I have been spending a lot of time on trains, and I have been using that time to catch up on the long list of Things I Should Have Read By Now (I’ve added a few more titles to that list courtesy of Film Crit Hulk). Chief among these was Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, a book I somehow never got around to reading before now.
I love The Three Musketeers, especially the films (I even have a soft spot for the ’93 Disney one with Oliver Platt as a surprisingly credible swordsman and Tim Curry as the best Richlieu), and I am a little sore that there was never an Errol Flynn/Basil Rathbone/Tyrone Power/Danny Kaye golden age Hollywood movie. So I finally devoured Dumas’ novel, and learned a few things. First off, the book is way less swashbucklery than I expected. Second, because the titular musketeers (and d’Artagnan) are gentlemen of the 1600s they’re kind of a bunch of terrible bastards.
Third, and most importantly, there is a ridiculous amount of wine in this book. I mean, completely soaked through. It’s kind of amazing.
Early in his adventure, before he ever even makes it to Paris, d’Artagnan is wounded in a duel. He mixes a salve composed of oil, rosemary, and wine which greatly accelerates his recovery. He would later use this same salve to treat a wounded Athos after their first meeting. The idea of wine having medicinal properties has been around for thousands of years, certainly for as long as there has been the written word, and nearly as long as there has been wine. There is a long history of wine being prescribed to cure a variety of ailments, but bear in mind that there is also a long history of bloodletting via leeches being prescribed to cure a wide variety of ailments so, you know, grain of salt.
The debate over the health benefits of wine has been raging forever (the Summerians used to argue about it) with no sign of slowing down, but Dumas at least seems convinced by it and D’Artagnan’s Potion of Cure Moderate Wounds will continue to make appearances throughout the novel.
The plot really kicks off after d’Artagnan has arrived in Paris, met the titular Musketeers Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, and established himself in Monsieur des Essart’s company of guards (think of it as the Teen Titans to the Musketeers’ super-boozy Justice League). By now d’Artagnan has hired a lackey, the long-suffering Planchet, acquired lodging, and even had the honor of receiving a gift of 40 pistoles from the king himself. He finds himself living in an apartment owned by Monsieur Bonacieux, a comically inept coward. The craven little buffoon is contentedly married to the young and pretty Constance Bonacieux, d’Artagnan’s primary love interest (though not his only one, as that rascal will spend much of the narrative breaking hearts as well as horses) who is in the employ of Anne of Austria, the queen of France.
Poor Madame Bonacieux has been kidnapped, and her distressed husband has come seeking our hero’s aid in rescuing her. But d’Artagnan, being an honorable gentleman (and we’ll come to know that term to mean “contemptible scoundrel”) first negotiates free room and board, as well as unmitigated access to M. Bonacieux’s wine cellar, before agreeing to offer his services.
Hey, turns out Luke Cage is a fan of 19th century French adventure serials. Who knew.
D’Artagnan immediately and heroically calls together his three friends and has his erstwhile landlord provide six bottles of his best Beaugency wine. Beaugency, a commune in central France, northeast of d’Artagnan’s home in Gascony, has never been known for its wine. But in the 1600s, when The Three Musketeers is set, wines from the north of France were held in the highest regard.
Modern winemaking is an altogether different affair from what it was four or even two hundred years ago, and one of the most important aspects of northern French wine was the acidity that results from growing grapes in cooler climates. That refreshing acidity would bring balance to otherwise fat, dull, even slightly sherried wines. It is also instrumental in establishing the quality of Athos’ favorite wines, Champagne and Chambertin.
Nothing Makes the Future Look so Bright as Surveying It Through a Glass of Chambertin.
Let’s take a moment here to talk about the Musketeers themselves, and their imbibing habits. Boastful Porthos, a giant of a man said to be the strongest of the Musketeers, is a great preening peacock, constantly twirling his moustache like so much Dick Dastardly.
Porthos drinks to excess, he does everything to excess, but he has impeccable taste. He even has his old clothes tailored to fit his valet, Mosqueton, so that he has the best dressed lackey in the land. Of course, he also renames Mosqueton when that man enters Porthos’ service but remember, these guys are total dicks.
This vanity pays off in the comical scene of Porthos wooing his aging mistress, Madame Coquenard, in order to charm her into buying his military uniform for him. Posing as her beloved cousin, Porthos must endure a dinner of her terrible and sparse cooking as well as her cuckolded husband’s stringent hosting.
The hardest blow to Porthos’s palate comes from the wine, served from a meager earthenware jug. “He also drank half a glass of this sparingly served wine, and found it to be nothing but that horrible Montreuil—the terror of all expert palates.”
It is difficult to tell which Montreuil Porthos holds in such contempt, as there are at least a dozen communes scattered throughout France that bare that name. It is possible he means the Montreuil in Seine-Saint-Denis, now a suburb of Paris and certainly near enough for Monsieur Coquenard to realistically be serving the cheap, simple farm wines that would have been made there.
I suspect, though, that Porthos is referring to the wines of Montreuil-Bellay, a small region in the Loire, just south of the (slightly) better known Saumur. Today, wines from Montreuil-Bellay are primarily made from Cabernet Franc, parent grape of the robust Cabernet Sauvignon. It shares that grape’s distinctive black fruit notes, but is not nearly as heavy and tends to have a more rustic and peppery style. While very pleasant now thanks to better winemaking techniques, in the Musketeer’s time this wine would have been harsh and leathery, likely reminiscent of stewed fruits (a common problem for Cabernet Franc even today) and with none of the slight sweetness and aforementioned acidity that would have been considered the hallmark of quality wine in those days. It’s easy to understand why Porthos might regard this Montreuil with such disdain, and why the procurator M. Coquenard and his clerks would dilute it generously with water.
In sharp contrast to the boisterous Porthos stands Aramis, who is small and youthful and presents a calm, quiet demeanor. Aramis is perhaps the most level-headed of the musketeers, his clerical aspirations often allowing him to act as the sole voice of reason among his hot-blooded comrades. Aramis, though, for all of his perceived serenity, is in his way as much a wastrel as Porthos.
Aramis’ love of wine is the simplest of the Musketeers’. D’Artagnan harbors a fondness for common country wines reminiscent of those of his Gascon home, while Porthos expresses his expertise by showing displeasure. Athos, as we’ll see, trusts he knows what’s best. But Aramis doesn’t seem to possess the most discerning palate, or if he does then he’s too humble to make use of it. What he does, though, is order the best wine every time.
He does it just like that, too. “We’ll have a bottle of your best wine.” “Bring us six bottles of your best.” Demanding the finest wines available to humanity is a long standing tradition among gentlemen, after all.
At one point d’Artagnan, with his companions scattered, finds Aramis once again on the path to the church (it happens a lot, pretty much every time Aramis is depressed, or bored, or lovesick, or when it’s been too long since he’s stabbed someone, or when he’s just stabbed someone, or when he’s been drinking, or when he hasn’t). It is promise of a woman’s love and a bottle of wine that puts adventure back in Aramis’ heart.
During this same journey, d’Artagnan finds that Athos has barricaded himself in an innkeeper’s cellar and is proceeding to eat and drink the poor man’s business into ruin. As one does.
Dour and grim Athos is in many ways the cornerstone of The Three Musketeers, in a way that neither Aramis nor Porthos can be. Athos acts as d’Artagnan’s mentor and father figure (which gives their respective relationships with Milady de Winter a really…icky connotation), and he drives the narrative both actively and thematically.
He is also a world-class wino.
After finally being coaxed out of that cellar, and having consumed nearly everything stored therein, he immediately demands wine be taken up to his rooms where he proceeds to literally drink a stone-sober d’Artagnan under the table.
Athos has a particular fondness for the wines of Champagne, which who can blame him, and Chambertin. Despite centuries of fame and respect, garnered since the 10th century when it began to be used to toast the crowning of kings, Champagne was really coming into its own during the years in which the novel is set. It started nearly a decade before, but by 1668 Dom Pérignon had revolutionized the region and began to make the kind of wine we associate with Champagne today.
Chambertin, on the other hand, hails from Burgundy. It is, in fact, one of Burgundy’s Grand Cru vineyards, a plot of land that produce wines of such incomparable quality that the village that houses it changed its name to match. Gevrey-Chambertin is home to this vineyard, and while the Pinot Noir from that village can be great, with tremendous power and grace, it doesn’t hold a candle to that produced in those meager 33 acres.
The Anjou Wine.
Our heroes’ love of the grape is well known and well documented, and there comes a point, late in the novel, when this predilection nearly leads to tragedy.
Having made a dangerous enemy, and being separated from his companions in the course of war between France and England, d’Artagnan receives a case of wine along with a note.
MM. Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, after having had an entertainment at my house and enjoying themselves very much, created such a disturbance that the provost of the castle, a rigid man, has ordered them to be confined for some days; but I accomplish the order they have given me by forwarding to you a dozen bottles of my Anjou wine, with which they are pleased. They are desirous that you should drink to their health in their favorite wine. I have done this, and am, monsieur, with great respect,
Your very humble and obedient servant,
Godeau, Purveyor of the Musketeers”
D’Artagnan aims to share this wine with friends in M. des Essart’s company, and prepares a dinner. But just as he is ready to dine, his friends the Musketeers arrive. D’Artagnan invites them to join, but Aramis shows confusion, while Athos is dismissive of the wines of Anjou while Porthos questions why they, connoisseurs of wine (his words, the pretentious oaf) would send as a gift something so common.
Anjou, in the northern part of the Loire, produced then (and now, for that matter) wines that are honest and pleasant, but with little more to them than that. In the 1600s in particular, the wines of that region were thought of as lesser Champagnes, as Athos will later note.
It is good that the Musketeers hesitate, as the Anjou wine proves part of an elaborate deathtrap the likes of which would make the Riddler proud. But though our heroes make their narrow escape, the Anjou wine gets its revenge of a sort. When d’Artagnan and the Musketeers wager that they can breakfast in a besieged tower, in the best scene in the novel and in any of the adaptations, Athos requests two bottles of Champagne which the miserly innkeeper replaces with Anjou wine.
Dumas was one of our great winos, and he peppered his prose with references to the grape. One of my favorites is “Athos, emptying a glass of excellent Bordeaux wine which, without having at that period the reputation it now enjoys, merited it no less,” which is weirdly prescient considering the novel was written 150 years ago.
The Three Musketeers is well worth reading, if only for how hugely influential it is (we don’t get Marvel’s Warriors Three without Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, for example). I recommend doing so on a quiet evening, with a good bottle of wine close at hand. Barring that, a train will do. But don’t forget the wine.