Choosing a wine can be overwhelming. So start with the familiar, and then wander

As the river of wine became a flood, consumers clutched at labels as at a life-raft. Bordeaux was Best. No Celebration was Complete without Champagne.

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You don’t need your wine writer to point out the flaws in 21st-century capitalism, except when those flaws affect what’s in your glass. But they do – in fact, some blame for the excesses of modern marketing can be laid at the grand gates of Bordeaux and Champagne estates.

Once they’d established that their regions made great wine, they succeeded in convincing risk-averse drinkers that any wine their region made was great. As the river of wine became a flood, consumers clutched at those labels as at a life-raft. Bordeaux was Best. No Celebration was Complete without Champagne.

I take issue with the capitalist notion that more choice is automatically better, not least because it nudges me towards cowardice. Try as I might, I can only get through so many bottles, so my real choice is to stick to what I like or to venture into foreign terroir, which inevitably involves disappointments.

The trick, I think, is to start with the familiar and then wander. So I open an old Châteauneuf du Pape, a rich, hefty red, full of spice and sunshine, made predominantly from Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre. This appellation also has perfumed whites made from Roussanne, Bourboulenc and other grapes whose names sound like a river burbling over pebbles – perhaps because these vines are nourished by the Rhône and their soil is warmed by galets roulés: large, time-smoothed, heat-retaining blond stones, deposited here by the river.

My father left me a case of Château de Beaucastel 1996, so I was able to open the bottles periodically and taste the wines blooming into full maturity. There was no quick fix in their making, my father’s collecting or my drinking: just long-lasting pleasure, tinged with sadness that he was no longer here to share them with me. They’re irreplaceable, both because of their provenance and because the wines are now too expensive. (Sometimes more is just more.)

Yet 15km west of “the pope’s new castle”, across the Rhône river, are two small villages surrounded by vines. Neither Lirac nor Tavel is famous, although Tavel once was: King Louis XIV loved these wines, apparently, and the novelist Balzac occasionally swapped his coffee for a glass of this raspberry-coloured, chewy rosé – which, for a man who swilled caffeine at a rate of 50 cups a day, is praise indeed.

In the mid-1950s, the heroic American imbiber AJ Liebling wrote that Tavel is warm but dry, “like an enthusiasm held under restraint”; Hemingway also drank it, although I’m not sure that’s a recommendation. The galets roulés shield Lirac’s vines, too, and these reds are powerful and perfumed but less tannic and long-lasting than Châteauneuf du Pape. They’re also much less expensive. And who lays down wine for years, now, as my father once did?

The good capitalists of Tavel, rejoicing in their region’s popularity, planted many more vines; the wine from this lesser land was lesser wine, and the region’s reputation tumbled into oblivion. Yet the best wineries of Lirac and Tavel – Domaine de la Mordorée, Domaine du Joncier, and Domaine Maby – are excellent. They aren’t my inheritance and they aren’t world-famous. Which means I get to discover them for myself. And independence always tastes delicious. 

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

Nina Caplan is the 2018 and 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and the 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman, and the author of The Wandering Vine: Wine, The Romans and Me, published by Bloomsbury. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

 

This article appears in the 12 April 2019 issue of the New Statesman, System failure