Saturday, 18 March 2017

Wining over Whining (Wine, Wine, Wine!)

In which I am perpetually 70% tipsy

One spectacular February night

There are days when I feel like the shit, in the big leagues and generally smug (more so than even usual). This boost of unwarranted confidence is normally accompanied by equally insufferable company, a good dose of charm and, invariably, a sleekly enticing bottle, its tinted glass promising layers of yummy secrets. You see, I have been in search of a new past-time of late and boy, I did not have to wait long. A series of plum coincidences fell into my lap almost immediately, all to do with one rather heady topic – wine.

I can already hear the collective groan from friends who have endured years of opera diatribes. Of course she has choose yet another completely masturbatory hobby. It is perhaps a deserved reputation, but allow me to present my case!

I have drunk wine flagrantly for many years. More precisely, I have quaffed torrid wine very quickly for more evenings than I can recall. Somewhere along the way, it stopped being a horrible drink designed to facilitate long evenings of shrieking in Camden town and became rather enjoyable in its own right. I began to drink it civilly at mealtimes, always with dinner and sometimes in the cheeky lunch in-between lectures (it is inadvisable to attend corporate insolvency completely sober). I started to choose my cheap bottles with care, fancying I could detect some imperceptible difference between the bottles lurking the second lowest shelf at Sainsbury’s (unlikely, for they were all complete plonk). 

Then came a series of new acquaintances who are absolutely wine mad. They are adult, clever, slick and totally have their shit together. Chief amongst them is a millionaire psycho with a cellar stuffed full of first growth clarets (I have often been exceedingly lucky with interesting friends and I fear I am not nearly titillating enough in return). I drank some exceptional bottles in this able company, including the full range of Ch. Margaux from 1980-89 and a dizzyingly scrummy vertical of ’85 left bank Premier Crus (the Latour won out). I gorged my way through the entire history of Maison Guigal, I got wankered exclusively on Krug, I spent an entire twelve hour period drinking nothing but  forty year old Barolo. Wine seemed cool. Wine seemed sexy. I wanted to be able to properly vocalise just why the ’86 Margaux was so majestic upon my palate (my initial note being the rather cheerful – hey, this tastes exactly like a Montecristo Edmundo cigar! Cue instant face-palming from two somms).

At first, I desired nothing more than to know my Pinot Noir from my Grenache so I wouldn’t appear such a prize plonker when surrounded by the symphonic ecstasy of sniffs and slurps that characterised so many gatherings. I reasoned that to both learn properly about wine and still gallivant to the opera on a weekly basis was too indulgent. Besides, I quite liked being able to stomach mediocre grapes without pulling a face. It was an unfortunate acquired taste of sorts, but also a wondrously cheap pastime.

But therein lay my fatal flaw – once you start learning about wine at all, you uncover the romance. And I am, unabashedly, a complete fool for romance. It was at one such informal dinner where I found myself chatting to a rather gorgeous gentleman. We talked, of course, about the drink, and I gave my usual spiel (Oh I’d terribly like to learn more about wine but it’s all rather overwhelming for a novice, blah blah).

He fixed me with such a terrible stare. “Learn?! Bah! You love, not learn. Here-“ and he pushed a glass of white bourgogne to my face “-take a good whiff of this.”

I obliged and as usual, could sense nothing but alcohol. But before I could fabricate some vague notes, he spoke again.

That’s the smell of my childhood.”

“You were bottle fed white burgundy? Quite an education.”

“You’re not far off. I was brought up on a vineyard in Gevrey.

Curiously, after all this time, and even after learning my grapes, I had never really thought about vines or vineyards or producers themselves.

Sounds an idyllic childhood.”

“It was. And that’s why Burgundy means the most to me. I don’t care whether its fashionable or not. I love that I can taste the geography, the history, the soil in the bottle. It is something that speaks to my very soul.


I did not know why, but I was touched. He hadn’t attempted to regale me with superior tasting notes, or why the nose was tapered with dollops of caramel. He gave me the story – and that’s sucked me in. We didn’t speak much beyond that (it was a large group and such was my enthralment that had we spoken at greater length, I would probably have asked him to marry me) but his words struck me deeply.

Wine can transport you to a time before your own. It is this kind of gloriously retrospective romance that I turn a total fool for. As vocalised by another wine fiend about my recent unexpected possession of a '61 Dom Perignon; "Think about what's happened to those grapes since!" You don't have to be able to pick out the precise minerality of the liquid (although it helps) to sense the garlanded history it encompasses.

I realised I had already unintentionally created little wine milestones of my own. There was a bottle of ’95 Lafite I was given at graduation, which I duly got jolly over with the giver without much knowledge of its prestige (a story that I now tell to bring a grimace to any wine lover’s face. This is what happens when you give fine wine to the uninitiated – they will just open it). There was also my first champagne (Pol and, unusually for a beginner, a vintage 2002 blanc de blancs). I had it again recently and the fresh wave of unripe green apple conjured images of giggly teenage afternoons.

I enjoy wine, I realised. I like drinking it and I like the ritual that comes with it – cradling the Zalto, pulling it towards one so as not to disturb the surface, holding the bulb against the candle to see the pale orange rim of aged Pauillac, the initial inhale followed by the sudden flare of aroma that can issue with two brisk swirls, the gentle progression of ruby from glass to lips, where it rolls back and forth and side to side over the palate, puckering the inside cheek with austerity or a little tannic tingle. I like that it is an eminently social pastime, not nearly as taciturn as opera, and it is much more visceral.

That is not to say that wine is not pompous - the wine snob is still well and truly alive. I now understand (and repent) all the hours I have spent flamboyantly debating about opera, which is equally overbearing. And the vocabulary! This is where the masturbatory element of the profession truly comes out. I will perhaps one day agree that wines can taste like gunpowder or wet stones or a narrow waisted lady (genuinely, I read this in a reputable publication) but in the meantime, it is difficult not to scoff. I have gone past the point of no return when it comes to opera, but wine I hope to merely enjoy sedately, relaxedly and sociably. If I ever catch myself in a shouting match over the role of coloratura in Verdi the sanctity of the Loire, I will be aggrieved indeed.

Nevertheless, I am very blessed that several people are happy to point me through this soupy jargon, that they are glad to help my education. The past month or so has been unaccountably jolly, with  spontaneous L’Angelus-inspired marriage proposals to amused MWs in a delectable wine private members' club (seriously, I need to stop proposing when tipsy). And of course, as my oldest friends realise with dread, I have a terrible penchant for dragging as many people as possible down into whatever new rabbit hole I’ve unearthed. I can already hear excuses being made over London not to attend the latest Alsace tasting.

My happy initiation into (good) wine continues with a gift recently delivered from the millionaire psycho who seems happier than I that I have succumbed to the honest grape. It is a handsome case of Ch. Haut-Bailly 2009, by all accounts an admirable vintage, alongside a short note –

Wine to drink now.

Chin chin!

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