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23 April 2016updated 30 Jun 2021 11:57am

Spoilt for choice, like a kid in a candy store

Where the French concentrate on home-grown elixirs, London offers wines from all over the world.

By Nina Caplan

The child among the sweetie jars, agonising between cola bottles, sherbet and gobstoppers, still exists, even if most old-fashioned sweet shops have gone the way of four-channel television. It may all just be sugar but the dithering is part of the fun, as is the bitter-sweet knowledge that whatever you pass up may be more delicious than your chosen indulgence.

The craving for sweetness changes in form but not much in substance as we age. And why should it? Adults have more sourness to palliate, including the poignant realisation that adding sugar to your life won’t necessarily make it sweeter. Add yeast, and it’s a different story; that sugar becomes alcohol. Thank goodness for fermentation.

For wine consumers, the sweet-shop mentality still applies. We want a wealth of interesting flavours – no problem for those of us in London, surely the world’s biggest vinous pick’n’mix. Superb independent retailers such as Theatre of Wine, Berry Bros & Rudd and Lea & Sandeman unearth unexpected delights; no child ever slavered more over candy than I do over these treats, glowing gold and lemon, violet and ruby.

The Theatre of Wine shops have a dining table centre stage to reinforce the atmosphere of gastronomic indulgence, along with offering a dangerously useful surface for arraying possible purchases. I am much better at pulling out delicacies than at leaving them unbought: deliciously stony whites from Hatzidakis on the Greek island of Santorini, or Vignoble Guillaume’s Flûte Enchantée, a fabulous sparkler too cheap (£12) to save for an occasion. Often, they are joined by a wine that I have never heard of: a new form of sweetie to make me salivate.

When does choice lose its sweetness? We grow up expecting plenty but sometimes we don’t know what to do with it. Ancient wine-growing areas plant the grapes that they have always planted – Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux, or Nebbiolo in Piedmont. Choice doesn’t come into it. Without the only three varieties permitted – Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay – champagne would just be fizz.

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Whether these are the best grapes for these soils, or we have come to judge wines by the standards of thousand-year-old happenstance, who can say? But new wine regions have a problem that any child would understand: they can plant anything but not everything. Australia has grapes from Syrah to Saperavi; southern England achieved winemaking renown with champagne-style wines on Champenois soil – the chalk that runs under the Channel and joins England and France.

Yet our vineyards are awash with any grape that can deal with the weather, from Dornfelder and Müller-Thurgau to the delightfully named Madeleine Angevine. Danebury in Hampshire makes rather good bubbly from Auxerrois Blanc; Stopham Estate in Sussex does a lovely apricot Pinot Gris; and there is an impressive Chardonnay from Gusbourne in Kent.

Is it wise to embarrass the customer with riches? We all crave novelty but those who never learn to control their cravings live to regret it. The Queen, who has more choice than most of us, has been snapped sipping Ridgeview’s fine sparkling wine – a hint that although Britannia no longer rules the waves, the undulating South Downs may offer a new form of national hegemony. Ridgeview uses only traditional (that is, champagne) grapes: not that old ways are necessarily best, but our elders do know something about restricting youth’s natural excess. The wine-buying public is already assaulted with options. Perhaps the indulged children of modern winemaking should step back from the cornucopia long enough to remember that.

This article appears in the 20 Apr 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Shakespeare 400 years Iater