There's no getting away from the moribund grip of nostalgia. In fact I am returning its mephitic squeeze this time by staggering about a mile up the hill to our local branch of Nicolas Wines to see what they've got on offer. Why? Because I have been seized by a horrible ungovernable nostalgic yearning: Nicolas was the first wine I can remember consuming at home, with my parents, in a domestic context. The first wine that, so far as I was concerned, ever made it through the front door of our house. Why go back to it now? I have no idea.
At any rate, the significance of Nicolas decades ago was less to do with the taste (I must have been about seven when it first appeared, so had to drink it adulterated with tapwater, and it couldn't have tasted worse if it had been adulterated with Gloy Gum; slightly less terrible in fact, as Gloy wasn't bad if what you wanted was a quick adhesive rush) and more to do with the change it provoked in the atmosphere around the table. At the time, Nicolas spent big on advertising in the colour supplements, showing a little three-wheeler delivery van plying the streets of Paris, bringing Nicolas to every address, much as the Unigate Dairy brought two pints of milk to suburban London; only this was a couple of litres of bright, serviceable wine, and Nicolas was its name, and it was, if you believed the copy, the wine the whole of France thrived on.
So my father bought some, and it came in these shapely yet modestly-adorned bottles with foil seals (like the foil on the tops of the innocent milk bottles) and little plastic stubs for stoppers. The first one was opened and placed carefully on the sideboard, like a loaded cannon, while we ate our Sunday roast. The effect was immediate. Up to that point, my Father had tended to drink beer with his lunch (beer from a freaking great brown bottle with a screw-shaped rubber bung, I might add) while my Mother inhaled a gin & tonic. Now, though, we had an emissary from the great wine-making continent of Europe in the room and suddenly, by association, we were at once more sophisticated, more civilised than we had ever been before, even allowing for the presence of my Mother's gravy and sprouts. After that, we never looked back. We started taking our holidays abroad and my Father grew some rather defensive sideburns. We became worldly.
So this is the legacy of Nicolas. Years have (of course) passed since those interminable Sunday lunches and Nicolas, which started out in Paris in 1822, has itself been through a few changes - especially in this country, where the Nicolas chain of shops recently acquired a new, UK-based owner in the form of Spirited Wines. The original link with France has thus been formally broken, although the shops still bear (for now, at least) the branding and the clarety paintwork of the last century, and seem much like any other pleasant, fast-disappearing, off-licence .
What they don't have, and haven't had for ages, are Nicolas branded wines, least of all in the big, artisanal bottles of childhood memory. Instead, they have a bargain line called Les Petites Récoltes, going for ￡5.80 a bottle (£5.80 apparently being the new £5.00) which cuts, effectively, the crap, offering everyday drinking at a just about semi-sensible price.
Very well. I buy a bottle of the Vin de Pays de la Cité de Carcassonne and take it home and open it and drink a bit and in no sense is it offering any competition to your user-friendly New World cornershop wines, being instead furious with acidity and alcohol and also a (not unpleasant) taste of burning leaves. This is a wine which is good with game, saltpetre or molten lead, not a wine to savour, PK-style, for its own sake. I write down the words almost depraved at one stage, before corking the stuff up and having a lie-down.
But I have to come back to it. I don't know why, but there is something perversely charming about this stuff. It doesn't taste like anything commonplace or even expected (turns out it contains every grape known to man, Carignan, Grenache, Cinsault, Cabernet-Sauvignon, Merlot), it makes no compromises at all, but what it does do, magically, is suggest some kind of awful barbarous old-school vin de table, the sort mythically offered at out-the-way rural eateries that everyone except me has managed to find somewhere in France, where the menu is what the patron decides to stick on a plate in front of you and where the drink is unlabelled and unknowable and borderline undrinkable, and yet satisfying somehow, and actually quite potable when taken with some (nice, greasy) food, the whole combining into a complete and exotic taste experience.
Cunning marketing has much to do with this in the case of Les Petites Récoltes. The bottles are made of no-frills clear glass, there's almost no labelling, and what labelling there is, is confined to two tiny scraps of coloured paper covered in twirly French handwriting - a rusticity which I'm sure was dreamed up in a chrome-filled office in La Défense, but which does the job for me, almost too potently. It creates such a genial mood of misty retrospection, a real Nicolas feeling, that not only do I put up with the bottle's persistently dribbly neck, I welcome it as a confirmation of its rough'n'ready unpretentiousness, just as I welcome its rough'n'ready contents. Just like the old Nicolas, it is selling me a dream of France in the comfort of my surburban home.
Am I a mug? Certainly. But it's as much fun as I've had with a bottle of wine for a long time. And when I can pluck up the courage, I shall drink the bottle of white - a Les Petites Récoltes Vin de Pays d'Aigues - which I bought at the same time as the red, and go down fighting.