A gourmand needn’t start young, but a few extra years of research doesn’t hurt. I was lucky, as readers of this column will know, to have a father with a passion for wine, and while he was a loving parent, child-rearing was different back then. Which is how I came to attend my first wine tasting in the Dordogne, at the age of ten.
I had been present at tastings before this, naturally. Majestic Wines under the arches in Vauxhall, then one of just a few London stores, had a brick forecourt ideal for roller skates, so two small girls and one middle-aged man could divert themselves in their respective manners with no need for expensive babysitting. But the French tasting was different, because I participated.
Monbazillac is a rich, sweet white made from Sémillon, Sauvignon or Muscadelle grapes that have been affected by noble rot, the ugly fungus that, like a witch in a fairy tale, transforms plump fruit into wizened scraps. These nonetheless make a luscious, fabulously complex dessert wine: the happily ever after, with the winemaker as handsome prince.
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It was the perfect first drop for a curious child. And I was only given a drop – the 1980s weren’t as primitive as all that. But I adored it. The golden colour and viscous texture made me think of egg, and from this promising beginning there hatched a wine-lover – one who now spends her life trying to convey, by means direct and oblique, this potion’s delectable magic.
Writing about wine is, for me, a matter of looking over my shoulder – like Orpheus glancing back at Eurydice, if with happier results. The people who tend vines their parents planted, the roots drawing nourishment from the crumbled past, the wine that comforts us for everything we have known and lost.
I remember the warm boards of the winemaker’s trestle table, that liquid the colour of sunshine, and the certainty that the adults around me were very tall, very strong and very wise. For years afterwards I would request “eggy wine”. While I haven’t drunk any for years, I know that it would still caress my tastebuds, however jaded they may now be, then enfold me in a recollection of absolute comfort – of being very young, with all the people I loved best alive and near. If feelings had scents, then security, for me, would exhale the perfume of a Monbazillac, tasted for the first time on a hot summer’s day in France.
My father taught me that wine is knowledge and memory, dedication and sensation and dialogue. Most of all, dialogue. The only afterlife I believe in comes when plucked grapes are pressed into wine, the best of which allows me to continue conversing with someone who has been gone, now, for 19 years.
I won an award for my first column about him – like a gift from beyond the grave – and others for the book I wrote, in part, to expand on that conversation. Researching it, I talked to living winemakers in England, France, Spain and Italy, and also learned from ancient Romans who were as captivated by this magic liquid as I am today.
[See also: The Greeks were right about wine: it is the definition of civilisation]
But my job isn’t all glory, any more than it is all gloom: mostly, it is the purest good fun. I have learnt about fermented grape juice in vineyards and restaurants and monasteries and châteaux. I have had the luck to roll great wines across my tongue as generations of knowledge flowed from their makers into my ears. Wine is an ocean both broad and bottomless, and I will never willingly step out on to dry land.
There is too much I still don’t know, even with the most golden head-start a girl could have had. And too many people to talk to and drink with, continuing a discussion that is certainly not limited to the dead. People like you, dear reader. May your mind be ever open and your wine glass always full.
This article appears in the 17 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Six Months that Changed the World