Looking for Love: Fish seeks white wine with character for serious pairing.

Romans also celebrated St Valentine’s. Then, Rome was awash with temples, gods, goddesses, magicians, soothsayers and fortune tellers – perhaps incomprehensible to our modern sensibilities, but essential to Roman citizens as they tried to make sense of the universe. Festivals abounded including the pagan fertility ritual of Lupercalia, eventually sanitised to fit in with Christian values and today known as ‘St Valentine’s Day’. The original festival involved sacrifices at the temples, after which drunken, semi-naked youths ran a predetermined route. Young, married women were encouraged to expose themselves and were playfully flogged in front of their husbands by the youths using strips of goat hides. Grave inscriptions indicate that fertility, inexorably linked with happiness, was a huge issue in the mind of ordinary Romans, and this ritual was considered highly beneficial. Flowers, cards and pink champagne were still a long way off.

We may no longer obsess about fertility, but it seems that happiness, that other Roman preoccupation, is now considered important enough that the United Nations compile annual league tables of happiness around the world.

According to the UN, Norway is the happiest place on earth whilst poor, war-torn Burundi is the unhappiest. Shamefully, Gibraltar is not mentioned so you will need to decide how happy we are yourself. If it helps, the United Kingdom comes in at 19th place immediately after the US, both being considerably happier than Spain which comes in 36th place – two places below Saudi Arabia.

Seemingly, from UN reports, people’s perception of their politicians significantly affects how happy they feel, so whether this year’s league table will suffer some re-arrangement after last year’s Brexit squabbles, Trump sagas, or the miscalculated demise of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi remains to be seen. If it does, Spain, Catalonia permitting of course, could very well inch up the league tables as the US, the UK, and Saudi Arabia lose ground. As a final observation I can’t help feeling that that both Gibraltar and Spain would be considerably happier if neither had ever heard of the other.

I love Norway, which now celebrates St. Valentine’s in pretty much the same way as we do: with cards, flowers and chocolates. We keep going back there as we like their stunning country, the people, and breakfast, which always includes an array of pickled herring in all sorts of marinades from mustard and dill to cream and chives. Lunch is identical to breakfast with the addition of soup which must contribute to the general happiness of Norwegians who don’t have to worry what to serve for lunch. I have always been fascinated with why they should be happier than anyone else, particularly since they don’t look happier than anyone else. Norwegians, proud they are self-sufficient in clean energy with their extensive renewable sources, have recently taken to buying super-expensive electric Teslas with great gusto. Teslas are everywhere, undoubtedly boosting their felicity, aware their driving does not contribute to the world’s rising temperatures. However, the more thoughtful amongst them may well reflect that their wealth, and hence their ability to make £100k+ Teslas run-of-the-mill, comes from selling their vast deposits of oil and gas for others to burn, arguably making Norway a significant enabler of global warming – and that should make anybody miserable.

Norway’s other less awkward export is smoked salmon. Once the preserve of the rich, it is now (like Teslas in Bergen) affordable and seen everywhere. Considered an aphrodisiac due to its mood-enhancing serotonin levels, it’s probably something to be considered by all those lovers in February who don’t have immediate access to half-naked youths wielding strips of goat hide.

Smoked salmon is one of those rare foods which actively improves those fine, austere, dry white wines. Perhaps it’s the fattiness in the salmon merging beautifully with the wine’s acidity, or simply the wine and saltiness of the fish marrying seamlessly – much like olives and fino sherry. If you decide to go with smoked salmon and boost your amorous endeavours, you could pair it with Champagne, which will do admirably. Alternatively, try a good Chablis.

Chablis, a name which in the past was associated in the minds of many consumers with non-descript, basic white wines is now a protected name. Wine labelled as Chablis can now only be made from 100% Chardonnay. It can only be made in Burgundy and then only in the northernmost part of the region, unsurprisingly, known as Chablis. Its bone-dry, never sweet and never sparkling with a lovely streak of acidity. It is of course always white.

“The wand chooses the wizard, Mr Potter,” according to JK Rowling. She could equally have said “The climate chooses the wine” and she would have been right – a fact that thousands of wine makers around the globe ignore trying to make Chablis-like copies, inevitably turning out poor examples of Chablis’ uniquely dry, age-worthy, flinty wines. Climate is why Cava will never challenge Champagne, whilst the South of England might. It’s why there are few note-worthy white wines in Spain or why so many Australian and Californian wines are doomed never to achieve that magical, understated pure elegance which vines, struggling in the frost-prone vineyards of Chablis, seem to possess in abundance. Of course, climate both giveth and taketh and spring frosts regularly wreak havoc with the harvest in Chablis. Growers, when frosts threaten, light hundreds paraffin heaters known as smudge pots confusing many a traveller as they drive by on dark nights. The war with the weather never stops in Chablis.

The French would vehemently argue that it’s not just about climate but about soil as well. Chablis has two types of soil: Kimmeridgean, composed of fossilised oyster shells and producing the wines with greatest finesse, and Portlandian, considered inferior and responsible for the cheaper wines known as Petit Chablis. The Chablisienne have no doubt the oyster shells are responsible for the flintiness in their wines which they, so adeptly, describe “gout de pierre à fusil” (gun- flint). Chablis, to me, smells of those shiny limestone pebbles found on Eastern Beach after they have been warmed by the sun. Perhaps they also taste like it.

Like the rest of Burgundy, Chablis’ vineyards are classified into several categories. At the top of the trees are seven vineyards the Grand Cru Vineyards, next come a multitude of Premier Cru vineyards and after that wine which is simply sold as ‘Chablis’ with no designation – able to be made anywhere in the Chablis region. At the very bottom is Petit Chablis.

The Grand Cru vineyards are Bougros, Les Preuses, Vaudésir, Blanchot, Valmur, Grenouilles and Les Clos. At their best they share the complexity of the rest of Burgundy if not their opulence. However, they possess a unique minerality which sets them apart – often at half the price. The most revered producer in Chablis is probably Domaine Raveneau whose prices unfortunately are very high. Other Grand Cru producer’s wines are more accessible and comparable to the price of a good Champagne.

The Premier Crus do provide good value for money with name like L’Homme Mort, Vaillons and Mont-de-Milieu. Here good wines can be had for less than £20 with many available locally.
Happy St Valentine’s.