It’s delightful to be allowed dinner guests again – except that somehow, during the past peculiar year, I seem to have mislaid my social graces. So when a guest – ignoring, as they tend to, my protests that arriving with wine is like taking coals to Newcastle but being anxious about which coals to take – suggested Prosecco, my dissembling wasn’t up to the job. He got the message and substituted after-dinner sweets, extremely nice ones, but it was hardly my most hospitable moment.
I attempted to redeem myself with two Chenin Blancs from Domaine de la Taille aux Loups in Montlouis-sur-Loire, just across the river from Vouvray, where Jacky Blot started making rich, long-lasting Chenin in the 1980s, while his neighbours were still producing insipid wine from underripe grapes. Climate change has improved their output but Jacky is still the maestro of Montlouis.
Both bottles were 2019, from the walled vineyard called Clos de Mosny. The best vines become the eponymous wine, while the rest are blended with other sites for the more restrained Rémus. The delicate citrus and almond of the latter went beautifully with halibut, but the creamy, toasty Mosny was something else: I could have rolled it around my tongue for hours, which would at least have helped to prevent further rudeness. Justerini & Brooks, which sells both bottles, consider them great value, and so they are. There is good Chenin Blanc – False Bay, from South Africa, for instance – at less than £7 a bottle but this is in a different class. It made for a heartfelt apology (or so I like to think).
My objection to Prosecco isn’t the price (the tank method that adds the bubbles is a lot cheaper than Champagne’s time-consuming second fermentation in the bottle) but the quality. Much of it is made as economically and as abundantly as possible, with lacklustre results; this is winemaking shorn of every motive except profit, which feels like very bad manners indeed. Not every producer works this way, however, and I particularly admire Col Fondo, which is fermented in the bottle with the lees – the by-products of that fermentation – left in to add richness and texture to the wines. (Col Fondo means “with sediment”.)
There are several excellent examples in the Prosecco region – and, more strangely, in southern England, too. Tillingham’s has the pleasant sourness of grapefruit, Little Waddon gushes pear juice, and if the Black Mountain was too funky for my taste, stronger supporters of natural wine will love it. (There are different definitions of good manners.)
But why are English winemakers, who barely have a place at the table as it is, fixating on an obscure style from northern Italy? “I make a Col Fondo mainly because it isn’t Prosecco – in fact, I like to think of it as its antithesis,” says Ben Walgate of Tillingham. “I’m into more ancient winemaking techniques and Col Fondo is what Prosecco once was.”
So – old-fashioned ideas in a new context; a modern equivalent of Jacky Blot, making white wine good enough to age in a part of France that wasn’t Burgundy. We can all learn from what came before, just as those English winemakers are doing. Lees give texture, depth and finesse; they are wine’s equivalent of learning from experience. Something I also intend to do, by reappropriating another old-fashioned idea: good manners.
This article appears in the 16 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Cold Web