Labelled with love

A treasure trove that records a wine-lover’s life

On Drink

This article is taken from the June 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

We inherited a few things from my aunt when she died in 2015: a framed sketch of Marianne in her 1970s prime, a seemingly haunted Bose stereo that began playing “So Long, Marianne” by Leonard Cohen when we plugged it in, and two old-fashioned A4 notebooks from the National Blank Book Company of Holyoke, Massachusetts.

It was years before I looked inside them and discovered that they contained labels from wines she had tried with little notes after them, like Sainsbury’s Gewürztraminer “slightly too heavy and spicy, £3.95”, and Mâcon Villages, “£2.75, very good bargain — keep on buying”. The 1980s seemed like a great time for wine lovers. A 1976 Barolo from Vietti drunk in 1984 cost only £4.99. A bottle from the same producer will now be around £50 whereas Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Gewürztraminer is only £8.50. 

At the beginning the wines were entirely European, mainly French with lots of Muscadet, Bordeaux and white Burgundies. Some time in the late 1980s, the Australian wines arrived, like Geoff Merrill Semillon, “an excellent chardonnay (sic)”.

But these notebooks don’t just track the changing drinking habits of the British middle class, they’re also a record of my aunt’s life. There’s various notes which allude to where she was living at the time: first Halstead in Essex, then Telegraph Hill in South London (a bottle bought in Catford is the clue here), and finally she moved to Wadhurst in East Sussex. 

My aunt lived a somewhat itinerant existence as a temporary secretary. She’d been brought up in money in an Italian-Austrian family in Scotland. Most of it had gone by the time her sister, my mother, was born, but Marianne had the grandeur of one to the manner born which probably didn’t go down well when asked to take dictation. 

She spoke with a very grand accent with just a hint of Aberdeen. Despite being constantly on her uppers she always dressed immaculately. There’s a scrap from a Spanish newspaper of my aunt attending a society wedding in Spain in 1989. She had been au pair to the bride and there’s a photo of her looking very chic with the caption underneath describing her as una amiga de la familia de la novia. 

Naturally she kept the wine labels from the lunch afterwards which were disappointingly prosaic for such a grand occasion, a 1985 Viña Salceda Rioja crianza and Royal Carlton Cava which you can pick up these days for nine euros. 

There is one constant in these notebooks, the initials “PTH”. The first mention was from 1984 next to a bottle of Sauvignon de St Bris. The name began to appear more frequently and was a marker that a better sort of wine had been consumed: “Riscal 1979 courtesy of PTH — lunch at Fortnums”; a Barolo described as “a present from PTH. He’s always a good judge of my taste”; and a bottle of 1976 Chateau Meyney St. Estèphe, “PTH’s contribution to the picnic lunch chez moi.” 

They seemed to be having a lot of picnic lunches in the mid 1980s. 

At one point it appeared that their relationship might be over, next to the Geoff Merrill Semillon drunk in July 1987, she wrote: “PTH thought it was very good and it had to be since it was our last together.” But by February 1988 they were saying “farewell to Halsted” with a bottle of Sainsbury’s Blanc de Blancs champagne and a 1983 Château Segonnes Margaux, “I cannot remember any tasting notes for the Margaux …” 

The first book ended bathetically in December 1991 with a bottle of 1988 Mouton Cadet, “a most acceptable vintage” and then that’s it. She either got tired of tracking her wines or the other books are lost.

The second book picks up in 2005 and it’s a record of wines bought by my aunt in the south of France. In the intervening years she had sold her place in Wadhurst and aimed to retire to warmer climes. 

Something went wrong as it often did with auntie and she ended up living with PTH, who by this point was divorced, at his old flat in Marylebone. She’d never married, despite offers. So they picked up where they left off. 

There are holiday snaps of the two of them in France looking as if they’re having the time of their lives. They’re like a couple of teenagers though they were both in their 60s. Eventually she acquired a tiny winemaker’s cottage in a little village called Pomérols near Pézenas and they would divide their time between France and London. 

There are no labels in the second book but there’s a record of local wines including Picpoul de Pinet from Domaine de La Grangette —this was at a time when Picpoul was rare in England and she would bring back cases of the stuff. 

Eventually she and PTH married in 2010. She served Pol Roger at the reception at Peter’s flat. I was given a telling off for opening too many bottles. It was to be something of a last hurrah. Never in good health, all that wine had taken its toll: PTH died in 2012. 

It wasn’t drink that got Marianne, but a botched operation on her jaw to remove a tumour. These notebooks bring her back to life. They’re a reminder that wine tastes best with someone you love and to never throw out old scrapbooks. 

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