November 2010 newsletter
Wine whets the wit, improves its nature’s force
and adds a pleasant flavour to discourse
I have had a small early 19th century wine glass for many years with the above inscription engraved with a diamond, in a very amateur hand - presumably using a finger ring. The glass itself has very little aesthetic or technical merit, and if it had been left blank, it would be worth less than £10, but it is also engraved "G Butler’s glass 1810". I had to have it - and that was at least 25 years ago.
With Christmas approaching, many of us start to think what we should be laying in to drink over the festive season. Of course, the wine that many people consider as a celebratory one, is Champagne. I have to confess a strong penchant for it, although perhaps not as vigorous as Madame Lily Bollinger who is often quoted as saying (no doubt in the original French) :-
I drink it when I’m happy - and when I’m sad.
Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone.
When I have company, I consider it obligatory.
I trifle with it when I’m not hungry and drink it when I am.
Otherwise I never touch it - unless I’m thirsty.
What a lady!
The problem is that much inexpensive Champagne is too young, virulently acidic, and quite unpleasant, but we are fortunate that such examples are seen less and less frequently - except at supermarkets where they all vie to have what at first sight appears to be ‘best value’ - it seldom is. As they say, " you pay peanuts, and you get monkeys". I am sure Madame Bollinger never had to put up with such lower-end products.
I had never heard of Saint Reol Champagne until I visited Guy Boursot in Ardres, a charming small town less than 15 minutes south of Calais. I have to admit that I was smitten by it and we used it to launch ‘Great British Wine Accessories’ this time last year. It continues to be my favourite in the modest price range (it is £16 a bottle), which is further enhanced by being about £7-10 cheaper at Guy’s than it would be in the UK. It should not be surprising, given his family’s ties with the Champagne district over the past 300 years. They did, after all, introduce ‘brut’ champagne to the whole world via England! I must pop over and stock up a little myself!
I once went to a champagne tasting organised by Moët & Chandon who also own Green Point wines in Australia, and it was quite an eye-opener for me. We tasted French champagnes and their Australian counterparts, and heard how the parent company were not trying to make a champagne in the antipodes, but to make sparkling wine with its own characteristics. We were introduced to the fresh young wines first, and the most lasting impression of the whole session was how utterly and astringently repellent the raw ingredients were. Imagine gooseberry, apple, and a lemon, all distinctly unripe, crushed together; that was how the new wines, before they had been matured, appeared to taste. Of course it is the maturation processes which make sparkling wines what they are, and the length of time it takes, and the care which goes into their making, is why they are rather more expensive than most still wines. My taste is for more mellow, biscuity, and rounded flavours - wines which still taste of pleasant wine when the fizz has gone, but that comes with a lot of expertise by the winemakers, - and age! I found it astonishing that the sparkling wines that I like, started life as aggressive, mouth-puckeringly, and utterly unpotable wines.
I am often asked why 18th century wine glasses are so small. To find the reason, one has to look at social behaviour when they were made - then the answer becomes apparent. During much of the 18th century, wine was not simply poured from a decanter into a glass on the dining table, and left for the time when a diner simply wanted a drink; wine was only taken when a toast was given. When that was about to happen, the footmen would charge glasses and hand them to each diner, and on drinking the toast, the glass was emptied in a single draught, and handed back for the next toast. As a result most 18th century drinking glasses will hold only what can be taken in a single draught.
When the dinner was finished, the ladies retired, the table was cleared , and servants were dismissed for the rest of the evening. It was at this point that the gentlemen would gather around the fire or at the table and drink from larger glasses (goblets), and talk of subjects deemed not suitable for mixed company. This part of the evening could last for a considerable time and ladies were known to complain, not only about their being left out of the conversation, but also of their men being in a drunken state when eventually they joined company again.
The fact that 18th century wine glasses are unsuitable for daily use today, is why I keep fine modern glasses in addition to my antiques. Please do have a look, or perhaps another look at the page by clicking on the bottom right-hand side of my homepage.