Pouring the remains of the Montagny from the night before, chilled from the fridge, letting its slight Chardonnay fizz rest on my tongue, I took my glass to sit by the just-lit fire. Spring fire, white wine. Two memories:
A trip to the Loire valley, early spring just before Easter,when I was perhaps twenty-one, to see a friend who is still a friend and was an old friend even then. Driving through the Touraine, stopping at a cave and sitting by a log fire, being brought glasses of chilled pale white wine, the flowery taste of the chenin blanc, cool next to warmth. I didn't grow up with wine, my only idea of wine in France then was that it could be had very cheaply. The girl who had initiated the trip, a friend of my friend, bought four bottles of the white Touraine - perhaps it was Vouvray but I don't think so - to take back to her parents, it was pointed out to me that for very little more than I paid for rough plonk I could have something really good... I couldn't now perhaps drink the plastic sealed stuff in the consigné litre bottles as I did then, but have never developed any real sophistication about wine and can happily drink from boxes and pichets; as an Iris Murdoch character once said, 'why wantonly destroy one's palate for cheap wine'? However, though I didn't rediscover Touraine chenin blanc until many years later, I knew it again, and it remains a great favourite. I've never liked the same variety from the new world or further south in France, though my experience is slight, it always seems dull and crude and characterless.
Before that, I was perhaps seventeen, a summer when I stayed with another friend of the same vintage, whom I still hear of now and then. Rackety summers when our parents dared leave us alone, occasionally involving graceless drunkenness, tinned meatballs and other irresponsibilities. But one evening her grandfather, a kind, unpatronising, urbane old Dutch chap who had been something big in Unilever I think, and who lived in one of those absurdly picturesque, high-priced home counties villages where they film Midsomer Murders and Agatha Christie adaptations, collected us and brought us to his home for dinner. I can't remember what we ate, I think it was good, but I do recall another flowery white wine, I don't know what but again chilled and delicious, in fine glasses engraved with grapes and vine leaves. But it grieved me to note fine incrustations of something like spinach, which had clearly been further baked on rather than removed by his early model dishwasher, and unseen by his elderly eyes. At the end of the meal, I asked to be allowed to wash up to thank him for his hospitality. No need, he said, the dishwasher... Oh but please, I insisted, at least the glasses and cutlery. I can still feel the fragile glassware in my hands, the very hot water, and carefully, discreetly, scrubbing away until all unsightly vegetable matter was removed. I don't think I even mentioned the spinach to my friend.
Many people say happiness is only recognised in retrospect, I've never found that. Happy memories elude me, though I think perhaps I often considered myself happy at the time, looking back I judge matters more harshly, qualifying them with the shame, regret, or incomprehension with which I seem to regard large swathes of my life, not least those involving the misuse of alcohol. I know that sounds dismal and self-piteous, I don't mean to be. Other times any memory at all escapes me, lost time remains fruitlessly sought after, estranged from me altogether. Yet these two moments of glad grace, of elegance and delicacy, glimpsed elsewhere and even, exceptionally, in my earlier self, can still be evoked with a physical sharpness by the taste of chilled white wine.
Shortly we're off to south east England for a few days, for a big birthday of my sister, and a smaller one of my brother, and for one or two other appointments and rendezvous. It's the first time we've been out of the country together for more than eight years, and feels quite momentous, but probably isn't. Back in a while.