A weekend on the South Coast, including lunch at friends, and a new twist on the old dilemma of which wine to take as a gift. Do I really have to carry a bottle all that way on public transport?
Now that you can’t carry bottles of wine back home in an airplane, I’d forgotten just how heavy they are in an overnight bag. Never one to stint on clothing options, I was already weighed down in case of an unpredicted storm or, alternatively, heatwave, let alone the impossibility of precisely interpreting the dress code, “relaxed”. So really, the last thing I wanted was the additional weight, let alone breakage hazard, of a bottle of wine.
The obvious solution was to find a wine shop at our destination, and buy a bottle there.
Now once, Mrs K and I were walking towards a neighbour’s dinner party, when we met another couple of mutual friends from the other side of London. They were walking from the tube station, but in the opposite direction, towards us. It soon emerged that all four of us were actually going to the same dinner party. We therefore pointed out helpfully that they were walking the wrong way.
Ah, they said, but isn’t there a wine shop in that direction, where they could buy a bottle to take as a gift?
Something about this manoeuvre seemed both disturbingly calculated, and frighteningly risky. Travelling comfortably to a dinner party, yes, without lugging a bottle all the way across London. Smart move. But then, relying on finding your gift on arrival. Having to buy whatever a local wine shop could offer, with no opportunity to shop around. Possibly turning up with a bottle you couldn’t talk about, or even recommend yourself, because it’s a wine you didn’t actually know.
No, I would usually rather rely upon my little cellar to provide dinner party gifts; not only do I know what it has to offer, but providing gifts helps to mitigate its existence to Mrs K. Failing that, there is a reliably good wine merchant on my High Road. Giving a decent bottle invariably means taking one with me. And so I will carry a bottle all the way, advertising our social life to everyone on public transport. Even if it does alert potential cutpurses that I might be worth a few bob, in the unlikely event that any mugger is familiar with the 1855 classification.
But in this case, the weight and distance were just too much. I would have to trust to finding a wine shop in this South Coast town. It would be what I believe they call… an adventure.
I soon learnt that to Mr Google, with all his infinite variety, the term “wine shop” covers a multitude of sins. There was nowhere whose name offered that comforting confusion with a legal practice.
The first establishment to which it steered me was little better than a newsagent; it did, presumably, meet the technical description, in that you could shop for wine there, but not for a wine you would drink with anyone else, unless you were drinking together on a bench. And the second, despite actually calling itself a wine shop, was basically an off-licence, specialising in beer, baccy and Blossom Hill.
Fortunately the third was an actual wine shop; if a bit young and enthusiastic, keen on hipster varieties and distinctly lacking in traditional wines (‘because it’s so hard to get the value in Bordeaux these days’ – well, tell me about it…) Instead, they had the familiar glossy culprits from the New World, the Cloudy Bays, Chocolate Blocks and d’Arenbergs. At least those give you some kind of pricing benchmark. (Dead Arm at £34.95? Ouch.)
But when you’ve taken a chance on finding a decent wine shop at all, you’re going to play safe on your choice of wine as a gift. Arrive bearing a bottle labelled St Emilion Grand Cru Classé, and most recipients are going to feel you’re knowledgeable, grateful and generous. Just how I like to be regarded.
And you know what you're going to get. No matter what you tell me about that Ruritanian organic wine, I am not taking it to my friends for lunch if its main description is that it’s “interesting…”.
So I settled for Chateau Mangot 2009, a St Emilion somewhat ambitiously priced at £24.95. And the assistant stifled my financial concerns and sent me off instead with an indulgently warm feeling, easily awarded by simply saying, “Good choice, sir!”
Well, if I say so myself, it was. Because it was soft and smooth and rich and smoky and all the things you want from a mature claret for a Sunday lunch. And the hostess said it was lovely, when she managed to get a glass in between her husband and me polishing off the rest.
I would never wish to associate myself with the English tourists who eat egg and chips in Spain. But when you’re in strange territory, there is comfort to be found in the familiar. Even in the most exciting young wine shops, there’s a place for traditional wines, which establish a benchmark of knowledge (and price) by which first-time customers can measure the offering.
And yes, for meeting situations like mine. When you’re looking for a gift, a traditional wine is hard to beat. A safe bet, maybe, but a good choice indeed.