This year the February wine club has not been branded with the name of St Valentine. After a careful survey of our readers, I decided that they don't have time for carefully staged seductions, and that, in the middle of a cold February, it is rather ridiculous in any case to start summoning the hounds of spring. Much better to settle by the fire with a warming bottle and banish all thoughts of better company. Indeed, as it would be culpable extremism to give up wine for Lent, why not give up sex? A good book and a glass of claret was all my old tutor at Cambridge ever needed, and he passed his blameless life peaceably and uncomplainingly, untouched by those passions that trouble lesser souls.
That solution depended on the college cellar, of course, and few readers are likely to be able to lay hands on a bottle of claret to compare with those that comforted my tutor. Nevertheless, thanks to Corney & Barrow, you have a choice among four respectable claret substitutes, each made either exclusively or partly from the Cabernet Sauvignon grape, the very grape that gives Château Lafite its disdainful smile, and Château Latour its balls. All of them have the blackcurrant aroma and full fruit of the Cabernet Sauvignon, variously tempered with the dustiness of tannin.
Do not despise the Domaine de Saissac, which, although a vin de pays (like most wine from the Languedoc), is batting far above its station. Fully mature, but with reserves of tannin, too, this is a perfect dinner-party wine and very reasonably priced. By contrast, the three wines from the southern hemisphere are striving for that extra something which makes real claret into an after-dinner luxury.
The Australian is, as you might expect, packed with fruit and alcohol, but has excellent balance and a reassuring way of lingering on the palate, keeping a firm hold like a politician shaking hands with a journalist. And it worked.
The Argentinian wine from the Mendoza Valley is as grapey and gropey as the Australian, and has the same expert sheen. Both are flavoursome wines and suitable for the book-by-the-fire experience. But the Klein Gustrouw from Stellenbosch in South Africa, in which the Cabernet Sauvignon is softened by a dose of Merlot, has the edge on them. We drank it by the fire, but with Mendelssohn's great Quartet in F Minor, the one containing all the composer's grief over Fanny, and it did not dilute the tears.
All four of these wines could be described as generous, but among Cabernet-Sauvignons, it is only a Château Latour or a Château éoville Las Cases that could match the generosity of Mendelssohn. Thinking of this pure and public-spirited soul, and all he did for German music and for humanity, we were overcome with sadness that life should have hit him so hard. We looked around for another bottle to comfort us, but only dregs remained.