Sarah Jeffrey is the author of the following unedited entry in our seminal wine competition. She writes about herself, 'I live in London and love the fantastic variety of wines we have access to in the city. Following a well trodden path, I am a lawyer who wishes that I worked in wine. I have spent the last few years working my way through the various WSET courses and the French Wine Scholar exam and am currently awaiting what I hope will be my final results from my Level 4 Diploma. I love aromatic whites and punchy reds and will try most things once!'
I would love to say that reflecting on my most treasured wine memories brings to mind the hallowed taste of a Bordeaux first growth, the nectar of a sip of Yquem or seeing early morning mist rising over a Tuscan vineyard – all wonderful anecdotes – but my strongest vinous memories are much less salubrious. They did, however, build the foundations of a life long thirst for knowledge about all things oenological. What follows is an ode to the supermarket wines of France and my first foreign family holidays.
Emerging bleary eyed from the overnight Portsmouth-Caen ferry, trips began with the dehydrating drives down to the Vendee as a crossed-legged-teenaged-me vehemently refused all liquids to avoid the horror of using the holes in the ground at roadside services (mercifully said services are now generally sparkling facilities that even a stroppy teenager would happily use). Upon arrival, we often wouldn’t make it as far as checking in to whichever gite Mum had rented from the back pages of The Lady magazine before making a pilgrimage to the nearest E Leclerc or Intermarché. My younger brother would whine about hating wine and twist in his seat belt before being placated with the promise of a big sticky frangipane cake from the patisserie counter. Dad would produce a notebook and sharpened pencil and begin making spreadsheet comparisons of the offerings in the various stores. Baron L’Estac cheaper by 20 centimes in Carrefour? Big tick.
I always looked forward to choosing what I would buy. The rules were that Mum, Dad and I could select some bottles as long as they were under 20 Francs (three each for Mum and I, six for Dad). At first many of my choices were unsurprisingly entirely based on label design but as my knowledge grew with the years my selections became more strategic.
A few ‘special bottles’ would be added to the trolley to be ‘laid down’. I wasn’t sure what this meant other than a vague belief that the longer you kept wine for the better it got and it became ‘vintage’ (this was proven to be categorically untrue when I left a bottle of white IGP Languedoc in a cupboard for 5 years – it hadn’t improved).
When we got our loot back to the gite my brother – as the only impartial bystander with no skin in the game- would be charged with concealing each bottle under one of Dad’s clean socks and numbering it. An extremely serious blind tasting that I like to think took on something approaching the gravity of the Judgment of Paris then ensued. Marks out of ten would be allocated. Dad would talk about body, tannin and acidity whilst Mum and I would just go for the red that didn’t leave too much fuzz on our teeth and the white that didn’t make our mouths pucker up and our eyes water. Complex arithmetic was completed and the top four wines declared victorious. Over the coming days beach outings would be punctuated by visits back to the various supermarkets leaving a sandy flip flop trail down the wine aisle to pick up cases of the winners occasionally leading to bitter disappointment where a favourite had sold out.
When I was 16 we visited the Languedoc instead of the Vendee and I chose a supermarket Viognier falling for its riper, peach flavours and the oily feeling it left in my mouth in complete contrast to the staple, citric Muscadet we usually paired with seafood on summer holidays. The next year, back in the Vendee, I deployed my schoolgirl French asking everywhere we went for Viognier receiving only blank looks and shaken heads in return, not realising that the French rarely sell their wines by grape variety and that I was also in completely the wrong region.
Returning for a moment to that Muscadet though. I recall being taught to look for ‘sur lie’ on the label – “It’ll taste better” Dad said. I didn’t understand why at the time but after years studying wine I get it and still agree he’s right.How often we shared a bottle whilst preparing dinner as the sun went down; me dyeing my fingernails orange deshelling endless prawns bought fresh from the harbour and him chopping garlic for the aioli to dip them in.
On the morning of departure a giant 3D game of Tetris would begin as the task of trying to fit all the wine in the car unravelled. Inevitably the kids in the back seat would pass through Customs smiling like angels (“nothing to see here”) with our feet awkwardly positioned somewhere north of our bodies atop of footwells chock full of cases of wine, illicit banned-in-the-uk French weedkiller and the odd case of Super U ‘Panaché’ – that watery 1% ready-mixed shandy beloved of young boys.
It wasn’t all idyllic. Some of the arguments over maps, directions and the eccentric French habit of seemingly only signposting a D road as you leave it are the stuff of family legend. Without any shadow of a doubt though it is those memories of supermarket aisles and listening to my Dad wax lyrical about grapes and wine styles have shaped my passion and for that I shall be forever grateful. So please raise your glass of supermarket Muscadet (sur lie – of course) and toast the well priced wines of supermarket France. Santé.