Surviving in Poland

The fall of communism was good for wine drinkers

In the days of communism, visits to Poland required moral fibre of the highest order. Every once in a while, a kiosk announcing beer would take down its shutters and declare itself open, at which a queue three hundred yards long would form at once in front of it. Here and there, a few cases of Bulgarian plonk would find their way into the concrete bunkers that pretended to supply the proletariat with food.

If you had western currency you could join the queue of scumbags at the Pewex shops, where the nomenklatura could cash in their privileges: and there, for a price, you could obtain whisky or even the occasional bottle of cheap Spanish wine. For the most part, however, and especially when travelling in country districts, you would have to survive on the state-produced vodka. There was little hope of finding any vermouth to drown its medicinal taste, and it was usually served lukewarm in quantities calculated to silence all complaint. The general strategy of the "authorities", as they ironically called themselves, was to produce a collective hangover so leaden and immovable that all the lesser headaches of daily life would disappear beneath it.

Needless to say, all that has changed. The emergence of that saviour of human communities, the bourgeois class, has changed hard drunkenness into civilised elation. It has also produced wine merchants in all the major cities. And although many of these are simply part of some multinational supermarket chain, there are a few genuine small entrepreneurs who are doing what they can to create a Polish market. Visiting friends near Warsaw last week, I had an opportunity to study the results.

So far, it seems, the New World has the edge over the Old, with German wines held in low esteem, French wines turned down with respectful awe, and the beefy Syrahs from Australia scoring hit after hit. New World wines, of the kind that are affordable in Poland, make no claim to delicacy; but they are loud-mouthed examples of what was, until recently, an exotic product. They make instant conquests of those virgin palates, like flamboyant pop stars sweeping up their teenage fans.

Of course, one cannot complain. The dam that held the consumer economy at bay has been breached, and the Poles are gratefully swimming in the flood. Yet it was a cause of serious self-examination, to find myself longing for the Burgundies of faraway Scrutopia. Twenty years ago, sitting in the same room with the same friends, I would have given my whole wad of useless zlotys for a bottle of Australian Syrah. And here the bottle is, and here am I, disgracefully depressed by it. Was it for this we all laboured, I wonder?

Luckily, I have brought with me some excellent single malt whisky, and the brief hiccup of self-doubt is soon washed down the tube.