The Glass That Cheers And, With A Bit Of Luck, Inebriates.


The rain clouds – and the accompanying ravening insects – caught us before we had finished supper outside this evening so we went indoors, applied calomine lotion to the parts every insect could  reach and settled down to chat  over  slices of goat cheese  and a glass of epine.

Both items had returned with me in my suitcases…accompanied by spices impossible to obtain here, marmite and kippers. Luckily, Aeromexico surpassed themselves and did not lose my luggage as otherwise it could probably have walked home unaided.

I remember a suitcase loaded with cheese which Iberia managed to lose for twenty four hours in the summer heat of Madrid. The gentleman driving the van which delivered it to the house handed it over with alacrity and asked me if I were sure that nothing had died inside it.

Surely, I said, the customs would never have let it pass if anything had…

You don’t think that customs are going to open anything that smells like that, do you?

Still, this time all had gone well: the goat cheese had become a little deliquescent but was not yet in attack mode and accompanied the epine with brio.

The epine itself dates from a batch made in 2005, while we lived in France: it traveled to the house in Spain when we moved and thence, a few bottles  at a time, to Costa Rica.

I think I can say that we are probably the only people in the country to possess it. Even the French embassy gets its wine from Chile….well, at the far from exalted levels at which I encounter the said embassy it does and I can’t see it serving an old fashioned country aperitif at its more glamorous receptions. Apart from anything else it would  have the guests half seas over after a sniff at it.

The recipe is simple.

To one kilo of sugar you put one litre of eau de vie and four litres of wine – red is usual but should you have a supply of white wine for which the term cats’ pee would be a compliment you can use that too. To this you add a large handful of the new pink shoots of the blackthorn – or the mirabelle plum, or wild cherry – and mix it all up to dissolve the sugar. Keep for a couple of months, strain and bottle.

After the first batch we made – from a supply of Merlot which would have removed the enamel from your teeth – we turned to the wine made by our friend and neighbour, a retired vigneron who had kept back just enough vines to make wine for himself and friends.

He had sold the commercial parcels of Cabernet Franc grape but had retained his pride and joy – the lines of Oberlin and Castel from which he made wine strong enough to knock your socks off – and decidedly palatable even if it was as well to visit him on foot as he was a hospitable soul and enjoyed sharing a bottle or two.

Given the strength of his wine as compared with the regular sort of stuff we used to up it to five litres in place of four in the recipe – and the results met with universal approval among our rural neighbours.

You will no doubt be accustomed to seeing wines made from Merlot and Cabernet Franc on the supermarket shelf, along with the Syrahs, Cabernet Sauvignons,  Chenin Blancs and Chardonnays – but you won’t see Oberlin or Castel, any more than you will see Baco or Tete de Negre though at one time these and similar varieties like Othello and Noah were common in France.

After phylloxera ravaged the French vineyards in the nineteenth century solutions were sought, and the eventual winner was the idea of grafting french vines onto phylloxera resistant american vine stocks but in the meantime hybridisation was popular, mating french varieties of vitis vinifera with american vitis riparia or vitis rupestris and the results were vines giving wine of varying quality – but with a trailing habit which made restocking a vineyard simple – and cheap. Let the trailing stems root, and, hey presto, a plant for nothing, resistant to anything.

As French wine production revived the powers that be decided that only the grafted stuff would be authorised for the production of wine to be sold commercially, so the hybrids began to disappear, surviving only as relics preserved by people who remembered them fondly.

But every dog has its day. As vineyards succumb to the effects of the pesticide and herbicide levels imposed by the authorities interest in the hybrids has been revived. They are tough as old boots, resistant to just about anything, don’t need to be sprayed with poison and with modern winemaking techniques their quality can be more than acceptable.

No doubt we will not see it, but with a bit of luck people in the future will be able to buy their Castel or Oberlin as opposed to acquiring it by stealth – and make an epine worth the name.

Tchin tchin!