From about my early teens we had wine with lunch at the weekend family table. Though agreeable enough, this did become as much a ritual as a particular pleasure. A bottle of Beaujolais (typically) was consumed over two days, so indulgence was sensibly restrained.
A bit later, my father became interested enough to start to buy some minor clarets. These were a definite step up from the Beaujolais but of a uniform style that it was easy to take for granted.
My father’s knowledge and tasting competence were exceeded by his ability to pontificate. He had started to take an interest in German wines. My mother used to make elderflower wine which was quite good of its kind. Tired of my father’s tendency to belittle her efforts, she once gave him a glass of one of his fine German wines while pretending it was one of hers. After he dismissed it rather contemptuously as too sweet it was quite difficult for any of us to take seriously his opinions on wine. (No-one ever told him about the prank though.)
Actually it was due to a family cousin, older than me but a lot younger than my parents, that my serious interest was piqued. He had the knowledge and enthusiasm to go round various merchants and spot well-priced grander wines.
I gradually realised that almost all the best bottles at family lunch were thanks to my older cousin. The first I specifically remember was a charming youthful Cantemerle 67. Also an intense Hugel Gewurtztraminer and a Chambertin. I generally deemed it politic not to wax too enthusiastic at table about these bottles lest this result in my father’s ration being increased and my own becoming depleted.
I grew up in a household that didn’t drink much. Some relatives were so anti-drink that my parents thought it sensible to hide the wine glasses if they were expected to visit. There might be a bottle of wine on foreign holidays lasting several nights, which I may have been allowed to taste. There was sherry before my parents’ dinner parties which I was allowed to taste. The first real wine I remember was a glass of Beaujolais at a family meal which I recall enjoying. I was then diverted into beer, although at university we used to take to parties a bottle of Hirondelle, a white wine apparently from nowhere in particular and costing about 11/- (11 shillings, today’s equivalent of 50p).
On camping trips to France as a couple, we bought cheap red wine and thought that good. The defining moment for me was buying a mixed case of wine in a newspaper offer which included a bottle of Chateau Cantemerle 1968 which was not a great vintage but it gave me the idea that there was a lot more to some wines. My horizons were then opened by wine tasting evening classes. I’ve not really looked back.
As a lager-swigging student, a love of fine wine did not come quickly.
As a lager-swigging student moving into my first job, a love of fine wine did not come quickly. Fortunately, a friend from the office was a wine aficionado with an impressive cellar. I was bemused at the scale of wine boxes which were stacked floor to ceiling in every, and I mean every, room of his house. I would often drop by while walking my dog, Buzz, who seemed equally bemused, and my friend would share one or two bottles. Initially I enjoyed the wine without much thought, however, with each bottle the story of the wine (everything from the impact on my nose and palate to the history of the wine) deepened my interest. I remember one Tuesday evening when Buzz and I dropped by, my friend opened a bottle of Chateau Lafite from my birth year. A bit like a pleasant virus, I now find I have infected other friends with a wine interest although I have not opened any bottles of Lafite from birth years!
Until the age of around 23/24 it was beer at night and milk during the day! Sea change only occurred when my parents bought a 15 bottle-case of overpriced, German wine from a door to door salesman. I know now that none of their wines were from top vineyards but we did enjoy them thoroughly with various pork dishes. That further sparked interest in the recently formed Sunday Times Wine Club whose wines were adventurously sourced and fairly priced. I particularly recall their offer of 1970 clarets, taking advantage of the early 70s recession, priced at around £28/case which inevitably fired a keen interest in Bordeaux. A revelatory and truly hospitable wine tour to Rioja also sparked an interest in wines from this region and to this day Spanish wines, from this period and earlier, remain among my favourite tipples, albeit the rest of Europe gets plenty of my attention!
As a 17-year-old schoolboy, I got a brief summer holiday job working with a wine and spirit firm. I remember bottling wine. That is shoving corks in with a hand press. Messy, and with red and blistered hands at the end of each day. Wines that I remember bottling from casks were ‘Nuits St George’ and 1963 Vintage Port. Wasn’t interested in drinking anything then but I still remember the smell of young wine in that cellar.
I have been a boring wine buff ever since.
A year or so later I hitched-hiked to Bordeaux, staying in youth hostels, and visited a number of Bordeaux wine merchants. I was at Ch D’Augludet and Ch Palmer with Peter Sichel for a few days, but the most memorable visit was when the secretary of Jean Calvet, a well-known Bordeaux merchant, drove me down to Ch d’Yquem. So that was probably my first taste of an outstanding wine.
There was not much drinking as a student and hippy in London in late 60s. Not enough grant money, and other substances seemed more available! But once married and settled down my wife gave me a copy of an early edition of Hugh Johnsons World Atlas of Wine. That was the real trigger, as memories of wine cellars and Bordeaux vineyards came back and I could afford to start drinking good wine. I have been a boring wine buff ever since, to such an extent that I once started a small wine company with friends and ended up buying a house in the Côte-d’Or in Burgundy.
My earliest experience of wine was going round a room polishing off the dregs in glasses abandoned at the end of a party. Or so my Mother told me years later, claiming that she had caught me in the act having herself awakened from a post-party nap. I may have been six or seven at the time.
My parents, unusually for the times, regularly raided Brittany from our base in Southern England, abandoning me with grandparents. They ate at modest restaurants where the price of dinner included a bed for the night and returned with a boot full of Muscadet and a few prized bottles of Sancerre. This remained my father’s taste; decades later when my brother or I came home with bottles of good dry Riesling or indeed anything else with ripe fruit, he would dismiss it as “too sweet”.
As a student at Cambridge, the dons who drank extraordinarily well from the College cellar with dinner each night contributed to my undergraduate education by providing a reasonable l
ist of more modest bottles for purchase at the ‘Buttery’; top of the range was 1971 La Tour St Bonnet 1971 for £2.40 a bottle. By my third year, my ambitions had advanced and jointly with a friend I held a PBASB (‘please bring a serious bottle’) 21st birthday celebration. Lots of good stuff was drunk (I used to have a list but cannot find it now), but my main memory is the guest who cut a glass of 1st growth Claret with a fine white because she liked only rosé.
After that, things could only get better. Inspired by occasional chances to sample good stuff (I seem to recall a College feast with Palmer 66), I started tasting and drinking more seriously.
Do you remember how you first got into wine? Was it a chance occurrence? Perhaps it was a special bottle at a restaurant, or a family Christmas lunch. We really want to hear from you! Tell us your story in 200 words or less and you could be the lucky winner of a superb bottle of Perrier Jouet Champagne worth over £40. The winner’s story will also be published here in our August edition. Email entries to [email protected]