I’m going out. Not just out, but as far around Europe as I can get – no mask, no hand sanitizer, no shame. It’s Christmas, after all, and I deserve a treat.
I won’t actually be leaving the house, of course. While I’m firmly of the opinion that daily self-vaccination with alcohol has a 100% protection rate against Covid-19, I’m not about to test the hypothesis; I’m a wine writer, not a scientist. No, until a more conventional vaccine becomes widely available, I’m stuck with a counter-pandemic methodology that doesn’t appear to have changed much since the Black Death: sequester yourself and pray.
On the other hand, the improvement in wine technology since the 14th century is little short of a miracle. I doubt that Boccaccio, author of the Decameron, who lived through that horror, would have been able to pop open a bottle of fizz as a prophylactic against the plague: in his time, bubbles were accidents, bottles as fragile as people. Today, if I want to self-medicate with sparkling wine, I can choose from the products of at least a dozen countries, safe in the knowledge that the receptacles, at least, will never explode in my face. And this Christmas, that is exactly what I intend to do.
You may wonder why I want to drink bubbles, at this so-called most wonderful time of the year, in 2020. These last 12 months have hardly provided much cause for celebration, after all. And if I am tempted to toast the passing of 2020, I will have to bear in mind that I am raising my glass to a new beginning of which I despair: the UK’s definitive exit from the EU. I am a fierce supporter of freedom of movement – my own and other people’s. The possibility of being welcome in many places, without any need to give up a complicated allegiance to one’s birthplace, should be as freely available to people as it is to wines. But one form of freedom of movement is still within my reach: I can drink my way across the globe. And if it is a contradiction to raise a glass full of bubbles that are all making a glorious bid for freedom at exactly the moment when that sort of liberty is being stoppered for Britons, then I see it also as a gesture of hope. One day, we too shall be released…
I will start my journey in England, with Black Chalk’s vibrant Wild Rose, from Hampshire – all personality and cranberry – and Simpsons Estate’s cedar and vanilla Flint Fields Blanc de Noirs, a wine made entirely from Pinot Noir by English owners who cut their teeth at an estate in the Languedoc. I too, will then take off for France, via Krug’s miraculous latest Grande Cuvée, the 168th, a testament to longevity reflected in a smaller way by the eight years that have passed since most of these grapes left the vine. Another such testament – and also a cross-Channel collaboration – is the delicately bready Champagne made by Paul Dangin on the Côte des Bar to celebrate the 250th anniversary of that most quintessentially British of wine merchants, Justerini & Brooks.
Where shall I go next? I could revisit recent favourites, which still leaves me lots of choice: recently, I have found myself in frequent need of effervescence. Domaine André & Mireille Tissot’s delicious, croissant-and-raspberry toned Crémant du Jura, which contains small amounts of Poulsard and Trousseau, was one pick-me-up; another was the rather appropriately named Cuvée Entre Amis, Jean-Francois Quénard’s delicate Crémant de Savoie, made largely from the local Jacquère grape, which I drank on a Savoy (the region, not the hotel) terrace beside a lake tinted lurid green by algae (a suitably freakish colour palette for summer 2020). It’s not far from there to Italy’s border and past Milan to savour Ca’ del Bosco’s Cuvée Prestige in Franciacorta, where Pinot Bianco thrives alongside Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in moraine vineyards and nobody seems to mind that all three once arrived as immigrants from France.
Then, I’ll head south, past Catalonia, where independence is also a thorny issue, and drama now bubbles among the wineries too. Two years ago, several of the top Cava names quit the DO (Denominación de Origen), citing issues with quality and price, and renamed themselves Corpinnat. Among them are Gramona and Recaredo, two of my favourites, and I’ll be raising a glass to their new beginning with more confidence than to my own.
My ultimate destination is the place where 2020 began for me: the Canaries, a cluster of islands that calls itself part of Europe yet is closer to Africa than England is to France. The indigenous people here fought fiercely for their independence, but lost definitively just as Christopher Columbus stopped in, en route to creating a whole host of new political complications in what we still refer to as the New World. I will drink the sparkling Paisaje de las Islas, made on volcanic soils in Tenerife from Listán Blanco, and reflect on how short a year is, and how trivial our catastrophes, compared to 500-year-old genocides and periodic eruptions from major volcanoes.
So yes, I will drink fizz this Christmas, no matter what. Because long before sparkling wine was a drink of celebration, it was a toast to resilience. Champagne was a wonderful solution to a tricky problem: a cold, wet climate, where grapes struggled to ripen, and yeasts hibernating in fragile bottles reawoke in spring, often with an accompanying explosion – a release of frustration and a bid for freedom with which anyone living through 2020 can identify. When we raise a glass at weddings or birthdays, we are always drinking to survival: what else is there to drink to? So Merry Christmas, and here’s to movement: outwards, onwards, and upwards, too.