded hour, the hour to persuade, to make friends, to make connections, to see the world in a fresh light.

It is the moment when food and wine doesn’t need to be emphatic; it is when we see their subtler shades. Good dishes for lunch are on the light side: it is their perfume that stirs you from beyond the kitchen door. Luncheon wines are the delicate, nuanced ones, not weighed down with alcohol – the ones, quite frankly, that I look for at dinner, too, yet find less and less often.

Where do I look? Among vintages of qualified reputation, the second wines of good producers in powerful vintages, wines that are good companions. Loud-voiced attention-grabbers have their moments, but not, I would argue, at lunch.

Your luncheon claret leaves you room for your own hyperbole – and money for a second bottle. And the more you trust your own tastebuds, the wider the field. A conventional taste is the most expensive kind. Fall for a jolie laide (that is, a thing of beauty, if not conventionally attractive – an expression sometimes misunderstood this side of The Channel) and you have the field to yourself.

Practical examples abound. Your aperitif? Mosel Riesling or manzanilla. Your shellfish wine? Muscadet, Rully or Verdicchio. For the lamb? Fronsac or Castillon. Beef? Chianti or Cairanne. To continue the afternoon? Port for you? I’ll have a Tokaji.

Written by Hugh Johnson

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