by Cong Cong Bo

Wines To Drink On A Date

On a cold, bright Saturday afternoon in January, a student couple entered my Cambridge wine shop-bar, Amphora. It was early and the venue was empty. After glancing at the extensive by-the-glass list, the girl, perhaps deciding that a glass of wine was inadequate for her purposes, went to select a bottle from the shelves. She settled for a safe Côtes du Rhône, a kind of default choice. I generally try not to let judgement about people’s drink-in wine selections show, but privately thought, “At least go for a Cru – you’re on a date!” 40 minutes or so later, I understood. The boy was sobbing. The bottle was empty. He’d just been dumped, over a bottle of sub-villages-level red, albeit from a good producer. I hid behind the bar, noise-cancelling headphones in my ears, trying not to be witness to this sad scene. The girl hurriedly paid for the bottle and led the boy out. On reflection, the Côtes du Rhône did seem appropriate – why invest in a Cru when you’re about to liquidate your investment in another human?

In my world, romance is inextricably tied to wine. Wine is paired with social situation more than with food, serving as a purveyor of delight, social lubricant, status symbol, and filter for potential friends and lovers.

If Côtes du Rhône is break-up wine, then what would be first-date wine? On Valentine’s Day 2024, I hosted a social experiment called Fluid Exchange, with the subtitle “Spit or swallow, the choice is yours” (thank you, Guy Doza). Ten men and ten women signed up to a night of speed dating, where, instead of exchanging inane small-talk, single prospects shared a bottle of their choice with wine-appreciating members of the opposite sex. After imbibing each other’s “fluids”, I hoped that the ensuing verbal exchange would be large and flowing.

Other than a last-minute female drop-out due to illness, which obliged me to step in as a single female rather than sit back as a voyeur, the evening was a success. The decibel levels crept up, laughter echoed, I received feedback that six minutes per exchange was too short, participants stayed so late they had to be evicted, phone numbers were exchanged, and best of all, one couple returned a few days later for a real date.

As for their choices of wine, male wines were on average £10.82 (that’s 45%) more expensive than female wines, with an average retail value of £34.94. Range of price was similar.

The men made more careful wine choices, opting for wines that represented them in some way. The Greek, Spanish, and Italian men went for wines from their respective countries. The English did not. The women tended to base their choices on style and price, with confidence, perhaps, that their personalities would shine brighter than their wines.

Three women chose red wines, compared with seven men. As it happens, red wine polyphenols are thought to modulate the nitric oxide-mediated relaxation of smooth muscle found in the arterioles controlling blood flow to erectile tissues. I’m pretty sure these seven men did not have this in mind when they were choosing their wines, however.

Fruit concentration, ripeness, and residual sugar were common features of the most winning wines. Guerriero Della Terra [It. Warrior of the Earth], a late-harvested Montepulciano-based blend of intense Port-like concentration, melty tannins, and a touch of sweet vanilla oak, was unsurprisingly the favourite wine, given its best-seller status at Amphora. It is indulgent, rich, and obvious. It stays with you as your attention drifts, and makes no demands of its drinker. It is thus an effective first-date wine.

Since getting serious about wine, I have only been in one serious romantic relationship. Two bottles of NV grower Champagne served perfectly to disinhibit two relative strangers. But the second date was more critical: I needed to establish whether this boy with the dubious Northern accent had sufficient palate potential to be boyfriend material. I presented the same aged Mosel Riesling in a Riedel Performance Tasting set and a Zalto Universal glass. While I can’t remember his assessment, presumably the outcome was satisfactory, since it led to a relationship that lasted over three years. The high and low points were punctuated with the soft pop of vintage Champagne, usually coupled with oysters, my favourite cliché. We never drank Côtes du Rhône. Ever.

As a freshly single, wine-obsessed wine professional, I find myself once again evaluating prospects (romantic and platonic both) based on their wine choices. For me this is the modern equivalent of Odysseus besting Icarius in a footrace to win Penelope’s hand in marriage. If the answer to “What do you like to drink?” is “I like a nice Malbec or a Merlot”, then I know we are not going to get on, not least because “nice” is the single most overused but useless word in wine. Those who name-drop “iconic” wines also come under some scrutiny (narcissistic streak?), as do those who rule out entire categories of wine (closed-minded). In wine, more so than in any other discipline, people feel the need to demonstrate knowledge and taste, which makes the response “I enjoy wine, but don’t really know what I like” actually quite refreshing.

Literature, of course, is rife with wine. There is one that scene that I found particularly poignant, when Clarice Starling finally seduces Hannibal Lecter by suspending a “thick, sweet drop” of Château d’Yquem from her nipple “like a golden cabochon and trembled with her breathing”, surrendering entirely to him in one gesture.

Speaking of sweet botrytised wines, yesterday I tasted Ken Forrester’s T Noble Late Harvest 2020 over lunch with the man himself. T is Ken’s name for his wife, Teresa, for whom this wine was named. The bottle, with gold filigree surrounding the large letter T, is gorgeous, as is the wine, with all the toffee apple, dried-apricot, and salted caramel flavours, and strong acidic backbone of a fine sweet wine. Ken presented a case of the T to Teresa on their anniversary and she was delighted.

I am happy that the break-up over a bottle of Côtes du Rhône was an isolated incident, and not a day has gone by without the wine bar winessing hands clasped across tables. Those with the best relationships are in tune with what their partner wants to drink, a manifestation of general functionality. There are also couples who grow and explore together, working their way through tasting flights and discussing wines like literary character analysis. I have been invited to the Tuscan wedding of one such couple in July, whose romance blossomed at Amphora. I wonder what I will drink, and whom I will meet between the vines.

Photo by Mayur Gala on Unsplash

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