Thursday , May 19 2022
Pupitre and bottles in an underground cellar

A wine flight of fancy

Andy Newman is in an extravagant mood this month as he splashes out on a world-beating wine flight

So last month I was sitting in a restaurant in France, when one of my fellow diners rendered me speechless (and anyone who knows me will realise what an achievement that is), by declaring that he did not regard the wine he was sipping at that very moment to be an extravagance.

If I tell you that the rich, amber-coloured liquid in his glass was Château d’Yquem 1983 – without a doubt the finest sweet wine on the planet – you may understand why I was so flabbergasted. Even at the relatively benign prices charged by this particular restaurant, the contents of his glass had cost more than 60 Euros. And the d’Yquem was the sixth bottle in a staggering wine flight featuring some of the finest bottles in the world.

I am tremendously fortunate in that I get to drink such wines occasionally, but to suggest that these stratospheric vintages didn’t constitute an extravagance? Surely most people would disagree?

This particular conversation took place the day before Norwich City won their final game of the season to become league Champions and secure promotion.  My friend pointed out that his glass of wine had cost approximately the same as many people will pay to see one Premiership football match next season – and that most would not regard that as extravagant.  So why should savouring a world-class wine be viewed any differently?

He has a point. We are constantly being bombarded with how cheap wine can be, but just as if you pay League Two prices, you get to watch League Two football, so if you want to enjoy top-class wines, you have to pay for the privilege. Having tasted wines like the d’Yquem and watched top flight football, I know how I would spend my money.  The prima donnas of Chelsea and Manchester would come a poor second choice; it’s each to their own.

Too many of us make do with bargain bottles, accepting big compromises on quality, and largely ignorant of the fact that the cheaper the bottle, the bigger proportion of the price goes to the taxman. Not many of us can afford to indulge in such pleasures on anything other than an occasional basis, but what exactly is wrong with a bit of extravagance now and again?

My French meal, a fine five course affair, was accompanied by bottles to make any wine-lover’s palate salivate. Trimbach Pinot Gris Réserve Personnelle 1985 as an aperitif was rich, golden and astonishing; Jadot Criots Bâtard-Montrachet 1990 was complex, buttery and alive; Château de Beaucastel 1996 was perhaps approaching the end of its drinking window, but nevertheless robust and multi-faceted; Château Lynch-Bages 1985 was simply fabulous – it has many more years drinking ahead of it; Taylors 1977 is as good a port as you will drink right now; and the d’Yquem delivered what I can only describe as a spiritual moment.

The bill for all of this extravagance? About £250 a head. Expensive, certainly, but less than Liverpool and Tottenham fans will be forking out for a ticket to watch their teams fight it out for the Champions League final.  Extravagant maybe, but also stunning value.

This Bacchanalian festival took place at one of my favourite restaurants: Le Channel in Calais. This is the kind of family establishment you dream about, where the profits have been repeatedly ploughed back into the kitchen, the décor and especially the cellar, and where providing great value – if not rock-bottom prices – is how they find themselves constantly full when other eateries fall by the wayside.

Most people see Calais only as they pass through on the way to more aesthetically pleasing parts of France.  I had travelled to France only to stay in Calais – and more specifically to visit Le Channel. And if you are in any way a lover of wine, you should too.

Such is the fairness of the establishment’s pricing policy that top-end bottles are actually cheaper here than you will find retail in the UK, despite the current pitiful exchange rate. I’m not quite sure how they do it, but I’m thankful that they do.

There are some who will think spending this kind of money on a meal with wine obscene. But a quick trawl of the internet shows the same kind of money being asked for two tickets to the Take That concert at Carrow Road or just one ticket to the first day of the first Ashes Test.

For most of us, these are not things we will do on a regular basis, but they are experiences which will remain with us, memories which we will draw on and savour again and again. And so it is with a special bottle of wine.

So go ahead, splash out. Much better to spend your money on experiences rather than expensive trinkets, the appeal of which will quickly diminish. When it comes to wine, be extravagant now and again, and don’t feel guilty. The enjoyment will last long after the last drop has disappeared from the bottle.

Three wines Andy has enjoyed this month

Bollinger La Grand Année, 2007
(Sainsburys, £60)
Made from 70% Pinot Noir and 30% Chardonnay, and fermented entirely in oak barrels, this is an exceptional vintage Champagne, and although expensive, is less than half the cost of some other prestigious cuvées.  Golden in colour, with notes of almonds, toast and pink grapefruit on the nose, and a palate combining honey, candied lemon and a slight pleasant bitterness. 

El Infiernillo Single Vineyard Pinot Noir 2017, Valle del Maule, Chile
(Bakers & Larners, £10.25)
For a wine that is less than two years old, at first glance this Pinot from Chile looks older, with a bricky hue and watery meniscus. The nose suggests dried fruit, cherry and vanilla, and on the palate it tastes more mature than its young age would suggest.  It lacks the depth of a truly mature Burgundy, but nevertheless at this price is well worth a punt. 

Bardos Verdejo 2018, Rueda, Spain
(Bakers & Larners, £11.25)
An interesting alternative to the ubiquitous Sauvignon Blanc, Spanish Rueda is on the up – and this is a tremendous example. Packed with citrus and grassy notes, it has a lovely refreshing acidity without beingastringent, and a complex, long finish. 

Recipe published in Feast Issue 37

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