In which Old Parn recounts the tale of his first serious wine purchase — and muses on the notions of choice and experimentation with the aid of a very nice bottle of white Rioja
Do you want to know what I love most of all about wine? Wine is an extravagantly complex universe, with bewildering variety, innumerable secrets and surprises.
I have an embarrassing — borderline clinical — compulsion to try new things. To try ALL THE NEW THINGS IN THE WORLD EVER. When I was a student, I spent a ludicrous amount of my loan (Go Team Maximum Student Loan!) on spirits. ‘Typical bloody student,’ you’re probably muttering, as you rustle your Daily Mail disapprovingly. But, y’see, I spent my loan on every spirit/liqueur I could find. Frangelico? Check. Framboise? Check. Creme de Cacao? Check. Amaretto? Check. Mine was not the shopping list of the typical student, I like to think.
(Christ alive, Parn, eradicate that entirely unwarranted tone of pride from your writing right now.)
Yeah. I wanted ALL THE SPIRITS. Because I wanted to be able to make ALL THE COCKTAILS. As a result, my university bedroom resembled a well-stocked off-license in a wealthy London borough. Except with Radiohead posters and the unmistakable stench of adolescent pretension. People came round to my room for a drink; I gave them a sodding menu.
But then I discovered that — actually — spirits were boring*. The apparent variety of the supermarket spirits section was nothing compared to the variety in my first case of wine. From Majestic.
Let me tell you about that first case of wine. I’d just moved into my first non-student abode. My first shared house. I’d landed my first BIG JOB (putting books back on shelves). I was almost like a Real Grown Up. And as such I decided to do what Grown Ups do: order a case of wine.
(Make your own deductions about my warped conception of adulthood. I don’t care.)
For someone who’d previously chosen his wine from the shelves of Sainsbury’s local, this was a revelation. So much choice! So many unfamiliar names!
I still have that same excitement whenever I browse wines in a good shop (online or off): that vertiginous thrill of bewildering, tantalising choice. The terror of knowing that even if I never drink the same wine twice, I still have no hope of trying them all. And I sincerely cannot imagine being faced with all these tantalising, exotic, unfamiliar names — and then putting a big-brand Australian Chardonnay into my basket. For me, that’d be like going to Thailand and having dinner in Burger King. I don’t mean that to sound snobbish. Because I think that the ‘safe’ ubiquity of big-brand wine is in no goddamn way the fault of customers who are intimidated by incomprehensible choice. Not everyone is a weirdass novelty-seeker like me — and if normal people don’t feel they can explore the unknowns of the wine world, that’s a failure on the part of the industry. But that’s another subject, eh?
So I filled my Majestic basket with unfamiliar fruits. Sure, lots of ’em would be well-known to me now — but then, everything was glimmering and new.
I still remember the first bottle I drank from that case, along with some friends: a white Rioja. And I thought: ‘Whoa. This is interesting. This wine kind of smells a bit like sheep’s cheese or something. How the hell does that work?’
(Nobody else knew what the hell I was burbling about when I said the bit about sheep’s cheese, by the way. They probably thought I was having a stroke.)
If you want to check out the sheep’s cheese thing yourself, I suggest you snap up a bottle of Navajas White Rioja from The Wine Society (****) It’s got that slightly sharp sheepy tang (boy, how appetising I make it sound) that took me right back to that first Majestic bottle. But when you get it into your gob, you’re cavorting with apricots and peaches. It’s dry, mind — and brilliantly, grippingly acidic, holding that jubilant fruit entirely in check.
And it costs £7.25 a bottle.
To me, £7.25 is a miserly amount to spend on a sensory experience that’s so goddamn unusual (so goddamn nice). That £7.25 wouldn’t even buy you a bottle of big-brand plonk in a Bethnal Green off-license (quoth the voice of bitter experience). But here it buys you apricots and sheep’s cheese and nostalgia.
Isn’t that, really, when we get down to it, pretty fucking exciting?