Drop of Red
An intoxicating study of one man’s ignorance
I like wine.
Not just any wine - cheap wine.
Being English I have availed myself of inexpensive elixir whenever I have visited France. I always travelled in a commercial vehicle large enough to accommodate copious quantities of the stuff – I called it my van ordinaire.
My wife and I are voyagers, in fact we lived on a boat in France for a spell. We travelled around for five years from hangover to headache, fuelled by wine's off-cuts (or I did, my wife is teetotal). The supermarkets were loaded with budget wine, shelf upon shelf of the stuff. Each shop a slippery stepping stone over the river to a knackered liver.
Most of the cheap stuff is quite drinkable but occasionally you wonder what went wrong. Just every now and then you encounter a patio-cleaner, mercifully they are few and far between. Yes, supermarkets are good but I'd been told (by a chap who'd just fallen flat on his face outside the bank) that I could do even better – in a Cave.
Adjacent the Canal du Centre in Burgundy (which is one of the world's wine hotspots) this cave was not the home of a troglodyte, no, this was a wine cellar, pronounced carve. Actually it was a whitewashed barn attached to a peeling cottage but nevertheless, it was somewhere I reckoned I could pick up a bargain.
I know I'm out of my depth immediately. I see wine in real bottles with proper corks. Most have sepia labels with Côte de 'some place recognizable', and a sketch of a châteaux. The very best vintages are displayed in a temperature-controlled cabinet with LED lighting and a strong lock to keep me out. The 'merely excellent' are arranged by highly-paid interior designers, bedded on straw, in and around authentic wooden crates. Neither of the aforementioned has price labels.
I saw one chap (dressed in loafers and a straw hat) buy wine at 250 Euros a bottle. Five cases he bought (to save you the bother, that's 15,000 Euros) – and it would be for 'laying down' - and potentially revolting. This sort of wine can take years to mature so he probably won't live long enough to taste the stuff. This means that either his undeserving progeny will get expensively pickled or he will sell it on for a handsome profit before he dies. To pay for replacement gargoyles on his country pile perhaps. And there are few things more aggravating than crumbling country piles. Wine is a commodity after all. People buy it untasted, unseen in fact, purely to make a profit. This is not for me - I'm after instant wine. The only 'laying down' I want to encounter is me after a couple of gallons.
Some of the expensive stuff is fizzy. The likes of Veuve Clicquot or Tattinger are Champagnes because they originate from the Champagne region and are made using the méthode champagneoise. Other fizzy wines, Crémant or Mousseux for example, which I'm told can be very tasty, are not allowed to call themselves champagne because they come from an 'inferior' region and are made using the méthode traditionelle. Fizzy wine is made the world over but Champagne is Champagne and is sold as such, kudos and price tag attached.
In Russia bubbly is called Sovetskoye Shampanskoye, which doesn't have much of a ring to it - to non-Russian speakers anyway. In Germany the method of manufacture is klassische flaschengärung – which doesn't have much appeal either. If you requested either of those in Baltimore, Brisbane or Birmingham you'd probably be arrested.
Genuine bubbly is destined for up-market weddings or corporate boxes at sporting events and the less expensive alternatives for the refectory tables of the middle classes where they wile away lazy afternoons under a shady trellis being bombarded by rat shit. On my budget I am afforded the luxury of avoiding anything fizzy or locked in a cabinet so I headed to the rear of the barn where the real stuff is on offer – the life-blood of the proletariat.
Natural light doesn't penetrate this far back so illumination is provided by a few low-wattage light bulbs powered by the owners great grandfather peddling a home made generator out the back. When my eyes adjust I see three gasoline pumps from which customers can fill their own containers. Priced variously at 1.80, 2.40 and 3.20 Euros per litre they are certainly not overpriced. For those like me who hadn't thought to bring a container there is another alternative - a selection of boxed wines.
Now, I'm partial to a drop of red so with tingling taste buds I approach. The lady of the cave was almost overcome by my knowledge of supermarket boxed wine and agreed (with a 'bitter-lemon' expression) to allow me to sample each of the ten red boxes available. If she expected me to spit them out she was mistaken. My philosophy is that it is important to ascertain the severity of crushing hangover one may end up with as part of the wine tipplers art.
I'm absolutely no expert (as the observant among you may have begun to notice) but all the boxes tasted exactly the same. I surmised that the contents had leached straight from the hillside via a complicated arrangement of sewage pipes straight into a steel tank that had formerly contained hydrochloric acid. From there it had been pumped into vacuum-sealed bladders before being randomly encased in coloured boxes.
Although not supposed to be fizzy, this stuff down the budget end of the dungeon had a lightly corrosive nature and gently effervesced, as if a mild nuclear reaction was underway.
My wife had come with me and later said she was very proud that I decided not to buy anything at all. I pointed out that our medical insurance had lapsed.
My ignorance of all things wine knows little bounds. A couple of years ago we had cruised on our boat to a place in Eastern France on the Canal des Vosges called Épinal. I was excited because Épinal is the Champagne capital of the world. I'd planned to mortgage the dog so I could afford a half bottle of genuine bubbly. Imagine, I thought to myself, sitting on my rear end in the sunshine sipping real Champagne. The evening sun refracting and dancing through the bubbles in my flute as I gaze out on the poor people. I would sample, just once, true contentment.
Then imagine my disappointment when I discovered that Épinal actually had nothing to do with fizzy wine. The Champagne capital is Épernay, about four hundred kilometres west, on another waterway in a different province. Mind you, I did get a decent sun tan battling my way through a box of indeterminate red while contemplating my ignorance.
Wine comes in many different forms. Bottles (glass and plastic), bladders in boxes, bladders without boxes, barrels, even tankers and the joy of trying to identify a suitable anaesthetic is one of life's true pleasures. The great thing is that if you find a particularly nasty one, all you have to do is drink enough and you won't even remember it. The danger with inexpensive wine is that you forget everything else as well. But the cost of the budget offerings is compensation enough. It's amazing to wake up sometime the following afternoon to find you still have some paper money in your wallet.
On a visit to a purveyor of wine in Burgundy I sampled six whites and six reds. It was an open invitation to an official wine-tasting. My reputation as a professional souse had begun to spread. I was invited to the most desperate purveyors who thought they could offload on me some ‘difficult to shift’ vintages. Stuff too appalling even for England. The tasting was accompanied by a variety of nibbles including spicy vol-au-vents and rotting cheese – inducements indeed.
The wines, to my finely-tuned palate, were basically unpleasant – and became considerably worse when I discovered the price. The town of Beaune, self-proclaimed wine capital of Burgundy in the department of Cote d'Or, is only a short distance away. You would have thought that our hosts could have rustled up something that tasted half decent. In fact Beaune is known for it's architecturally acclaimed hospice – no coincidence this considering they produce Vin de Plutonium. I quickly realized that for the price of one bottle I could buy a veritable river of my usual stuff, sufficient to give a migratory herd of wildebeest pause for thought. It wasn't a case of quantity over quality, I genuinely didn't like it.
I make no apology for my alcoholic ignorance. I have tried many fancy vintages over the years. In fact if I'd continued down that road I would have been bankrupt. This is the reason I now only purchase Châteaux Bog Standard. Through iron will and steely determination I have convinced myself that bottles with fancy labels should remain the preserve of the wine snob.
No, remaining faithful to the stuff on which I have thrived would continue to see me enjoy thunderous hangovers and bouts of triple vision. I have had so many wonderful evenings of which I have no recall I must have been doing something right. As my friend said only last week after a particularly determined bout – 'that's another evening we won't remember in a hurry.'
© Jo May 2016