Thursday 28 February 2019

The Sunshine Counties

So, a couple of weeks ago, PK and I are at this tasting of Hampshire wines. Just looking at the phrase Hampshire wines gives me a bit of a start: go back a generation and it would have been the cue for a flurry of cheap gags about Derbyshire sherry and the clarets of Aberystwyth, but such are the times we live in that we go along quite looking forward to it. And yes, it is all very pleasant, although PK is frustrated at not being able to snoop around the smartyboots private club in which the event is taking place, on account of the wines of Hampshire being kept sequestered in a special basement with its own tradesmen's entrance.

That aside, what do we find? Basically a roomful of sparkling whites, about two still wines and a load of people murmuring suavely away at each other. Nothing wrong with that; we toil round the tables along with the other cognoscenti (Oz Clarke!) and I think come out finally in favour of the Hambledon Classic Cuvée; or it might be the Danebury Madeleine Angevine. Either way I forget to pick up a pencil at the check-in desk and now it's gone out of my head.

What I do recall, though, is that a) there is a definite regionality or, at least, identity, in the stuff we try, which is charming, especially given the charm of Hampshire itself, one of my favourite counties, and b) for all that, it is kind of underwhelming: a lot of crisp, slightly virtuous, Englishy hints of apples and hedgerows, a whiff of bicarb, but also a very slightly tragic undertow of Babycham - I mean, a really top-notch Babycham, as good as Babycham could ever get, but there all the same.

The upshot? Given that I've been droning on about the latter-day thrill that is English wine, I come out of the the tasting conflicted. Why is it all so nearly good without getting completely across the finish line? Is it the wine witholding or is it me? I feel I have to act. First move is to bring round a bottle of Camel Valley Cornish white sparkliing to the PK house where he and Mrs K are having some people round, plus me and the wife, for a sophisticated three-courses-plus-cheese dinner such as I can I only dream of confecting. This is in order to answer the question that PK and I keep fatuously shouting at each other at the tasting: Would you serve this at a dinner party?

Well, yes, it gets served and everyone makes polite noises about it, but it is still pretty much Babycham, the sort of Babycham you might get in Business Class on Cathay Pacific, yes, but Babycham. So, on to phase two.

Phase two is a bottle of New Hall Bacchus 2016 Reserve which someone must have brought round to our place and which I must, equally, have stuffed away against just such an eventuality. Essex-based, this one, and a tantalisingly bland 10.5%, so no risk of running amok even if I drink the bottle in one. As it happens, it lingers for three days before I get to the end of it and what do you know? It's definitively pleasant, without quite ever being there. I mean, it's fine, but so unassertive it's hard to know if I'm actually drinking it or only think I am.

On the other hand, it does befriend me in an odd sort of way. I start to think of it fondly, with its self-effacing semi-presence in the bottom of the fridge, a drink I can take or leave without knowing which of these two I have actually done, but a companion nonetheless, a modest tipple on the way to something else, perhaps, something shoutier. I could go for another bottle if it came my way.

Which leads us back (doesn't it always) to the fact that there is a nice little niche here for something genteel, tempered, very English in a Georgian domestic architecture, country garden sort of way, except that the booze costs twice as much as it should. And until English winemakers get some serious economies of scale - about half southern England under vines should do it - there the matter rests. Given the way the planet's burning up, I would say they've got about six weeks to act.


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