We have the vinous equivalent of Mr and Mrs Jack Spratt living just down the road from us. Jack (in truth, my chum Simon) gave up booze in January and his wife has decided to give up for Lent which (I had to Google this, the dates unaccountably having slipped my mind) runs from 22 February until 7 April this year. This means, therefore, that for the first three and a half months of 2012, the Spratts will have had just three paltry weeks in which to clink glasses with each other and enjoy the delights of fine G&Ts, a bottle of fizz or a cru classé claret. The rest of the time, one of them will be on the toot and the other won’t, and there ain’t much fun in that. Talk about coordinating one’s diaries. For sure, the Spratts will have saved a fortune on taxis, since one will always have been sober enough to drive, but I reckon they’ll be rather short on alcohol-induced marital bonhomie.
And that’s the thing about alcohol, especially wine – bonhomie. Taken in moderation, it induces within us a pleasant feeling of well-being; it loosens the tongue, encourages sociability and invariably enhances the food we drink it alongside. And, as with certain other pursuits I can think
of, it really is best done in company rather than tout seul, fun though that might occasionally be.
It’s clear that the misuse of alcohol is a bad thing on so many levels but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that drinking sensibly can be good for us. There was the Interheart study in the Lancet, for example, which suggested that drinking moderate amounts of alcohol was the third most successful way (after eating fruit and veg and taking exercise) of staving off a heart attack; there was the study arlier this year from Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre in Los Angeles which suggested
that drinking red wine could but women’s breast cancer risk, thanks to certain chemicals in the
grapes’ skins and pips; and there was he fabled Whitehall Study which found that of 6,000 civil
servants given psychometric tests, those who drank half a bottle of wine a day scored highest,
with teetotallers twice as likely as occasional drinkers to score lowest. Jack/Simon would be the first to admit that psychometric tests are not his forte, although he’s big on bonhomie and a whizz at working out the odds on a betting slip, which is just as well with Cheltenham upon us this month.
Indeed, the Cheltenham Festival is about the only thing for us to look forward to in March, with no
shooting and precious little fishing, except for the die-hards. Some, like Jack/Simon, will be heading with their chums to vast rented farmhouses in Broadwell, say, while the rest of us will pitch up at our mate’s house on the Monday evening, confident that the open invitation of some dozen years’ standing still holds good. But what to drink? At the course itself, there’ll be plenty of cheap wine and pricy Guinness flowing in the vast, tented village if you can bear the queues, the crowds and the poor view of the nags. And there’ll be plenty of champagne in the car park, natch.
You can commit social suicide and take some supermarket own-label fizz although I must point out that Sainsbury’s own Blanc de Noirs is currently first-rate) or the dread Heidsieck & Co Monopole Blue Top, which everyone will know you got from Lidl or the Co-operative for little more than a tenner. Far better to stick to a grande marque such as Bol, Pol or VC, or rootle out an excellent “grower” champagne, such as the superb Marc Chauvet Brut from the Real Wine Company: really tasty and really chic. But, in truth, if you want to see the horses in the pre-parade ring, then the
parade ring, then bet your tenner, and hen find a vantage point, there’s precious little time for boozing. Best, therefore, to large it up in the evening. Jack/Simon tells me he and the chaps in the farmhouse haven’t varied the menu in years. It’ll be fi sh pie, lasagne, beef stew and curry, usually
in that order, over the four nights. Those staying with mates usually fare rather better. With dishes such as these, the key to the vino is simplicity and versatility. Bung in a fine rosé, such as the inimitable Château de Sours from Bordeaux. This will go as well with the fish pie as it will the curry. Ditto a decent chardonnay or Kiwi pinot noir. A good, basic côtes du rhône won’t let you down, nor will a robust, fruity Aussie shiraz or California zinfandel. It’s all about easy drinking and finding wines that go with the highest number of dishes. Simply stock up at Majestic or Waitrose en route to the Cotswolds or get Yapps or Berrys to deliver. The bonhomie, you can bring with you.