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Auden’s three-pint Martini, smuggled Brane-Cantenac and other stories

A three-pint jug, a bottle of gin, a whole sliced lemon, a tray of ice and one capful of vermouth. That was WH Auden’s personal martini when he came to stay in the 1960s, Simon Hoggart recalls.

The great poet had no truck with 60s-style drinking, when two glasses of wine was considered ample for a dinner.

‘Having polished off his own [glass], he topped himself up from the bottle. When that was empty – there was no sign of fresh supplies because there probably wasn’t any more in the house – he reached out for my father’s glass and drank that. The meal having come to an end, he took my mother’s glass and marched upstairs to bed.’

In ‘Wine ain’t what it used to be’ in the March issue of Decanter magazine, veteran journalist and wine lover Hoggart rues the ‘thin hock’ and ‘dispiriting’ Mouton Cadet that was available 40 years ago.

He relates how he went for 10-shilling bottles of Antinori, even as a student on a limited budget.

As a trainee reporter covering Northern Ireland for the Guardian in the late 1960s, Hoggart found that £5 bottles of Chateau Latour on the wine list at the oft-bombed Europa hotel were well worth the splurge, as they had a ‘magical effect’ on his sources.

‘People were more helpful, more frank, eager to tell me what was going on,’ he says.

‘Soon it seemed, every politician, army officer, civil servant who might expect to be dined by anyone at the Europa would hint heavily that they would like some more of that lovely Chateau Latour.’

Hoggart has been the Guardian’s parliamentary sketch writer since 1993, hosted BBC Radio 4 News Quiz until 2006, and took over from MP Nicholas Soames (who hated ‘having to drink wine worth less than £15 a bottle’) as the Spectator’s wine writer.

In the article he reminisces about nipping out of the House of Commons to buy Chateau Pavie for £2 at the Army & Navy Stores in the 1970s.

His then-girlfriend, a British Airways stewardess, smuggled home Chateau Brane-Cantenac and the like – left over from Concorde flights – in empty Paul Masson bottles.

He applauds the state of the wine industry today, with its vast choice of quality wine, readily available, at competitive prices.

‘I personally think you would be crazy to buy first growths now when you can go down the list and get 90% of the quality for 10% of the cost.’

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