So I'm having a glass of wine with a pal, and it's rather a nice Seyval Blanc. It's chilled, lightly effervescent, extremely tasty and, to be perfectly frank we're eating a bit of smoked salmon at the same time, and all is good - but here's the thing: our wine is home-made and is served from an old Tesco Cava bottle which arrives stoppered with a crown cap, like a beer bottle. Have we gone mad?
No. The pal - whose wine this is, and who has made it himself, with his own hands and someone else's bottles - is actually a big deal in the wine beer and spirits industry and has a background in biochemistry. He can make beer, he can make wine, he can probably service my car. As he puts it, 'Making wine is a mug's game. It's so easy. Especially in comparison with beer, which is a complete pain'.
Naturally, one casts one's mind back to homemade brews of the past, just about all of them bleakly underwhelming - from the teenage homebrew beer I used to neck, sediment and all, just to get plotzed in a mate's front room; to my Pa-in-Law's ineffable spider wine, made with bits of tendrils, weedkiller and, key ingredient, dead insects. But one would be wrong to lump the Seyval Blanc in with this tragic historical debris.
It's made using the méthode traditionelle, which in this case means not much more than crushing and pressing the grapes (which come from an allotment in the sunny outer suburbs of London; used to be a microvineyard in Sussex, but too much travelling involved), sticking the juice in a steel bin for a week or so before decanting it into a second bin, and leaving it until some time the following year, when the new wine is siphoned off and rudely bottled and stoppered.
Of course, there's more to it than that. 'They all have some acidity correction,' he notes. 'Nothing more than precipitated chalk.' I carefully note down precipitated chalk, back in the school chemistry lab, equally adrift. 'And this one's got glycerine in it, to add to the mouthfeel. When I was making country wines, years ago - ' wines made from anything at all, parsnips, rhubarb, chicken wire ' - I used to tip in a load of glycerine I got from Boots.'
'Uh huh,' I say, as if I understand.
'And at the end, when I'm bottling the wine, I put in a bit more yeast and sugar, to create the effervescence and up the alcohol content. They're English grapes, so they never give much more than 8%. I have to add sugar early on to get it to around 10. On the other hand, the great thing about Seyval Blanc, is that it's idiot-proof. And it makes quite a nice sparkling wine.'
I find myself reflecting helplessly that if that's all there is, why don't we all do it? But I am not a trained biochemist with years of experience in the making and flogging of mass consumer beverages. All I can do is observe that his 2012 homebrew is a bit tart, with that slightly brassy sherryish introduction one rightly fears in hobbyist wine; although it mellows nicely by the finish. The 2011, on the other hand, is just delicious. Bit of moss in the nose, a hint of lychee further along, well-controlled acidity, altogether an extremely shapely drink with a finish that keeps on going. The only thing one has to remember is to decant it first, on account of the fine lees at the bottom of the bottle. Fortunately, my pal has the steadiest pouring hand I have ever seen.
'It gets better the longer you leave it. The yeast dies and releases all sorts of things that improve the flavour. Trouble is, we tend to make a start on it as soon as it's drinkable. After six months, we're saying, this is really good. But by then there are only a couple of bottles left.'
Is it too late to acquire this kind of competence? Have I wasted my life buying drink instead of confecting it myself, in the back yard? I forget to ask the unit cost per bottle, but it can't be too high, even allowing for the expenditure on a couple of stainless steel tanks and a press (which can be also used for apples, pears, some laundry). Oh, but there is a cloud in the sky: 'The biggest pain,' the pal says ruminatively, 'is getting clean bottles. We keep our old champagne bottles and scrounge the rest from friends and neighbours. But do you know, they don't all rinse them out before giving them to us?'
'Some people,' I say. 'Don't tell me we've drunk it all.'