Thursday 22 February 2018

The Wines That Made Us (6): Nicolas

Was Nicolas the first wine I ever drank? Could well be. It appeared at the family dining table four? five? decades ago and I was encouraged, in the French manner, to try it with water, half-and-half, as a way of developing a taste for wine without becoming a dipsomaniac before I'd even reached my teens. It's horrible, of course, red wine and London tapwater, but I went through with it because if that's what the French did, then it was not only the right thing to do, but the right Gallic thing, like the subjunctive mood. I wanted to be cool enough to be French, was what it came down to.

I still don't really know who or what Nicolas Wines is or are. They started in Paris in the first half of the nineteenth century - this much they claim on one of their websites - and were bottlers and distributors of their own brands as well as being merchants for other people's wines. Which makes them sound like one among thousands of others. The only difference being that in Britain, or at least in our morose trench of the North London suburbs, they were France itself, a metonymy which drove us wild over the roast beef and two veg when their product started to make its presence felt at mealtimes.

How did we know that Nicolas encapsulated the entirety of everyday French culture? Because the ads told us so. The Sunday supplements - in themselves an invitation to a new world of heightened awarenesses - ran these full-pagers depicting what looked like a Parisian milk float doing the rounds of an arrondissement - only instead of milk from the Unigate Dairy, it was delivering a litre or two of Nicolas, the stuff which, it seemed, kept every Parisian household en forme for the rest of the day. Nicolas' Vin de Table or Vin Ordinaire - terms which have tragically more or less vanished from the world of wine drinking - thereby combined the idea of wine - a costly, hedonistic rarity for most Brits - with quotidian necessity in a way which we'd read about or seen in the movies, but had scarcely, if ever, encountered. It was breathtaking in its relaxed, winey, maturity. Better yet, it was authentic in a way the other competition for our minds and stomachs - Blue Nun, Mateus Rosé, Goldener Oktober - could never manage. It even had a plastic bung rather than a cork: that's how real it was.

But then, back in the late Sixties and early Seventies, France still had a stranglehold on the theory and practice of the good life. Any Gallicism you could think of was a glimpse of better things: savoir-vivre, couture, insouciance, crème de la crème, liaison, tendresse, Belle Époque, entre nous, avant-garde, chic, soigné; I could go on. A scant twenty miles across the Channel, the French were so different, so highly-developed, that the Lyons (as in Joe Lyons) coffee company actually advertised, in British publications, its fresh ground standard roast with the words Une recette qu'on ne trouve pas dans les livres de cuisine, a sentence now impenetrable to almost everyone. At the same time, French cinema still mattered, the true haute couture was French, gastronomy took its cues from French haute cuisine, the Citroën DS was still in production, the South of France was home to Picasso and Chagall, and Francis Poulenc had only recently died, in Paris. Nicolas was an ambassador, in its way, to all this. Did it even matter what it tasted like?

All of which would be fine, except for one problem. I'm starting to wonder if perhaps I haven't remembered more than there was to remember: that I'm indulging a false memory. For a start, can can you still get Nicolas? In this country? Well, yes, there are still Nicolas shops, but the things they sell under their own name are generic-looking Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs and Côtes du Rhônes, nothing to shout about, no sign of the big old bottles with the plastic bungs. Nor can I find any evidence of the advert which changed my life - the one with the wine float trawling the backstreets of the arrondissement. I've got one (see above) which ticks some of the right boxes, but it's not the wine float, it's just a bottle and a Duralex and a newspaper. And a piece of baguette. Which is good, but beyond that? Added to which, no-one I have mentioned the imperishable late Sixties Nicolas to, has anything like the same recollections of it, if any.

My memory is an undependable ally at the best of times and it's starting to look as if my whole wine-drinking life may be premised on an initial lie. Which then raises the question: do I prefer the lie to whatever the truth may actually be? How much do I want to cling on to this misapprehension? On this occasion, I think I'm going to have to say quite a lot.


Thursday 15 February 2018

The Wines That Made Us (5): Beaujolais Nouveau

What on earth was all that about?

It was 1979, and I was in my first job, working on a magazine based in Soho, and trying hard to prove my credentials. So I was quick to go along when, one Thursday morning in November, not long after we had actually started work for the day, it was announced that we were all going out for a glass of the Beaujolais Nouveau.

Just around the corner, at a wine bar draped with tricolor bunting, there were people dressed like cartoon Frenchmen, in hooped jerseys and berets, serving a red wine to crowds of office workers who were spilling out on to the pavements. I had never seen so many people publicly drinking wine. And even to someone experienced in PBAB student party wine, this wine was peculiarly bad; but that seemed to be neither here nor there.

Because this wasn’t really about the wine itself, or even about the ridiculous ways people were racing to bring it over from France. It was the fact that Brits who rarely tasted wine otherwise would leave their offices in mid-morning, and go out together, to pay over the odds to drink this red wine. And not a delicious, can’t-possibly-wait-for-it red wine, but this particular, proudly immature wine, the tasting equivalent of consuming cake mix, rather than cake.

What on earth was going on? Bear with me on this one.

There’s a perfectly valid tradition behind the drinking of Beaujolais Nouveau – in Beaujolais itself. Back in the 18th century, the emergence of a fresh, new vintage, even if it was still fermenting in the barrels, was cause for a celebration, with the locals downing some of the barely-drinkable wine on the day of its release in November. 

This eccentric ritual only began to gain wider recognition during World War II, when journalists and exiles fled the occupation of Paris for the Vichy-governed and Beaujolais-drinking “free zone” around Lyon. There, they naturally joined in with the local celebration, and when they returned to Paris looked to continue the tradition; it was an excuse to raise a glass of wine on a drab day in early winter, and to swap tales of the Occupation. So Parisian cafés began to post notices on their windows, to announce by mid-morning of its release that “Le Beaujolais Nouveau est Arrivé”.

In 1970, dining in Beaujeu the night before that release, were Joseph Berkmann, restaurateur and vintner, and Clement Freud, lugubrious politician and gourmand. Each of them argued that they would be able to drive their bottles back to London before the other. And so as midnight passed and the wine was released, they set off.

It wasn’t that much of a race, since both of them had to catch the same early morning ferry back across the Channel. But Berkmann won, largely because he was better at beating London’s rush hour traffic. The following year, Berkmann won again; and with word of their little competition spreading through their respective wine columns, Berkmann won for a third and final time in 1972.

But then a journalist offered in The Sunday Times the modest prize of a bottle of Champagne for the first person to bring a bottle of the next Beaujolais Nouveau to his desk. And the Race was on.

Like many British sporting endeavours, the aim of actually winning was soon to be ignored by participants more interested in entertainment. Increasingly absurd methods were used to bring the bottles back to Britain. Parachutists, fire engines, hot-air balloons, motorised bathtubs and the rest created a circus of publicity, which reached even those completely ignorant of wine – ie the majority of the British population.

Who would be able to drink the first bottles in Britain? Bizarrely, it seemed important at the time. There was an air of triumph, as if the wine had been somehow wrested from the French before they could drink it themselves.

It was the most enormous boost for the newly burgeoning wine bars. With many pubs still not serving wine, here was an ideal reason to visit Champers, and Corks, and all the other poorly-named wine bars then springing up around the UK. Yes, the wine was thin, harsh and, because of a particular yeast used to hasten the production of so much early wine, often contained the unlikely flavours of bananas or bubble-gum. But the taste was easily dismissed as the price of drinking the vintage so young. For some, the poor taste was part of the fun.

The race itself quickly collapsed. The French had always had a somewhat laissez faire attitude towards drink driving, but even they could not condone a widely-publicised road race through the night by hordes of Beaujolais-fuelled Brits. The French police cracked down and the press had to stop promoting it as a race.

But we Brits continued to drink the now efficiently delivered wine. The producers couldn’t believe it. In 1983 The Times reported on the arrival of a staggering five million bottles in Britain in time for breakfast. At its peak, over 64% of the entire output of Beaujolais would be sold early as Nouveau.

What could possibly burst such an entertaining and lucrative bubble? Ironically, it was the very growth of interest in wine itself.

Once, France was considered the be-all and end-all of wine, and the suggestion of a new French vintage might have carried an almost mystical significance. But by the late Eighties, there were decent wines increasingly available from all over the world. So the French had a new vintage – so what?

Not only did blended New World wines not even have a vintage – but they were consistently drinkable. What, really, was the point in overspending on a thin, immature French wine, when there were now thoroughly drinkable Australians or South Americans available?

Sales began to fall. In 1990, several big wine retailers decided not to sell their own Nouveau. And from the 13 varieties available in 1986, there is generally only one sold in the UK today.

A vintage or two back, I tried the Nouveau for old times’ sake. It was hard to find; the occasion is largely ignored now by actual wine merchants, and by wine bars keen to retain their hard-won reputation for connoisseurship. But I found a desultory display in one supermarket. It’s still pretty nasty; its thin colour and spritely nose lead on to a real collision in the mouth between a tart body and that notorious bubblegum fruitiness on top. Perhaps if you had a single quick glass, from a bottle shared with friends, it might be tolerable, but its fruit evaporates quickly to leave a ghostly, inky-flavoured wine. Nowadays, we expect more.

Beaujolais Nouveau could, I suppose, have put me off wine drinking for life. But in fact, it emphasised for me the importance of conviviality, and drinking together, in enjoyment of wine. That enjoyment has moved on to rather more mature tastes – which leaves Beaujolais Nouveau as something of a curiosity, sought out by nostalgists, its taste tolerated like that of a childhood cough mixture, as a transport to the past.


Thursday 8 February 2018

The Wines That Made Us (4): Sanatogen

So what with one thing and another, I've been feeling a bit peaky. You know, colds and flu, the world situation, they get you down. And I thought, Well, I've tried almost everything except prayer, so I might as well have a glass of tonic wine - Sanatogen Original Tonic Wine, to be specfic, £6.25 for 70cl from Tesco. Sanatogen is one of those products whose essential redundancy has never stood between it and market share: it's one of the last of the great Tonic Wines, a drink which may or may not do you any good ('The name Tonic Wine does not imply health giving or medicinal properties' it announces darkly on the label) but which is 15% by volume and has a handy screw top for those really bleak moments.

In its heyday, of course, it was aimed at emotionally depleted British housewives who found themselves having difficulty with the modern world ('...all you have is an empty house. And the same dull round of household tasks...') or the business of child-rearing (' wears you out. And your husband wonders what's wrong with you!') or anything, in fact; and who needed a jolt of something to get through the day ('In no time at all you should feel your old self again'). Nowadays, half a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc would do the trick, but fifty years ago, Sanatogen, or Wincarnis, or Buckfast Tonic Wine ('When everything's an effort'), or, even further back in the catacombs of self-medication, Phosferine ('Absolutely fit - Depression Banished'), Vibrona, or Winox ('40% richer than ordinary Tonic Wines in flesh-forming properties'), were the admissible routes to a more balanced worldview. Occasionally, the ads went as far as showing a picture of a doctor, or at least someone you might mistake for a doctor. So you knew you were in good hands.

What next? Feeling increasingly starved of essential get-up-and-go, I take my Sanatogen bottle, pour a decent couple of fingers, take a swig. Basically? Basically, cough mixture without the unctuous syrupy delivery. A horrible, horrible drink, really distressingly ghastly. Fruit Gums and silver polish; old rainwater, dental disclosing tablets, aftershave, granulated sugar; woodstain. I should spike PK's glass with it one day, it's that bad. And I have no way of knowing what's in it - imported grape juice is all the label admits to, but no sense of the mystery ingredients which transform it from a kind of Ribena into a full-blown 15% health drink. And what is its relationship with Sanatogen health tablets, invented by the Bauer company at the start of the Twentieth Century? Accolade Wines it says on the back, but no mention of the tabloid pick-me-up sold as much to men (Edgy Hubby - Your Chemist Understands) as to women, back in the day. It's an enigma.

All right then: in the dark as to what I've just consumed, do I feel any healthier or less depressed after I've made myself retch through a whole glassful? No. I feel queasy and miserable, not least because I now realise that not only can I not drink Sanatogen Tonic Wine on its own terms, I can't even stick it in a casserole or sauce or what have you, not unless the recipe calls for something sugary and emetic, the colour of a bloodshot eye.

Time passes, though (doesn't it always? And so fast, when you get to a certain age) and I can begin to see, in a larger, non-drinkable sense, some kind of justification for its existence: it's a living fossil, a reminder of a time when the British were still worried enough about wine - real wine, this is - to have to disguise it as something else. Not, obviously, that this is wine, but, like Babycham, it has enough of the characteristics of wine to allow it into that conceptual realm. The bottle looks a tiny bit like a bottle of wine, its contents are sort of wine-coloured, it's definitely not tea or coffee, and, best of all, it's got alcohol in it, that sovereign restorative which dulls the pain of existence just long enough for you to feel regret afterwards. In this guise, it conjures up a lost world of suburban evasions and bitter falsehoods, a place where sensual pleasures were borderline pathological, where certain kinds of self-indulgence had to be mediated by, say, the medical profession - a place where cough mixture met desire and everything was forgiven.

It also, given its original bias towards an unhappy female market, talks specifically of the oppressions of post-War women, stuck in an environment of routine and hobbled expectations, unable to self-actualise like their brainless husbands and forced, instead, to hit the bottle and shut up. It's not good. A patronising man doctor chides you gently about your consitutional emotional frailty? Sanatogen; or Wincarnis; or Vibrona: they'll put a stop to all your nonsense. As, indeed, they seem to have put a stop to mine.


Thursday 1 February 2018

The Wines That Made Us (3): Bull's Blood


Thanks for coming round to my place this cold winter’s evening. For anyone who doesn’t know me, I’m Shop Steward at the British Leyland Cowley plant. You can call me Robbo. No relation to Red Robbo up in Longbridge, but I’m honoured that some people make a connection!

Now as you know, we stand on the brink of enormous political change. This winter of 1978 has been hard and cold, but we have seen solidarity across nearly every major national industry. Our brothers on the trains and lorries, the bin-men, even the gravediggers have come out on strike. We are demonstrating that the workers are the backbone of this nation. And so I’ve invited you all round to my home this evening for a bit of a get-together, not only to discuss that future, but to raise a glass in celebration, and to toast the biggest shift in the political power of the workers which this country has ever seen.

Some of you will have come here tonight, hearing the promise of a bevy, expecting your Double Diamond and your Red Barrel – and for those of you with a continental bent, your Skol lager. You’ll have come expecting to see one of those giant Watney’s Party Seven cans propped up on the kitchen table, ready to flood the floor when someone opens it. But tonight, I’d like to offer you something a little… better. I’d like to offer you wine.

Now settle down, lads, settle down. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, wine’s a nob’s drink. A toff’s drink. A boardroom drink. And I would say to you, yes, brothers – and that’s exactly where we’re heading.

I’m not saying that we’re going to adopt the whole bourgeois, management lifestyle. But we need to accustom ourselves to some of the trappings of authority. We’ve got to play the part. I mean, if Michael Foot got to run the Labour Party, he wouldn’t wear a donkey jacket, would he?

And don’t listen to those who say that wine’s the drink of the Right. I was proud, when I was at Poly, to go to bring-a-bottle parties, and see that when some Young Conservative did bring-a-bottle of wine from Chile, grown under that fascist Pinochet, that bottle stood there unopened. We do of course observe the boycott of all South African produce, and that includes wine. Personally, I’m still a bit concerned about wines from Greece or Spain, because they might have been tended by oppressed hands during the rules of the Colonels or of Franco. And don’t get me started on French landowners and Napoleonic law.

But thankfully, there are now several wines coming out from our comrades in Eastern Europe. Bulgaria, Czechslovakia and so on. Most of it goes to Russia, which sounds like a recommendation to me! But some of it’s coming to us, and our hard Western currency is going back the other way, so it’s fair dibs all round.

This is Bull’s Blood, a wine I’m proud to say is from Communist Hungary. I know we’ve had a few issues with Hungary, with all that nonsense back in 1956, and people calling it “goulash Communism”. But here is a prime example of what Communist labour can produce, to rival the wines produced elsewhere by exploited peasants for their landowners. Its name is testament to the strength of the wine, and the vigour of the workers who make it.

And it’s affordable – one of the few wines we can afford, until the management see fit to meet our demands and get this piecework nonsense sorted out. Hungary’s workers have abandoned the old vineyards of the historic landowners, got out on their tractors, cultivated the communal land, and boosted production, so that we can all benefit from this excellent wine.

What’s it like? Well, I’m no Johnnie Cradock! I’m not going to ponce on about bouquets and so on. You know me, lads; when I hear “palate”, I think of a fork-lift!  But I think I can say, even in these days of Women’s Lib, and as Sue from Accounts isn’t here, that this is a proper man’s drink!

Under capitalism, the working class in this country didn’t get to drink wine. If capitalism were to prevail – which it won’t! – but if it were to prevail, you wouldn’t see affordable wine like this in our supermarkets. Oh no; wine would be kept as a drink for the privileged few. And you certainly wouldn’t see wine from Eastern Europe, because the West wants to stifle their economies.

So let’s enjoy some Bull’s Blood together in the spirit of these extraordinary times. Here’s to the day when wine is no longer a bourgeois drink; and we can all drink good quality wine from the hands of the workers.

Raise a glass, brothers, of a genuinely Red wine!



1 Derek ‘Red Robbo’ Robinson was Shop Steward at the car manufacturer British Leyland’s Longbridge plant. He was credited with causing 523 walkouts at British Leyland between 1978 and 1979, costing an estimated £200 million in lost production

2   What became known as the Winter of Discontent in 1978 led to the fall of the Labour government, and ushered in the reign of Margaret Thatcher. This did indeed bring about “the biggest shift in the political power of the workers which this country has ever seen”.

In Hungarian, this wine is called Egri Bikaver, and bikaver does mean bull’s blood.  Eger is a town in north-east Hungary, an area which produced wine since the 13th century. Around 1552, Hungary was invaded from Turkey by Suleiman the Magnificent, who laid siege to Eger. However, the town was defended by Hungarian soldiers who had been fortified with a local red drink which stained their beards and armour. They repelled their invaders, fighting so ferociously that the retreating Turks spread the story that they must have been drinking bulls’ blood.

4 Under Communism, the quality of East European wine was neglected in favour of overcropping, pasteurisation, and industrial production. Historic sloping vineyards were abandoned in favour of flat land, which allowed for the use of tractors. And all of the grapes were mixed together in centralised production, so there was no incentive for individual growers to develop the quality of their own crop. 

5 The full body and dryish palate of the Bull’s Blood of the 1970s is still fondly remembered as a perfectly drinkable red wine. That may be because for young men, the name alone meant that drinking Bull’s Blood without complaint conferred a certain machismo. 

6  In 1989, on the anniversary of its 1956 Revolution, the Hungarian Republic was officially declared. A revised constitution championed the "values of bourgeois democracy”. In 2017, Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book listed wines from 11 formerly Soviet regions, including Slovenia, Romania and Bulgaria along with Hungary. “Hungary’s wine traditions, regions and grape varieties are the basis for Eastern Europe’s finest wines,” he writes, “finally recovering from the Communist years.”