Occasionally I find drinking wine to be a perfectly good substitute for the company of people. I am aware this sounds dangerously close to both addiction and conceit and may well be too early in this new column of mine to make such a revelation, but few could deny that drinking great wine alone is better than enduring bad company. Good wine wins, every time.
It seems I’m not alone. André Simon had similar reflections on wine as a legitimate substitute for company: “Wine is a good counselor, a true friend, who neither bores nor irritates us: it does not send us to sleep, nor does it keep us awake…it is always ready to cheer, to help us, but not to bully us”. James Joyce similarly: “What better way to sit at the table at the end of the day and drink with friends, or substitutes as friends?” M.F.K Fisher was more than happy to dine alone based on her conviction that “sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be indulged in lightly”.
It hasn’t always been this way. I recall when contemplating a night on my own was a sure sign of one’s impending social demise and enough to induce panic. Every effort was made to ensure a full and busy social diary. Back then, it barely mattered who with – the more the merrier as it were.
But somewhere along the way, large changes, small disappointments and the realisation that we’re all existentially alone at the dinner table anyway, my preferences shifted. I also discovered wine as a vehicle for contemplation, stimulation, debate, wonder, inquiry, sensuality, memory and taste. Everything you could wish for in a guest – or to be fair to humans and our foibles, several of them – is possible in a glass of wine.
So what to choose for a quiet night in with nothing but wine as company?
Right now, I can’t shake the idea that in some countries, the best vineyards might still be undiscovered. This idea of untapped potential makes me spin on my heel with wonder, tracing my mind over the map of possibility. What if our very own DRC is out there with a rusty tractor and some milking cows on it? A Cannubi covered in kangaroos? Beechworth, the boutique wine region in northeast Victoria, seems disproportionately blessed with pockets of outstanding wines. Many vineyards are planted near the former goldfields. Like the miners before them, Beechworth’s vignerons work with the land to uncover the bounty below. Perhaps I’d pour a bottle of the treasured Sorrenberg Gamay at my dinner. As well as offering a mash up of red fruits, earthiness, savouriness and spice, this wine reminds me of the refreshingly cheerful idea that the best is yet to come.
Another thing I like to ponder is the way landscapes shape us. If the gentle rolls of the Tuscan hillsides generate a happy sigh and sense of relief, New Zealand’s landscape is the polar opposite. It’s a place where even Mother Nature seems thrilled with herself as she squeezes mountains skyward, shudders the earth and tumbles waterfalls off glacial cliffs. I imagine her shaking imaginary tresses from her shoulders as she admires her good work. The Central Otago landscape is young, wild and dynamic, much like its wine industry and without coincidence I suspect. To remind me of this sense of awe, I’d open a bottle of the Quartz Reef Bendigo Estate Pinot Noir. Made by regional spearhead and beloved madman Rudi Bauer, this wine is wilder than beautiful but something close to it, much like the place and not surprisingly, its people.
Certain varieties, like certain people, allow you to be more you. Both should be welcomed at dinner and life in general. Chardonnay is one of those varieties for me. It’s the combination of vibrancy with cosiness, firmness with flesh, something beautiful with something complex. For this reason, I might open a Tolpuddle Chardonnay, the wonderfully elegant wine from Shaw and Smith’s Tasmanian vineyard. Unlike the breathy fleetingness of an aromatic, the earnest of a claret or the frivolity of Champagne, Chardonnay’s generosity allows you to linger a while over something quite beautiful.
Who doesn’t like to invite controversy to dinner? I for one find the unhelpful and terribly non-specific virtue of ‘appropriateness’ to be a modern and subtle form of repression, rolled out way too readily to smother one’s individuality. I welcome anything that ignites debate and gets people talking. The Thousand Candles wine from Yarra Valley has done this since it launched three years ago. It is an intriguing and ethereal wine from a field blend of mostly Pinot Noir and Shiraz with a lick of Sauvignon Blanc. Made by Pinot Noir superstar Bill Downie, the wine offers a kaleidoscope of aromas that mix and meld and go on forever – cherries, tar, spice, liquorice, violets, red fruits and spice again. It’s like a wild romp through a damp forest with someone you don’t quite know, which on occasion, I have found to be more interesting than sitting at dinner with someone I do.
I’m sure other important wines would amplify the occasion. At a recent wine dinner, I was lucky to be gifted a glass of Chambertin that tasted so beautiful I imagined a better life. A Barolo sipped in Barolo that felt like autumn morphed into spring and forgot winter all together. And there was the bracket of Bordeaux whose depth and intensity made me feel like I was diving into a timeless and silent abyss. But this is a casual night in, not the last supper. Those wines are for another time and I should think, the company of at least one other. Reflecting on my selection of wines, I’m certain it would be an interesting night with much to think about. Yet even with such wonderful wines, I’m the first to admit that the only thing missing from my grand plan is some actual company and a decent conversation.
Andrea Frost’s book, Through a Sparkling Glass, is available from Hardie Grant