The risks of reopened drinking dens? Low, we decided, bounding joyfully towards pub or bar just as France was entering another lockdown, and worse: a fierce spring frost that reached from cool Champagne to sun-stroked Provence. After March’s mild weather enticed the vines to begin budding, shoots poking tentatively into the warm air like people emerging from lockdown, cold weather has frozen the boldest buds to death. As we lounge on terraces for the first time this year, let’s hope this is not an omen.
“The cold spell has lasted two days, potentially not so great news,” said Frédéric Panaiotis, cellarmaster of Ruinart, during a Zoom tasting of the new Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs 2009. Made only in the best years, with Chardonnays from several vineyards, it was beautiful: honeyed yet racy and scented with almond and orange blossom. Nonetheless, it felt extremely odd to taste really good – and expensive – Champagne, the kind most of us will open only for a major celebration, while discussing catastrophe.
Panaiotis preferred to talk about ecological initiatives like the “second skin”, a smart, lightweight cover made from wood fibre that has replaced fancy gift boxes on the non-vintage Blanc de Blancs; there’s also a biodiversity project that will see thousands of trees and shrubs planted on Ruinart’s 40-hectare Taissy vineyard over the next two years. But then, without the global environmental failures that, due to warming winters, have made frosts like this so disastrous, schemes such as these might not be needed.
These were gloomy thoughts for my first night out, but I was happy perched beneath scaffolding (“No problem if it rains,” as the owner cheerily pointed out) outside an excellent Shoreditch wine bar with one person I love, one I know slightly and one I’d never met, drinking our way across Italy, from north – delicious, deliberately cloudy Prosecco from Malibràn – to the rich Cabernet Sauvignon (with a splash of Cabernet Franc) of I Mandorli in Tuscany. I had forgotten how I crave surprise. Of course, Covid, like frost, is a very nasty surprise, but one of its cruel consequences has been to deprive us of the other kind: the unexpected encounters with new people or unknown wines. The camaraderie grew as the light faded: good wine can thaw the frostiest meeting, and only the location of this one was chilly.
Cold is a risk British drinkers share with Champagne makers, who blend vineyards, varieties or vintages in a bid to produce something reliably beautiful in defiance of weather or worse (soldiers trampled this region for generations before the pandemic arrived). It’s delicate, risky work. They understand the power of serendipity.
So do others: both of the Italian wines I mention above were made via spontaneous fermentation. Rather than buying specially tailored industrial yeasts, the winemakers carefully rear, pick and press their grapes and then permit yeasts that happen to live in the vicinity to dive into their juice, like a random arrival joining the table at a wine bar or pub.
Whether it’s Italians allowing ambient yeasts into meticulously made wine, Champagne makers artfully combining base wines to outwit the weather, or those of us risking our favourite drinking dens under new conditions, we all blend the familiar and the unknown. Only by calculating risks can we hope for rewards – or the wines with which to celebrate them.
This article appears in the 21 Apr 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The unlikely radical