I often wonder how many people of a certain age – my age, really – can sometimes walk, at about 8.30 am, past a pub with its doors thrown wide open as the cleaners do their stuff, take a deep breath and be immediately transported back to their childhoods. It’s a rare occurrence these days, I suppose, but I used to walk past a pub which had “that” smell every schoolday in 1956 and 1957 when I was five and six years old – it’s no wonder that the memory is ingrained. It’s a pleasant memory, full of innocence and expectation and, unfortunately, it’s based upon everything which it shouldn’t be. The smell in question was, logic tells me, one of rancid beer and stale cigarette smoke – so prevalent in the 1950s and, to be perfectly honest, nothing which anyone should get up their nostrils these days. But occasionally it still happens and it immediately transports me back to more innocent times and makes me smile. I like things that do that.
I’m a sucker for nostalgia, certainly, but there are also things I’m glad to see the back of. Let’s fast forward, then, to the 1970s when I was in my supercool 20s and wine was fast becoming the drink to be seen with – a movement fully understandable when you consider that those were also the days of such infamous creations as Watney’s bleedin’ Red Barrel. Wine didn’t have to be very good to compete with the likes of that stuff, and it wasn’t. Ask anyone who can remember what was sold as Liebfraumilch (nothing like what’s given that name today) or even Mateus Rose (I seem to remember liking that but, once again, it bore not the slightest resemblance to today’s wine of the same name). There were a few others, usually disgustingly sweet, which were designed for a growing but naive British market. They’d certainly never have been a success in their mainland European homes. Then in came the first wine kits – the “make 6 bottles of top quality wine in your own home in less than two weeks” monstrosities. And yes – I tried a couple. They certainly made six bottles of something, but I won’t go into the gory details. Disclaimer here – some of the kits sold today are excellent, but that fact cannot be used to defend the products of the later 70s, which I truly believe gave rise to the phrase “piss-poor”. Then again, I can remember jetting off to Spain – we’re probably in the 80s now. I say jetting – it was actually a coach journey which gave you a terrible overnight crick in the neck because those funny-shaped cushions for just such a trip hadn’t been developed. But never mind – I eventually sat under a Mediterranean sun somewhere near a Mediterranean beach sipping Mediterranean red wine which came from just up the road and it tasted absolutely gorgeous. But it tasted gorgeous because the temperature (of the entire environment, not just the wine) was right, and the mood was right, and everything was relaxed and very Catalonian and, to cut a long story short, that’s where the wine belonged.
There’s a lot to be said for consuming local products locally – they sort of fit without having to work too hard at it. You’re there, the fruits are there, the climate’s there, the water’s there, everything’s there to make consuming that product in that place the natural and desirable thing to do. It’s an idea which applies itself readily to anything which grows, moos, baas, clucks or blows bubbles in water, an idea which has been enthusiastically embraced by people all over the world. As alcoholic drinks go there’s even history for it, as anyone sipping cider in an apple-growing area can tell you. Drinks can easily be associated with places and be every bit as redolent of times gone by (even if those times were only last year) as a certain scent wafting out from the open doors of a pub. We should celebrate what we grow or what we can forage and we do just that when we make jams – much nicer ones than can be found on supermarket shelves – and other conserves of all kinds. But not, apparently, by making wine.
I can hear a lot of disgusted yecchy comments right now – you tried winemaking a few years ago and you ended up with such a foul-tasting mess that it went straight down the drain and you’ll never do that again. If the same thought process was applied to overcooked beef then cattle would be a protected species by now. There’s a strange logic which applies here – if beef is badly cooked, you try to find out where you went wrong and put it right for next time. If bread doesn’t rise properly, you re-examine the process and make sure it’s corrected. If wine is badly made, it doesn’t get another chance. In this one case, it’s the entire concept which is found to be at fault. Home-made wine is forever after dismissed with a knowing nod and tons of elderberries and blackberries hang rotting in the hedgerows. What a shame – especially considering that a well-made, well-matured elderberry wine is indistinguishable from a well-made and well-matured grape wine. A well-made and well-matured blackberry wine is a joy to drink, and I have a clump of very early rhubarb which produces a wine so crisp and flavourful that it just shouts Spring every time I taste it. And let’s not forget strawberry wine which, in my opinion, is a star performer. It’s incredibly difficult to get right – it’s so easy to lose the delicacy of strawberries and end up with a so-so result. But if you’re careful, if you’re prepared to put in as much effort as it takes to learn how to cook the perfect steak and kidney pudding, you can end up on a damp and freezing winter night with something so redolent of long, hot summers that it makes you smile. And it smells a lot nicer than the stale beer and tobacco fumes from a pub.