A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles is not inherently a wine book, but wine features heavily from little details like which wines are being drunk with which dishes, to more pivotal scenes and even the overall storyline.
The book commences in 1922 when Count Alexander Rostov is being tried by the Bolsheviks for writing a revolutionary poem, and he is therefore sentenced to house arrest at the Hotel Metropol in Moscow, where he is to live out his life. Should he leave he is likely to be shot dead.
The Count is truly a gentleman in all sense of the word. He is very well-mannered, well-read, and has great respect for history and culture. It follows that he is an avid wine connoisseur. We are shown this straight away at the start of the book when – having been stripped of most of his belongings-– the Count unpacks his suitcase in his new, tiny attic accommodations to reveal a large collection of wine glasses! “...he kneeled before the Ambassador, threw the clasps, and opened it like a giant book. Carefully secured inside were fifty-two glasses–or more precisely, twenty-six pairs of glasses–each shaped to its purpose, from the grand embrace of the Burgundy glass down to those charming vessels designed for brightly coloured liqueurs of southern Europe.” (pg 17)
Besides using correct glassware, he is vigilant about wine’s service temperature too. He mentions how his Burgundy Chardonnay should be served at 55F and the bucket of ice water for his Dom Perignon should not exceed 50F.
A glass of Champagne or Chateau d’Yquem are regularly consumed at the Boyarsky (The Metropol’s grand restaurant). Though he winces at careless wine suggestions, “…the Count closed his menu and placed it beside his plate–the international symbol of readiness to order–the chap needed to be beckoned with a wave of the hand; and when the count ordered the okroshka (Russian soup) and filet of sole, the chap asked if he might like a glass of Sauterne. A perfect suggestion, no doubt, if only the Count had ordered foie gras! “Perhaps a bottle of the Chateau de Baudelaire,” the Count corrected politely.” Though he adores a glass of Yquem during a game of Zut Alors with his daughter as they wait for the meal to be served.
His Champagne habit seems to be more of a defence mechanism than an indulgence, he explains: “For centuries Champagne has been used to launch marriages and ships. Most assume this is because the drink is so intrinsically celebratory, but in fact, it is used at the onset of these dangerous enterprises because it so capably boosts one’s resolve.”
One of the most amusing and heartening scenes in the book is where he observes a young couple on a first date, and as the waiter suggests a poor wine pairing for the Latvian Stew, the Count interjects to suggest a Mukuzani instead of the Rioja. At a third of the price and much more appropriate for their exotic stew of roast pork and apricots he feels he has saved their dinner, and perhaps their budding romance.
Wine and food pairing is one of the Count’s greatest pleasures and he enjoys selecting not only the right wine, but the right vintage to compliment his dishes.
One occasion where he and his two closest friends at the hotel – Andrey, the Maitre d’ and Emile, the Chef- conspire to assemble a perfect dinner for themselves. They take great care to source only the finest, freshest, and most authentic ingredients for Emile to cook up a spectacular Bouillabaise, the Count is proud of his choice pairing of a Provence rosé. “One first tastes the broth– that simmered distillation of fish bones, fennel, and tomatoes, with their hearty suggestions of Provence. One then savors the tender flakes of haddock and the briney resilience of the mussels, which have been purchased on the docks from the fishermen….In other words, with the very first spoonful one finds oneself transported to the port of Marseille–where the streets teem with sailors, thieves, and madonnas, with sunlight and summer, with languages and life.”
We can see that for the Count, wine and food are truly transportive, multi-sensorial experience. It lets his mind live beyond the walls of the hotel where he is sentenced for life. In an effort to further their communist agenda, and to remove the snobbery that had been associated with wine- its various quality levels and exclusive prices- the Bolsheviks order for all of the wine labels to be removed and all wine to be served at the same price with only the choice of white or red available at the restaurant. The count is bewildered by this mandate, which he only realizes when he tries to order a San Lorenzo Barolo with his Osso Bucco and his waiter, the Bishop, insists on him choosing simply a white or a red with his dinner. In utter confusion he visits the wine cellar with Andrey to find that all of the wines have indeed been stripped to look identical, which he says can never be: “Whichever wine was within, it was decidedly not identical to its neighbors. On the contrary, the contents of a bottle in his hand was the product of a history as unique and complex as that of a nation, or a man. In its color, aroma, and taste, it would certainly express the idiosyncratic geology and prevailing climate of its home terrain…In a sip, it would evoke the timing of that winter’s thaw, the extent of that summer’s rain, and the prevailing winds, and the frequency of clouds.”
As the Count walks among the shelves his fingers land on a bottle with an emblem of crossed keys on it which he immediately recognizes as Châteauneuf-du-Pape and takes it with him to drink on a future special occasion.
Now despite this book being brilliant on many levels – there are several fascinating themes here about friendship, parenting, life purpose, defiance, and more – the subject of wine has been handled very well by the author. It reads vividly like prose from a true wine lover and and even a wine expert. However in doing further research for the Chiswick Book Festival I found that the timeline was slightly inaccurate to the real history of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The Count finds and takes the bottle – recognizing the iconic emblem on the glass- in 1924, and later drinks it in 1926. He muses that it must be an excellent vintage, either 1900 or 1921. (Which also does not seem right for him to guess such a wide range vintages, someone of his experience and expertise would be able to taste if he is drinking a 5 year old wine, or a 26 year old wine – by the colour, aromas, and integration on the palate.) However, the real discrepancy is that although Châteauneuf-du-Papewas starting to create its own legislations to protect their reputation from 1923, it wasn’t until 1936 when they became an official AOC, and in 1937 when they started using the iconic glass bottle with the logo symbolizing a papal tiara placed above the keys of St. Peter with the inscription "Châteauneuf-du-Pape contrôlé" written in Gothic letters around this emblem. Therefore the recognition of the glass bottle in the Metropol cellars in 1924 does not truly match the decade in which Châteauneuf-du-Pape would have been bottled as such.
Though it is a minor error, and perhaps there were already producers starting to use this kind of bottle before it became an official requirement of the region. One of my (many) favourite scenes in the book is when he meets the Georgian officer, Osip, the Count correctly identifies him as a Georgian, not by his accent but by his choice in drinking a Georgian Rkatseli with dinner, telling him “There are many reasons for ordering a particular bottle of wine. And memories of home are among the best.”
Would you like to book a private wine dinner exploring this theme and tasting the wines together? I would be delighted to present a curated selection of wines inspired by Gentleman in Moscow. Contact me for details.