Advent: I am sure that all readers deplore the vulgarly commercial aspects of the pre-Christmas season as much as I do. But over the weekend, a quietly Christian friend made a gentle accusation of hypocrisy. I had been talking about a couple of festivities, evoking the ghost of bottles past, while looking forward to other imminent events and relishing the spirit of the bottles to come. Was this all that the glorious festival meant to me? my friend enquired. On the eve of the great event in Bethlehem, the great dramatisation of splendour and pathos, of hope and renewal, of joy — but also of foreknowledge that the road from the manger would lead to the Cross — was the Christian message nothing more than Nunc est bibendum? If so, what, apart from snobbery, differentiated me from the plastic music of Oxford Street?
I had no ready answer. There was one obvious retort: that anything that leads to the castigation of fake music deserves a less tainted name than snobbery. I also tried to defend myself by citing the first miracle, but had no easy reply when asked if it was the only miracle that I acknowledged. I accepted a fuller rebuttal needed more thought — and fewer bottles? Well, certainly more thought. I promised to raise my mind above the glass at regular intervals over the next few days.
It also occurred to me that consumerism has its charm, at least when indulged in by small children. Christmas is about renewal and recurrence, including the messages that parents preach to their offspring. For littlies: ‘Be careful: Santa Claus won’t come to greedy children’s houses.’ For slightly bigger, post-Santa monkeys: ‘If there’s any more of this nonsense, the only presents you’ll get are Bibles and prayer books.’ Exactly how their parents were admonishing them a few decades ago. Thus the years pass, world without end, and the globe revolves, apart from that still point in the turning world, 2,000 years ago.
Reverting to nunc est bibendum, I spent the other evening in the inspiring company of a man with a vocation. Before he was ten years old, Michael Ragg was a postulant. Time passed: his determination to be a pilgrim was unabated. So he set off for a seminary: not quite the English College in Rome, but an institution almost as venerable, which has been sending its alumni out among the heathen for several centuries: Berry Bros & Rudd. This is a man who was born to make wine.
Ordained by Berry’s, Michael posted himself to a parish in Burgundy: he lives in Aloxe-Corton. He started out as a négociant, but acquired parcels of vines, under the domaine name Mischief and Mayhem. We started with his St-Aubin 2015. Only a village wine, it is a delightful expression of Chardonnay. 2015 was a huge year, with dangerous amounts of sun, wonderful for ripening fruit but with the risk of leading vignerons into temptation, so that they ended up with oily, over-alcoholic wines, too strong for their own good.
To prevent this, Michael harvested by late September. The result is 13 degrees of alcohol, the fruit and the acid in perfect balance: an autumn carol of a wine. Because it was so harmonious, I thought that it was a 2014, which had been easier to manage. Apart from the honey and butter one would expect from a fine Chardonnay, there were other notes. This is where wine writers risk ridicule. It is never easy to translate taste or smell into words. On the nose, I thought that I detected a hint of petrol, as in a Riesling. Someone suggested gunpowder. Michael himself came up with smoked flint. There was definitely something to enhance subtlety and add piquancy.
We moved on to his Pinot Noirs, an Aloxe-Corton and a Savigny-lès-Beaune 1er Cru. I will return to them while discussing some of Natalie Tollot’s bottles. There is no more entrancing wine-grower in Burgundy and her wines are as alluring as she is. In such company, solemnity is hard — and after all, ’tis the season to be merry.