Millar's Tale: sea change for wine
Now that schools have broken up until early September, many wine merchants will have spent the month queuing up other projects – preparing for the autumn, trying not to buy any stock that isn’t lager or rosé, or maybe even taking a bit of time off.
With many of our customers on the coast of the Mediterranean, we know that September is likely to bring a number of challenging wine requests as erstwhile tourists try to keep the party going back in the UK by submitting esoteric requests for Lacryma Christi or other localised specialities.
But, despite the carefree carafes of house red drunk on cool terraces by the sea, or the magnums of Provençale rosé drunk on Instagrammable yachts, the Mediterranean tells a much older story about wine and reminds us of the ancient heritage of this now-ubiquitous liquid.
I recently held a tasting outside London which attempted, in 10 bottles, to give insight into the context and history of some individual moments in wine’s development. Despite a few detours to honour the legacy of the monasteries and The Judgement of Paris, the focus was squarely on this ancient sea. We tasted and explored the quality retsina of Tetramythos in the Peloponnese, flavoured with hand-harvested pine resin, as well as the wines of modern Lebanon, the home of the ancient Phoenicians who did such a lucrative trade in Tyrian purple. We tasted wines made in the qvevri of Georgia and encountered the Neapolitan vineyards that grew the vines for some of the great wines of the Romans. From Campania to California, we tasted and talked, and if one thing was unanimously clear, it was the immense pleasure to be found in reconnecting with an ancient idea of wine.
The tasting served as a potent reminder that too many large-scale commercial wines are neutered, their tannins ground down, their acidity modulated, their fruit bolstered and their colour enhanced. In search of a hassle-free experience, it can be tempting to prioritise the convenience of many of these well-known brands over a braver and perhaps more dangerous choice. Yet the vibrant, pithy wines of Babaneuri in Georgia’s Kakheti region prove that wine can be both extreme and delicious. If we do not venture, we cannot gain.
Like much of our cultural history, our learning about wine is centred on the west, but the proverbial land of milk and honey that set Jason and the Argonauts on their quest was far to the east of ancient Greece, on the borders of the Black Sea. It is humbling to visit the shipwreck museum in Kyrenia in northern Cyprus and see the perfectly preserved amphorae carrying oil, almonds and wine that were lashed together and stabilised in sand on the bottom of the boat by some ancient hand, before the galley set out on her last voyage more than 2,000 years ago. As you sit in the natural, horseshoe shaped harbour, it is hard not to feel the ambient history of the ancients on these shores.
The wines from Lebanon, Turkey, Cyprus, Georgia, Armenia and north Africa are improving quality and finesse, but thankfully without – in the best examples – recourse to Cabernet Sauvignon or homogenising French oak. It is true they are not yet, on the whole, as reliable a choice as many more familiar regions. But it is also true that such countries can extend a cup that promises to expand our horizons of flavour beyond the classical regions of western Europe and its New World reinterpretations.