The secret of the programme’s success, of course, is that castaways choose not the eight best records but the eight records that mean most to them. And they tell the stories that go with them.
And so it is with wines. My choice of wines that have meant most to me in life is dictated by the situation in which I drank them, even more than their excellence.
Take my first choice: Clos de Vougeot 1965. A friend and I, both aged 21, won a scholarship to spend six weeks in France studying the wine trade. (Don’t ask how such a thing is possible; this was the 1960’s – it probably isn’t any more). It gave us a little money but, much more important, it gave us introductions to key winemakers in Burgundy. We were working our way down the Côte d’Or, visiting cellars and tasting wine. One lunchtime we’d reached the little village of Vougeot, home of some of the most famous vineyards in the world, where there was a little bistro, packed with men (as was the way then).
We ordered the cheapest possible meal and asked for water – it was all our money would run to. ‘Ce n’est pas possible’ shouted a man two tables away. ‘When in Vougeot we drink Vougeot!’. The waitress was called, a half bottle ordered, and the whole bistro nodded with approval, of course this was how they do things here. The wine was exceptional – elegant, fragrant, almost perfumed. And it went on our neighbour’s bill. I’ve never forgotten that man’s generosity and whenever someone complains about the arrogance and disdain that the French can show to foreigners I think, no, it’s not necessarily arrogance. Sometimes it’s a justified pride.
My next choice was also first tasted in a restaurant, but we were paying this time. Alghero is the loveliest old town in Sardinia, and the best spot in Alghero is a restaurant on the sea wall where you dine outside at tables with white linen tablecloths, watching the sun go down across the Mediterranean. I was there with my wife. Our first night we had a wine from the largest co-operative on the island, called Santadi. It was so good the next night I ordered the best Santadi they had. The waiter, previously polite, became suddenly interested. “Perfetto” he said and headed off to the other waiters to tell them this foreigner had ordered a bottle of Terre Brune. They nodded their approval, outrageously big wine glasses were brought and the Manager appeared with the bottle. Activity stopped across the restaurant while the bottle was opened. A little was poured; I tasted. I don’t usually cry when asked to taste a wine but I wasn’t far off that evening. It was divine. It was a Carignano del Sulcis – pure Carignan grapes on old vines, matured in oak barrels. It was an impossible combination of power and elegance. I don’t think I said anything, just nodded helplessly in a way the waiter seemed to understand. I’ve had it since, and it wasn’t just the setting; it really is that good.
was 19 and living alone in Rheims, working all summer in a department store to learn French. In those easygoing days all the great Champagne houses opened their cellars to visitors, with the tour of the cellars, refreshingly cool in that hot summer, followed by a dégustation gratuite. I did so many of these tours that I really could tell one champagne from another. Pommery was my favourite tour. They changed the guides so often I could always get in without being recognised as a repeat visitor; and they had acres of caves packed with champagne bottles, each one being turned every few months by hand, deep in the limestone under the city.
But my favourite champagne was Veuve Clicquot, with its distinctive orange label. I liked its rich, full, biscuity flavour. Some years later, driving to the south of France, my wife and I stopped in Rheims to visit the now elderly couple who had found that job for me and tried to keep an eye on me. In the conversation I mentioned my liking for Veuve Clicquot and, without a word, Pierre got up, put away the bottle of something else he already had on ice, went down to his cellar and came back with a 10 year old bottle of Veuve Clicquot. The aging had changed it from the luscious full bodied fresh bubbly I remembered to a more complex wine, but unmistakeably Clicquot. Nothing brings back a memory as powerfully as does taste and smell.
hen Gordon Ramsay opened his restaurant at Claridge’s he offered an extraordinarily cheap lunch deal; so I booked for the two of us. The hotel was as opulent as we had expected, the food was good though not great, and the wine list was very, very long and expensive. We headed for the area of France we know best – the Languedoc – and chose the cheapest, called, intriguingly, ‘No.7’ from a domaine called La Croix Belle. It was splendid: full, fruity, complex, totally honest and well made. I asked the French wine waiter what the grapes were and, without a pause he said ‘grenache, syrah, mourvedre’ which was no surprise because they are typical grapes for that area. Next time we were down there we called in at La Croix Belle and spoke to Mme Françoise Boyer who runs the sales side of the family business. The waiter had just been guessing. It’s called No.7 because it’s made from seven grape varieties, including the three the wine waiter had guessed. A Frenchman doesn’t admit he doesn’t know.
Françoise had merely placed her wines in the hands of a broker and had no idea they were on such prestigious wine lists. I think that was the end of the broker as far as she was concerned. We still drink a lot of No.7. It sums up for us what Languedoc red wines are all about. They get a lot of sun and the stony soil drains well; so the wine is naturally concentrated, rich, and fruity. Knowing the people and their vineyards brings a whole new dimension to enjoying their wine.
l This is Andrew Polmear’s final wine column for The Mighty Whistler. But he can’t get away that easily. We organised a 38 Degrees Petition – to say how many votes it got would embarrass Andrew – but suffice to say you’ve not seen the last of his byline