Monday, March 30, 2015

White wine by the fire

Pouring the remains of the Montagny from the night before, chilled from the fridge, letting its slight Chardonnay fizz rest on my tongue, I took my glass to sit by the just-lit fire. Spring fire, white wine. Two memories:

A trip to the Loire valley, early spring just before Easter,when I was perhaps twenty-one, to see a friend who is still a friend and was an old friend even then. Driving through the Touraine, stopping at a cave and sitting by a log fire, being brought glasses of chilled pale white wine, the flowery taste of the chenin blanc, cool next to warmth. I didn't grow up with wine, my only idea of wine in France then was that it could be had very cheaply. The girl who had initiated the trip, a friend of my friend, bought four bottles of the white Touraine - perhaps it was Vouvray but I don't think so - to take back to her parents, it was pointed out to me that for very little more than I paid for rough plonk I could have something really good... I couldn't now perhaps drink the plastic sealed stuff in the consigné litre bottles as I did then, but have never developed any real sophistication about wine and can happily drink from boxes and pichets; as an Iris Murdoch character once said, 'why wantonly destroy one's palate for cheap wine'? However, though I didn't rediscover Touraine chenin blanc until many years later, I knew it again, and it remains a great favourite. I've never liked the same variety from the new world or further south in France, though my experience is slight, it always seems dull and crude and characterless.

Before that, I was perhaps seventeen, a summer when I stayed with another friend of the same vintage, whom I still hear of now and then. Rackety summers when our parents dared leave us alone, occasionally involving graceless drunkenness, tinned meatballs and other irresponsibilities. But one evening her grandfather, a kind, unpatronising, urbane old Dutch chap who had been something big in Unilever I think, and who lived in one of those absurdly picturesque, high-priced home counties villages where they film Midsomer Murders and Agatha Christie adaptations, collected us and brought us to his home for dinner. I can't remember what we ate, I think it was good, but I do recall another flowery white wine, I don't know what but again chilled and delicious, in fine glasses engraved with grapes and vine leaves. But it grieved me to note fine incrustations of something like spinach, which had clearly been further baked on rather than removed by his early model dishwasher, and unseen by his elderly eyes. At the end of the meal, I asked to be allowed to wash up to thank him for his hospitality. No need, he said, the dishwasher... Oh but please, I insisted, at least the glasses and cutlery. I can still feel the fragile glassware in my hands, the very hot water, and carefully, discreetly, scrubbing away until all unsightly vegetable matter was removed. I don't think I even mentioned the spinach to my friend.

Many people say happiness is only recognised in retrospect, I've never found that. Happy memories elude me,  though I think perhaps I often considered myself happy at the time, looking back I judge matters more harshly, qualifying them with the shame, regret, or incomprehension with which I seem to regard large swathes of my life, not least those involving the misuse of alcohol.  I know that sounds dismal and self-piteous, I don't mean to be. Other times any memory at all escapes me, lost time remains fruitlessly sought after, estranged from me altogether. Yet these two moments of glad grace, of elegance and delicacy, glimpsed elsewhere and even, exceptionally, in my earlier self, can still be evoked with a physical sharpness by the taste of chilled white wine.


Shortly we're off to south east England for a few days, for a big birthday of my sister, and a smaller one of my brother, and for one or two other appointments and rendezvous. It's the first time we've been out of the country together for more than eight years, and feels quite momentous, but probably isn't. Back in a while.


Catalyst said...

Great post, Lucy. I'm alerting a wine-loving friend of mine in California to it. Enjoy your visit to The Old Country. Remember: there'll always be an England! : )

Tom Cochrun said...

I'm that wine-loving friend. Your post is lovely though melancholy. You have inspired me to try a white wine next to a fire. Usually a white is reserved for a warm patio. And I will regard memories with a new respect.

Zhoen said...

My best memories are of now.

I'll stick to beer, but the good stuff.

Rouchswalwe said...

Your words brought back two memories of mine. Lucy Lucy ... how the fire still burns when holding a glass of white wine. And mingled in with the melancholy is kindness.

Birthday celebrations! Ahhh ... enjoy!

marja-leena said...

Gentle, lovely musings on memories...

Have a wonderful memory-making holiday and birthday parties in the old country! We expect more stories and photos when you come back :-)

Roderick Robinson said...

Was the burgundy very young? "Slight fizz" seems to suggest so. Not that I'm knocking it, you understand. It's great to read a wine piece based on the commonality of grapes. Gently implying to readers that you know what's what, which I know you do.

Burgundy's a bugger, though. I love it (white and red) and have preferred it to claret for years now, despite my upbringing with the Big Five. But the potential for disappointment grows each year. Even hallowed appellations like Vosne-Romanée and Meursault cannot, in general terms, be trusted. The Wine Society buyer's recommendations are quite blunt: find a domaine (by inference a small one) you can trust and stick with it. What he's really saying is go to Burgundy and do your sipping in person; all other options are too expensive. A council of perfection, really. I like wine but there are other things in life.

Unfortunately France is not the ideal place to experiment. Last night, to welcome our elder daughter for a week, I opened a 2009 bottle of pinotage from South Africa. A genuinely matured red wine for about a tenner but where would one find that in France?

The alternative is to comb the area you live in which I know you do. Sancerre's fine but is fashionable and can be expensive (esp. the rosé version), many muscadets are indistinguishable though I once drank one that was ten years old and had turned into a pudding wine. Savennières, another chenin blanc, for special (adult!) occasions and worth a sipping visit, given the area is so small. I believe we differ about the reds in and around Saumur. I always worry at the adjective "light" when used to describe reds.

As to Touraine I had bad luck in the early days; less flowery, more downright sweet (but without intending to be it seemed). These days I'd be willing to be guided.

However, let's be upbeat. As you get older (you presently being hardly out of adolescence) your need for quantities of wine will diminish. Which means you can up the bottle price. Two days ago Avery's of Bristol (one of my sources) emailed me, a valued customer, about a small "package" they'd acquired, a Drouhin red burgundy. At £200 a case I was tempted, but I was forgetting the new tendency; at higher prices most suppliers diplomatically drop down from cases of twelve to cases of six. Hmmm. £33 a bottle. A long, long way from wine en vrac served from a petrol pump arrangement. But how long am I still going to be drinking wine? I'll let you know.

Have a good time in the south-east. On the whole eschew English wine; spend the equivalent amount on German wines. With wine patriotism is nothing.

Lysel said...

Serais tu nostalgique Lucy ?
J'imagine ton bien être devant cette cheminée
Bon séjour sur tes terres !

Sabine said...

I really like this post. I think the happy memories are somewhere deeper, more in our unconscious, holding us up and steady. The unhappy ones just flash up like red lights now and then.

Lucy said...

Bruce - thank you, and for bringing Tom C over too. I shall not forget there'll always be an England, I may even sometimes lie back and think of it! (Figuratively of course...)

Tom - Hello and welcome, nice of you to come. We rarely have the pleasure of Californian wine here beyond the odd bottle of Turning Leaf. Indeed, chilled white does seem as if it should be a warm weather pleasure, and fireside sipping more suited to a wintry red, but in fact there's something about lighting these late, early spring fires that has its own charm, and which often brings back that particular seasonal memory. You might expect to be fed up with having to do it but they're among my favourite fires of the year, even if the chimney is getting a bit smoky, it's not so chilly you can't open a window and hear the early year birdsong too. Central heating was never so redolent, neither, for me, is summer sunshine come to that.

Z - mm, but now isn't a memory is it? Or it is now but it wasn't a moment ago when I said it! I like beer too, but considering the amount of it I have consumed in my time it doesn't seem to carry much redolence, though I suppose something Proustian might one day happen if I sip a pint of Brayne's SA and am instantly transported back to Cardiff students union bar, I suppose. Not that I'm planning to do that any time.

R - I think it must be the time of year when these involuntary memories kick in a lot. It's not any kind of deliberately invoked, dishonest nostalgia, it just happens, but one might as well enjoy the good bits I think. The thing about the second memory, which came about by a process of secondary association, if you will, rather than an immediate, involuntary physical prompt, is that it brings me happiness not only because of the sensory vividness and pleasure involved, though that is there too, but because at a pretty graceless age and period of life, I actually did a good, kind thing, by stealth even, which actually imbues the memory with a kind of grace, not self-satisfaction I don't think, as I feel too distant from that past self anyway, but a certain comfort that I wasn't totally hopeless!

ML - thanks. I hope they are fairly reliable memories, one can never be quite sure, of course! I'm looking forward to the trip.

Robbie - too much html, you get your own!

Lysel - nostalgie de pays, ou de passé? Peutêtre un peu, mais en faite les belles souvenirs sont souvent de nos petits voyages en France. J'ame bien les feux de la cheminée à ce moment, tot au printemps, les chants des oiseaux dehors... c'est vrai que j'ai du bien-être! Merci, et a la prochaine!

Lucy said...

Sabine, missed you there. That's a good thought and an interesting one, thank you.

Robbie - wine really is an interesting subject which I very much enjoy talking about, but so difficult, very personal and fraught with the fear of being sneered or scoffed at, either from snobs or for being one. Living here has of course narrowed our horizons in that regard, but has also perhaps served to focus the study, and provide a reasonable basic knowledge about varieties and regions - someone gave us 'Floydd Uncorked' in the early days, which was a very good basic reference, with maps and facts and good humour. I imagine if I'd continued to live in the UK I'd have gone on haphazardly drinking reliable, tasty, fruity New World wines and never really learned much. I still need to check things sometimes. The Montagny was 2012, the fizz surprised me a little. We had some lovely English honey smoked mackerel, it was a serendipitously good pairing! I'm fond of Pouilly-Fuissé (which is rarer and pricier here than the Fumé, truly).I'm not a big Saumur red fan in fact, Tom likes the S Champigny, and most of the cabernet franc wines of the region of which I have a fondness for Chinon, because I associate it with Rabelais and with Joe, and seeing Arctic terns fishing in the river there, so far from the sea, more than for the taste of the wine itself. Association is important, whether with food or memories. I tend towards Rhone-ish reds, can still happily put away a Ventoux, (which then sets off trains of thought about poor old Tom Simpson!), of which a really happy surprise of recent years is Beaumes de Venise, not the sweet fortified stuff (I don't see that a lot) but the straight red, which I find very velvety and rich. When we lived in Glos, we bought some white from a pretty little winery in the hills, it was perfectly pleasant, a bit like a vinho verde almost, but very expensive for nothing much. Enough!

Dale said...

I guess I have a horror of overwriting memories -- I took it much to heart when I learned that every time you access a memory, you write over the original with your present reflections, interpretations, etc., so the next time you return it's less what you experienced then, more what you thought about that later. They're so fragile, and the interpretive mind is such a bully! So I seldom handle memories deliberately. Happy, or sad, I don't know! I seldom know at any given moment which word would apply.

Have a grand time in England!

Nimble said...

I enjoyed reading your recollections. One way to think about life is filling a basket with experiences. With pleasures if one is feeling amoral and greedy as I usually am. You have a good basket going there.

Lucas said...

A really enjoyable piece of writing! I liked the way you evoke the atmosphere of the memories as well as what triggered them. Sometimes remembering happiness can be elusive, as if you are not quite sure where it was or what it consisted of. You have done well and avoided nostalgia.

Fire Bird said...

Wow! I'd forgotten that, but have now retrieved the memory. That must have been 1983!

Pam said...

Interesting... I'm trying to think of happy memories and have decided that I have quite a few, but then it's hard not to miss the people who were there then and are not here now (even if only in London or whatever) and so they become more melancholy...

I hope you're having a lovely time in England.

Avus said...

Have a good time in my neck of the woods,Lucy.

There are some pretty fair vineyards around Tenterden in spite of RR's warnings!