Self-denial is widely held to be a religious duty, and periods of fasting are on the agenda of all the great religions. The Christian institution of Lent has an added significance, given that it is the preparation for Easter, the time of death and resurrection. By fighting our appetites, it reminds us, we are loosening death's hold over life. To give up something for Lent is to gain something thereafter - the knowledge that, in this particular, one is free from this world.
With such thoughts in mind I decided to give up wine for Lent. What greater act of self-denial could be imagined, in the life of a dedicated wino who has been rocked to sleep each evening in the motherly arms of the vine? For two weeks I struggled with bottled beer, acquiring a taste for Fursty Ferret. But it was impossible to mistake the resulting gloom for any kind of spiritual liberation. Then Corney & Barrow's offer for the March wine club arrived - a selection of inexpensive wines that I would be obliged to drink for your sake, dear reader. And it dawned on me that what had been required by the Almighty was not that I give up wine, but that I give up expensive wine. And here was the sign of His reprieve: one of those small miracles that prove the constant workings of divine mercy in the affairs of this world.
I gratefully laid in to the white wines, and was struck by the elegant Chenin Blanc from Stellenbosch in South Africa - a triumphant vindication of a grape that needs all the care that can be lavished on it, if it is not to be cloying and floppy on the tongue. This wine shows a perfect balance of minerals and fruit, with a crisp acidity that rescued my weary stomach from its long torment of beer.
The Viognier from the Languedoc is a more angular product, and after a sip or two we decided to drink it with the smoked cod that we had prepared for supper by way of a Lenten compromise. It went down well enough, laying a slippery path of minerals along the oesophagus, down which the salty fish slipped without a murmur.
Of the two red wines, the Château la Liquière from Faugères - a district which earned its appellation in 1982, and is still insufficiently appreciated - deserves special mention. This is a well-rounded blend of Carignan, Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre, with a deep purple colour and an aroma of heather and thyme. It proved to be a perfect accompaniment to roast lamb, with a strong flavour that refused to be subdued by grease and gravy, and which cheered us on towards the cheese.
Unfortunately, it ran out just as we were cutting into the farmhouse Cheshire from the Oxford market. The Côtes du Rhône served manfully in its place, though without the easygoing style.