This is not a fashionable viewpoint, but there is something to be said for failing to make great wine. I am not advocating drinking substandard beverages; heaven forfend. But places without much home-grown wine must look around them, in every sense. The nationalistic prejudice that says, “Our wine is better than anybody else’s, so why even bother trying theirs?” leads to a limited world view and a monochromatic wine list. Prejudice never made a better person – nor a better-watered one.
So, France misses out on the rest of the world’s wines; in fact, parts of France miss out on the rest of France’s wines. When in Burgundy, I can go south, to the Côte d’Or, or north, to Chablis and its lesser known neighbours Saint-Bris and Irancy, and get excellent wine, and in the latter I won’t even have to take out a mortgage first. What all of it will be is local, which is great – local and seasonal is the new international and perennial, after all. Except that the point of wine is to be a portable taste of place. It is wonderful to drink local wines, just as it is wonderful to be at home, by one’s own fireside. Just not, in either instance, all the time.
What helps, in these cases, is an inferiority complex. Britain has an exceptional array of the world’s wines due to the coincidence of an empire and a lack of home-grown product; the “nation of shopkeepers” stacked its shelves with wine and made the flow of goods a literal reality. I worry that the combination of Brexit and English sparkling wine, only one of which I find palatable, will bring this happy state of affairs to an end. And there we’ll be, in our splendid isolation, peering wistfully across the Channel to the lands of plenty, where free movement of wine is still feasible.
At least we have to peer that far. Asturias, a beautiful, fertile slice of Spain’s northern coast, is a cider producer in one of the world’s most exciting countries for wine. The region now has a wine appellation, Cangas, but nobody from Rioja or Ribera del Duero is currently losing sleep over it. The Asturians have pigs and Cabrales cheeses, the white bean called faba, lobsters and the unearthly but delicious percebes, or gooseneck barnacles; if they get thirsty, there’s their excellent cider, poured with impressive insouciance from above the head into a glass held below the hip. This is for aeration, apparently, although the performance may also constitute a two-fingered salute to their winemaking countrymen: try doing that with your Rioja Gran Reserva!
And, as was once true here, narrow options have broadened palates. A great Asturian chef such as Nacho Manzano, chef-patron of two Michelin-starred Casa Marcial, will serve Raventós Blanc de Blancs, delicately lemony sparkling wine from Catalonia, with sea urchin; Allende’s luscious white Rioja with mushrooms; wood-pigeon with Mencía, the fruity red from Bierzo; and Andalusian Palo Cortado, queen of sherries, with dessert.
From 25 February until 3 March, Manzano will do all this at two of London’s Ibérica restaurants. The menu emphasises the local; the wine list celebrates the national. Both are sure to be spectacular. Embracing difference is good for spirit and stomach. When did we Brits forget that?
This article appears in the 13 Feb 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The revolution that fuelled radical Islam