“Wine. Is. Red.” Not my words, but those of Christopher Hitchens, the legendary essayist and acclaimed drinker (or vice versa). He was foolishly asked by a waiter whether, having ordered wine, he would like red or white. And before this last fortnight, I would have agreed wholeheartedly, if only given my ingrained prejudice against those who poncily order a glass of ‘wayte wayne’.
But like a malign conjunction of stars, the last fortnight has seen both a heatwave and the breakdown of our fridge. Actually, the former may have caused the latter, I was cheerfully told by the so-called 'repair man', who came and informed us that the fridge was a write-off, and 'repaired' only back to his van.
Perhaps not surprisingly, under the circumstances, I have been slightly obsessing about the concept of cold white wine. Cold, crisp, light, cold white wine. Glistening with condensation on the outside of the glass. This is not the time to stay in with only tinned food and a shiraz in which you can stand a spoon. This is the time to go out – for wine which, even if it’s not particularly good, is light, refreshing…and cold.
A bad white wine is usually more tolerable than a bad red wine. A bad red can be vile, tasting of ink and silage, and there’s not much you can do about it. A bad white is usually just acidic, which you can generally get down with a wince and a shudder. And if you chill it right down, the first hit will numb your palate, sufficient to disguise the hints, at which cheap white wines excel, of the refinery and the urinal.
White is also generally lower in alcohol than red, so you can drink more of it. I’m with Robert, the character in Pinter’s wonderful play Betrayal, who orders a second bottle of white at lunch having polished off most of the first. “I’m not drunk,” he insists. “You can’t get drunk on Corvo Bianco.”
Which helps to makes white arguably a better lunch wine than red. “What were the Café Royal wits witty on?” a historian of the Café Royal once commented. “Not the heavy red Burgundies, but yellow wine and Seltzer.”
Or as Keith Waterhouse – acclaimed essayist and legendary drinker (or vice versa) – once put it, “there’s no doubt that the wine that travels best with the lunchtime banter and gossip is not served at room temperature.”
But chilling a red in public is not really a serious option. Yes, you can chill Beaujolais, you can stick it in an ice bucket, even put ice into it; but you’ll sit there in a restaurant just knowing that others are looking, and nudging – because how do you project the air that You Know What You’re Doing?
(It’s like the Duke of Windsor, getting away with wearing brown suede shoes with a blue chalkstripe suit, because, as one of his friends commented, “It would be wrong if it were a mistake. But the Duke knows better – so it’s alright.” Jancis could sit there sipping champagne through a straw, and everyone would think it was a smart thing to do. How do I communicate that I am doing this chilled red thing knowingly, that it’s an act of deliberation and not a further sign of encroaching senility? I have the same issue with my yearning to wear mismatching coloured socks…)
And even chilling your white can lead to problems. You run the risk in a restaurant that your bottle will be spirited away to an ice bucket standing against the wall, tempting but inaccessible, like the water of Tantalus.
Your lunch then becomes dominated by calculating the relative speeds of drinking and service; do I ask for a top-up now, or will he be back again before I really need one? You are reduced to semaphore, pointing at the ice-bucket, back at your glass, raising your eyebrows, in short everything except clutching your throat and croaking. When people speak of a restaurant as a theatre, I don’t think they had in mind a diner miming dehydration.
So only an icebucket at the table is really acceptable. One with a linen napkin for the drips. And one with enough ice to make that marvellous scrunching noise, perhaps the most mouthwatering sound in wine after the pop of a cork.
Don’t bother with those things which look either like perspex flower vases, or miniature terracotta chimneypots. They don’t work. And those little jackets which you put in the freezer do work, but they look ridiculous. If you want something in a puffa jacket at your table, invite a Sloane Ranger.
And of course, a proper icebucket means you can do that triumphant thing of upending the finished bottle for all to see. There. Yes, thank you, we’ve polished that one off.
And, do you know, as we're out, I think we might have another…