Wine steward for Exeter and Lincoln, Dr Hanneke Wilson (Merton, 1981) considers why pineapple kills wine at pudding…
Spring dinner setting at the Ashmolean Museum
By Dr Hanneke Wilson
‘You are going into Common Room, aren’t you? Excellent: then you can look after my guest’. For dessert the President of Common Room makes a new seating plan ensuring that everyone has new neighbours. Exeter has two guest nights a week in term, and the Sunday is especially popular. Not infrequently guests outnumber residents, so home team have to work hard. People who are new to the rituals of dessert need to have them explained, and returning alumni want be reassured that nothing has changed. Unlike our colleagues in Cambridge we take off our gowns after we leave High Table. The wines circulate clockwise, with the proviso that the guest sitting on the Presiding Fellow’s right is offered ‘a backhander’ to prevent a long wait for the decanters.
Decanters, adorned with neck labels advertising their contents, are slid along the table. I remember the first time I was subjected to all this: peering myopically in the candlelight, I tried to get the stopper off the port. My host, who was opposite me, hissed ‘Hasn’t got a stopper’. Decades on we are still firm friends. On my right was John Griffith, the Public Orator. He announced that we would play the pineapple game. We were all to guess how many leaves the pineapple had: the person who came closest would have a glass of madeira. Solemnly Johnny G., as he was affectionately known, tore off the leaves and counted them: over a hundred. The next time I encountered the pineapple game, in a different College, I was prepared and won the madeira.
I don’t know why pineapple is always included among the fruit served at dessert, for it is so acidic that it kills all known wines. Milder-tasting fruit is all right with port, madeira and sweet wine, but I continue to be puzzled that claret should be provided at this stage. People expect it, so I put on ‘dessert claret’, light-bodied petits châteaux without much tannin that won’t be too much of a waste to drink at this stage – the kind that old-fashioned wine merchants call ‘luncheon claret’. The port has long ceased to be vintage: the 1991 vintage was just about affordable at the time, but in 1994 the American ‘wine critic’ Robert Parker took a sudden interest in vintage port: prices leapt and they have been rising ever since, so on guest nights we make do with a good-quality Late-Bottled Vintage. LBV is a wine from a lesser vintage that has not been ‘declared’ by the major shippers: it is lighter-bodied and less complex but intended for early drinking, straight after release. Warre LBV 2008 is our current SCR port, but at our 700th anniversary dinner in 2014 we had the magnificent Graham 1991, a sturdy wine with an aroma of violets.
With its fascinating range of flavours and absence of heaviness I prefer madeira to port, but madeira has become unfashionable in Oxford, and Exeter is one of the many Colleges that no longer serves it at dessert; and admittedly a choice of four wines seems excessive. Even if the third decanter bears a neck label ‘Sauternes’, the contents may be something quite other. I was lucky to inherit good-quality Sauternes presciently laid down by my predecessor, Ben Morison, but these stocks are running down and more recent vintages are too expensive, so one has to look further afield. In the Loire Coteaux du Layon offers excellent value. The Madiran region of Gascony produces a sweet Pacherenc du Vic Bilh, whose astonishing rapport qualité/prix may have something to do with the impenetrability of its name (Béarnaisdialect for ‘wooden vineyard props of the old country’). Burgenland, on the border with Hungary, is home to Austria’s greatest sweet wines: the Neusiedlersee, a large shallow lake, ensures long ripening in the autumn mists that bring botrytis cinerea, the noble rot. And in Trinity Term I look forward to a glass or two of elegant racy Moselle on a warm Sunday evening, when after Chapel, High Table and a walk in Exeter’s garden to enjoy the most beautiful view in Oxford we return to a final burst of conviviality. Even the pineapple can’t spoil that.
Images: Oxford University Images
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