At a dinner party with fellow Wine Society members, I inadvertently insulted my host. He had admitted to sticking to the South of France for his wine choices which was, I suggested, the equivalent of going to the library and forever taking out the same book. There was a pause. My partner glared. I apologised and my friend, who is a lot nicer – and more polite – than I am, forgave me.
But the issue bothered me. There are so many good wines, at every price point, on The Wine Society List that choosing can be an issue. It is tempting to stay with trusted favourites, and sometimes, we all do – it's a very determined novelty junkie who never craves the soothing flavour of familiarity. There are people who continue making new friends, discarding the previous cohort as they go, but most of us like our friends and see too little of them as it is (although this may not apply, any more, to my host at the aforementioned dinner party, when it comes to me). This does not mean we don't like to meet new people, and occasionally add them to our Christmas card list. How to do the same with wine?
The Wine Society has a solution: the online Wine Selector. I had never heard of this until I related the story of my faux pas to a Wine Society member of staff. 'Find your new favourite bottle with our easy-to-use tool', it says enticingly. Then: red or white?
All right: red. For style, I choose 'smooth, mellow' because that seems the most mysterious, and £10 to £15, despite the temptation to remove all financial limits and indulge in what the French call 'leche-vitrine': literally, licking the shop window. Six selections, from five countries, came up, none over £12.50. Valpolicella Superiore 2016 from Tedeschi is a lovely wine, but as I know it already I picked Momo Vendimia Seleccionada 2015, a tempranillo from Ribera del Duero. Javier Bohórquez was an agronomist from Jerez who liked red wine more than sherry; he set the business up in Vallodolid in 1999. His main Bohórquez wine costs nearly twice as much, so as an entrance point to the region's wines this plump, plummy number will do nicely. While looking him up I get sidetracked by stories of Pedro Bohórquez, a 17th-century Spanish adventurer in Peru who pretended to be an Inca king in the hope of gaining control of indigenous riches and was garrotted for treason in 1667. He was also from Andalusia, so perhaps they are related.
This is what happens when I start researching wines.
Members who bought this, the recommendations bar at the bottom of the page informs me, also bought The Society's Primitivo di Manduria 2017 from the Salento peninsula in Puglia. I'd definitely try that, perhaps against its neighbouring recommendation, The Society's California Old Vine Zinfandel 2017, made for The Wine Sociey by the Delicato Family and ridiculously well priced at £7.95: not a common failing among California wines. These two are the same vintage and the same grape: zinfandel is another name for primitivo and both are the same as tribidrag, which is the original Croatian name.
Does The Society have any tribidrag to add to my comparison? No. In fact, there is only one Croatian wine currently listed, the Viña Istria Malvazija 2017, a lemony white from Istria's most important indigenous grape, which is not, apparently related to the world's many other malvasias.
I go back to the Wine Selector tool. Perhaps a big, bold, spicy red? For this, I opt for over £15 and am rewarded with a couple of Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines – always a favourite of mine – another California Zin, The Society's Exhibition 2015 wine from Napa (there's another tempting comparison: is the £16 wine twice as good as its half-price neighbour above?) and a Domaine Richeaume, Rouge Tradition 2015, at £16, which lists its provenance as Provence/Massif/Corsica. I know this Provençal winery for its rosé, a classic pale, herbaceous grenache-syrah-cinsault blend; when I look up their website, I find that they are sustainable, using solar-powered electricity and controlling the cellar temperature via a water tank on the roof which they fill from their own spring. I also find that they (but not, currently, The Society) sell a red and white named for Columella, the 1st century AD Roman writer who was one of the first to write about methods of making wine – or at least, the first whose writings on the subject have survived. I discover that the Richeaume winery offers overnight stays, and make a note: my twin passions, for wine and Roman history, mean that Provence is a favourite destination, and drink-driving is never an issue when you stay at the vineyard.
The wine's fairly humble classification –IGP Méditérranée – which producer Sylvain Hoesch uses because he doesn't want to be restricted by the rules of the higher tiers of the appellation contrôlée system – incorporates ten departments in southern France including two on Corisca, the island that was Napoleon's birthplace. (He, however, preferred Burgundy's Gevrey-Chambertin. I look it up: The Society has six, ranging from £40 to £140. Burgundy is more expensive than it once was, but still, I wonder if desire for these small-production, high-priced wines might not drive a person to start conquering neighbouring countries in an effort to improve his bank balance and decrease the number of foreign buyers competing for his favoured tipple.)
I look up Corsica, and find that The Society has seven wines, in all three colours, including both a red and a white from Domaine Alzipratu called Fiumeseccu. This is a brilliant word, which, to a French-speaker, seems to suggest dryness (sec) and smokiness (la fumée). Also brilliant is the name of the owner: Pierre Acquaviva. Not only could you translate this as Stone Livewater, but Acquaviva in French is eau-de-vie, literally 'water of life' but used for fruit liqueurs. The Celtic equivalent is uisge beatha, which we know as whisky. Here is a man born to make alcohol of some description – I'm going to have to try his wines; the white, made from vermentino and a red which is made from sangiovese (but the Corsicans call the grape niellucciu). The most expensive of the wines is £27 and most are £8-£15. Napoleon should have stayed at home.
I look up fiumesecco – or rather, Fiume Secco: it's a place, on the north-west coast of Corsica, near Calvi, where the boats run across the Ligurian Sea to Nice or Genoa. Fiume, in Italian, turns out to mean river. So Fiume Secco is Dry River. Now I want to visit there, too.
For my last search, I choose aromatic whites. I get three New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, which is fair enough: if my rules didn't prevent me opting for something I already know I love, I'd take the Dog Point 2018. I haven't tried this vintage yet but in the past, this wine has been scented and refreshing, without the screechiness of some NZ Sauvignons. Instead, I go to Germany, to The Society's Saar Riesling, from von Kesselstatt's holdings in the Mosel Valley, below Trier. This wine is certainly aromatic – it's also only 10% alcohol, and people who bought it were also, I'm informed, inspired to venture farther east in Germany to Pfalz, and drink Heinrich Spindler's Forster Riesling. Which doesn't surprise me: riesling is exceptionally moreish. The next round of 'Members who bought this also bought…' takes me across the French border to the Grand Cru vineyard of Brand in Alsace, and one of Europe's best co-operatives, Cave de Turckheim. But it doesn't take me away from riesling, nor into penury. I am back in France, to which all roads surely lead when it comes to wine, and I think it's time to stop travelling and start drinking, but as I click away from The Society's website, it occurs to me that I, like my long-suffering friend, have also treated The Society like a library. Except that I have ravaged the Travel section and made a few inroads into History, too. That's the magic of wine: it can take you anywhere you want to go – whether or not you have been there before.