Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Grand and complicated: an early taste of wine

I love coming across unexpectedly great depictions of wine in popular culture. For instance, the film Withnail and I is an irreverent delight. A while ago I reproduced some deliciously detailed passages from the novel Brideshead Revisited and I am currently reading Northern Lights by Philip Pullman who, like Evelyn Waugh, is clearly quite a wine lover. The novel opens with wine centre stage in the dramatic first chapter, The Decanter of Tokay.

However, I was particularly taken by the atmospheric and eerie account (in the third chapter, Lyra's Jordan) of the young narrator's first experience of wine, while secretly exploring the College wine cellars with her friend Roger, playing Gobblers (people who kidnap children).

 "...Lyra was still intent on playing Gobblers, and she inveigled Roger down into the wine cellars, which they entered by means of the Butler's spare set of keys. Together they crept through the great vaults where the College's Tokay and Canary, its Burgundy and brantwijn were lying under the cobwebs of ages. Ancient stone arches rose above them supported by pillars as thick as ten trees, irregular flagstones lay underfoot, and on all sides were ranged rack upon rack, tier upon tier, of bottles and barrels. It was fascinating. With Gobblers forgotten again, the two children tiptoed from end to end holding a candle in trembling fingers, peering into every dark corner, with a single question growing more urgent in Lyra's mind every moment: what did wine taste like?

There was an easy way of answering that. Lyra – over Roger's fervent protests – picked out the oldest, twistiest, greenest bottle she could find, and, not having anything to extract the cork with, broke it off at the neck. Huddled in the furthest corner, they sipped at the heady crimson liquid, wondering when they'd become drunk, and how they'd tell when they were. Lyra didn't like the taste much, but she had to admit how grand and complicated it was. The funniest thing was watching their two daemons, who seemed to be getting more and more muddled: falling over, giggling senselessly, and changing shape to look like gargoyles, each trying to be uglier than the other.

Finally, and almost simultaneously, they children discovered what it was like to be drunk.

'Do they like doing this?' gasped Roger, after vomiting copiously.

'Yes,' said Lyra, in the same condition. 'And so do I,' she added stubbornly. "

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