Let’s talk about wine

It’s always nice to know someone who knows something about wine. With the holidays just around the corner, we decided to tap our own James Simpson, author of the recently released Creating Wine: The Emergence of a World Industry 1840-1914, for his holiday wine memories, tips, and historical expertise. He’s exactly who you’d want to have handy when you’re puzzling over whether sherry goes with turkey, or how to avoid looking like a slouch if you happen to be raising your glass in Barcelona. Enjoy:

Christmas is an excuse, if one is needed, to think of wine. For those of us of a certain age it also provides an opportunity to reflect on how wine has changed over the years. In my case, being raised in rural Wales, traditions were passed across generations. Stockings were mysteriously filled while asleep; the church service was followed by a long lunch; and only when this was finished were we allowed to rummage under the Christmas tree to produce one present at a time, and wait patiently while it was opened, before another was chosen. My first recollection of wine was naturally this lunch – not the claret that was drunk by most of the grown-ups, but rather the small glass of sherry that my grandmother consumed. Even this would not have made an impression on my tiny mind but for the elaborate ceremony that accompanied it, and was repeated one Christmas after another. First my grandmother would refuse and make a few degrading remarks about alcohol, but then would finally accept ‘just a drop’, before emptying the glass with some relish. The message was clear, drinking wine was something quite special, even a bit daring! It was also helps explain why sherry and port should have been the most popular wines in this market until relatively recently, as these could be safely left in the bottle or decanter for months at a time with a minimum of deterioration. Drinking at this speed obviously limits consumption, and for centuries the reluctant British drinker managed just one or two bottles of wine a year.

One happy Christmas I was finally allowed to drink some of the claret, rather than just serve it. In some years the wine had come from a friend who had bought a hogshead from a Bordeaux merchant, and then bottled it himself. Other times it was the result of a fortunate purchase that my father had made of some better wines from a London auction house. A surprise flood in the cellar saw the boxes disintegrate, but while this quickly ended his interest in wine as a financial investment, it left us with an excellent stock to consume over the next decade or so.

Christmas during the second half of my life has been in Spain. Cards depicting snow covered nativity scenes suddenly look strangely surreal, and of course nobody drinks claret. I have also learnt that my grandmother was correct to protest about having been given the rather sickly sweet drink called sherry to consume with her turkey, as I have discovered the delights of sipping a glass of another sherry, a chilled fino, while eating gambas, and watching the Atlantic waves role in at Chiclana in Cadiz.

Being a major producer, most Spaniards are accustomed to drinking wine, but Christmas also demands something a bit special. Nobody with any pretension would celebrate a meal with a bottle of Valdepeñas or anything that comes from the baking hot central plain of La Mancha, even though the better wines from this region offer a considerable better beverage that many from the supposedly ‘superior’ ones that sell for much higher prices. Just as the loyalty of most Spaniards belongs to either Real Madrid or Barcelona (or should the order be reversed to read Barça and Real Madrid?), so their allegiance is split between Rioja and Ribera del Duero. Today all Spaniards claim to be wine experts, so before ordering at a restaurant it is crucial to know more than just their football team. When cakes or a toast is required, then it must be Cava, a sparkling wine produced in Catalonia. For decades the cakes were much better than the wine, but quality has recently diverged dramatically, as the artisan production of pastries has given way to mass production, and the wine-making techniques have vastly improved.

Times have changed, and British drinkers today consume just twenty per cent less wine per person than the Spanish. Yet I feel that most drinkers still remain rather provincial. I have no doubt that if my parents were alive today they would still be drinking claret on Christmas day. Not so my sister, but in her household it all seems to be Australian red and New Zealand white. It is even more limited in Spain. My local wine store in central Madrid now stocks some ‘foreign’ wines, but the choice is poor, and price / quality decidedly unattractive. Depending who is inviting me to dinner it remains obligatory to continue to take a bottle of Rioja or a Ribera. Some change would be fun, so why not a Bethlehem burgundy to brighten up Christmas lunch – that would be different!

James Simpson is professor of economic history and institutions at the Carlos III University of Madrid. He is the author of Spanish Agriculture: The Long Siesta, 1765-1965.