What grew from the vine………….

A few years ago I was in Brittany on the northwest coast of France. I had gone there to celebrate a family member’s milestone birthday. It was a big affair. People converged from all corners of France and a couple of contingents came from Britain. My aunt – who we stayed with – managed to cater for about twenty of us. Three extensions were put on the living room table. All the outside plastic furniture came inside to make the gathering possible.

The Brittany coastline is much like our Cornish coastline but on a bigger scale

Like every region in France, it’s effortlessly brilliant for food and drink – especially the seafood. We were also introduced to buckwheat pancakes. Buckwheat – ble noir is used as the default base in most local baking. You’ll find cider served in ceramic cups –  une bolee a cidre. Localism may be a bit of a fetish in Britain. In France local ingredients have always been assumed. Because people there were never dependent on the tinned, the instant or the vacuum-packed, they have always bought meat, fruit and vegetables because there was never a supply/demand hiatus between the farm and the folks living nearby.

At my aunt’s house we each had a heap of the doe-eyed langoustines on a plate to our left, which, with a lot of labour, was worked into a plate of gutted shells to the right. My wife had to show me how to open these crustaceans without self-injury as my cack-handed attempts simply mutilated them and my fingers. A second cousin who sat opposite me peeled them all before savouring them. When he’d finally achieved the two respective heaps, he looked up and found everyone else had finished eating. He hadn’t even started. However, the culinary experience I remember most is that bottle of wine.

Not a langoustine but a little Breton rock pool native

The host – my uncle – used to work for a french Telecom company. One year he was given a magnum of red wine as a business gift. He decided to finally pop it to celebrate his mother turning ninety. I recall that the wine was from 1988 making it about twenty years old at the time. Unfortunately I have no memory of the grape or the vineyard. We had big bulbous wine glasses with slender stalks. This sticks in my mind as it added to the sense of something being special. They weren’t the usual glassware. At the time I thought somewhat Englishly that they were ballooned to receive great volume. In fact it was a modest glug in the bottom. All that room was to get your nose in, push the rim into your cheeks and take in a deep breath. It was unbelievable. It was like getting intoxicated by inhaling a lavender cloud. The swish of ruby liquid we swirled around the base was so potent and beautiful it was a shame to drink it. But drink it we did. It was like being an open sluice and letting liquid velvet trickle in. Petals seemed to shimmer before my eyes. I didn’t keep any proper notes but the memory is replayed (and embellished) daily in my mind. It was my first experience of fine wine.

In some ways it was unfortunate. It put me onto wine and I wanted to relive the experience back in England. I would initially buy wine from three sources: Firstly pubs where it’s ridiculously expensive. The quality varies but it’s generally dry. What you pay for a small glass in Blighty might be what you pay for the bottle in France. Secondly, supermarkets. Obviously it’s cheaper. Most of it is new world – a patronizing term but patronizing to us as Europeans. I imagine bumpkins in cassocks gazing wide-eyed across the ocean. They’ve heard strange talk of untamed foreign lands off the map of the civilized world. We obviously still think we’re in the 18th century. In return, maybe consumers in North and South America should refer to European bottles as pre-enlightenment wine.

What new world wine also means is that the wine has to travel hence the need for preservatives – CO2 in powder form – sulphites. Though organic wine is increasingly available, more shops having organic sections, virtually all wine retailed in the world has added sulphites. By EU law, it needs to be stated on the label if more than 10mg has been put into a 750ml bottle. The problem is though, how much more than 10mg may have gone in? A bottle of cheap Chilean Merlot once gave me both a migraine and a bout of asthma. I think high sulphite levels were at least a contributing factor. This brings me to where I got the bottle from and the third and worst place to buy wine in Britain – newsagents/corner shops. There’s nothing wrong with them but it’s about whatever can be gotten cheap to sell on. If you pay £3.99 for a bottle festooned with golden award medals you get what you deserve. Whoever bottled it in Chile knew exactly which country to export it to.

Wine shops became available to us when we moved to London and we’d often haunt the Nicholas chain (I think it’s become Spirited Wines now – was that strained title committee born?). I’d buy decent bottles at the cheap end – not usually going above £12 as there were enough pleasant bottles in that price band. One day I had a good bottle of Pinot Noir from Burgundy and that’s what I strived to get each time thereafter. I was obsessed. The wine had been pleasantly sweet. It had notes of blackcurrant and maybe black cherries. I didn’t taste sharpness. I remember the fact I loved it more than I remember the actual taste. Again, I made no note of the vineyard or vintner.

My third memorable occasion with wine is quite recent. A friend from The Republic of Georgia came to stay with us in Hertfordshire and she brought with her a bottle of white wine from her father’s vineyard. Wine making goes back 7000 to 9000 years in Georgia. It might be the country wine originated in. Georgians have a unique storage method: they have a big subterranean pot called a churi which is buried so only the rim of the neck protrudes above ground. The runoff from the crushed grapes is poured straight into it and it’s then sealed. 

This method of storage keeps the wine cool during the blistering Georgian summers and ambient during frosts. It also imparts a certain earthiness to a lot of Georgian wine from the clay churi just as drinks aged in spirit casks do from the wood. People have them in their gardens to this day – some of them are so large that when they need to be cleaned out, somebody needs to be lowered into the darkness by rope. Most families make their own wine – something not even the French, Italians nor Spanish can claim. Most of the reds I’ve tasted have been from the Khvranchkhara grape reputed to be Joseph Stalin’s favourite. It reminded me of a sweet dessert wine bordering on Port and I wasn’t too enamored with it.

The white wine in question that had been brought from Georgia though, was made in the Khakheti region close to the capital Tbilisi. It was made with with Rkatsiteli grapes. The wine was cloudy – this fascinated me. I’d never seen cloudy wine before. It had no sulphites – literally fermented grape juice – therefore organic. It needs to be drunk within a couple of days of opening – not a problem with me. I could taste the grape sediment. It reminded me of a grape cider. By this I don’t mean a pasteurized cider by Bulmers/Magners/Rekorderlig with a fruit flavour prefix. I mean a sweet sedimented nectar from a single ingredient. It still had sour tanginess but had none of the lip drawing astringency of popular European varieties like Riesling or Sauvignon. It possessed instead a floral sweetness straight from the grape flesh. It even had good depth to the body. In beer, the malt would account this for. In wine it’s just the fruit.

The bottle of white wine from Georgia

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