Considering her fiercely religious, teetotal upbringing, it’s a wonder Jeanette Winterson likes wine at all, says ROSI HANSON. In fact, the novelist is positively evangelical about old vintages

Drink was the devil’s work when Jeanette Winterson was a child. Born in Manchester in 1959, she was adopted and brought up in a teetotal, working-class family in Accrington. Her mother, a zealous member of the Christian Pentecostal church, groomed her only child to become a missionary. Bible study, church-going, writing and preaching sermons took up most of her childhood. There was not much to suggest a future passion for wine.

Her first, semi-autobiographical, novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, was published in 1985. Startlingly brilliant, it won the Whitbread Prize for best first novel. The award-winning television adaptation brought the story to a wider public. Now her books are translated into 16 languages, and Winterson is a literary superstar.

As famously described in Oranges, at the age of 15 she fell in love with another girl. The ensuing uproar led to her leaving home. Bizarre jobs – ice-cream van driver and funeral parlour make-up artist were two of them – were grist to the future writer’s mill. Instead of going to missionary school, she got into Oxford to read English.

She ran the bar at St Catherine’s to earn her living. Wine first impinged on her here. ‘You have to drink it to learn about it,’ a friend told her.

After Oxford she lodged with the same friend, by now a stockbroker with a good cellar of claret. Her mentor set out to teach her how to choose good wine that is inexpensive and how to drink expensive wine that is good. He showed her how to read restaurant wine lists and told her to learn about the vintages: the good, the bad and

the exceptions. On publication of her first book he gave her a bottle of Château Latour 1985.

After her second novel, The Passion, she had money. She started buying Lynch-Bages, the 1982, 1985 and 1986 vintages. ‘Buy something you won’t even look at for 10 years,’ she suggests. She opened a Lynch-Bages 1985 last Christmas, and found it ‘fantastic, a great pleasure’. She had got lucky in a recession. ‘While others were tightening their belts, I was able to spend. I picked up a Chateau Léoville-Las-Cases 1985 and 1986 and a Château Talbot 1988 and 1989.

‘With wine, there’s a bit of homework to do, then you feel comfortable,’ she says, so she reads Michael Broadbent and others. She is still an evangelist; but now she preaches about the delights of fine wine to her friends, bowling them over with a Château Gruaud-Larose 1988, or a bottle of Taylor’s 1963.

Changing tastes

It was seeing the film Babette’s Feast, in which a Clos de Vougeot plays a starring role, that turned her on to Burgundy. Intrigued, she bought a 1990. ‘It was like drinking liquid rubies!’ A crusty old Oxford don had told her that, ‘Burgundy is not a young person’s drink.’ Aged 45, she decided it was time to learn about it. ‘You fall in love with Burgundy in a completely different way – the adventure is so exciting.’

Recent purchases have included: Mercurey premier cru Clos du Roy

1999; Rully les Villeranges 2002; Savigny-lès-Beaune premier cru Aux Fourneaux 2001; Chandon de Briailles; Chassagne-Montrachet Rouge 2002 from Marc Morey; and Chorey-le-Beaune 2002, Maison Champy. She has some Beaujolais Villages, Chiroubles and Juliénas, mainly because she prefers drinking chilled reds to whites.

Veuve Clicquot – a good feminist wine, she thought – was her first love when it came to Champagne. And vintage Champagne is a passion.

‘I adore Champagne! I want it to be the last thing I taste before I die.’ Her preference now is for Krug. Currently drinking the 1996, she also likes Pol Roger from the same vintage. ‘I’m lucky because people know that I like old vintages and give me bottles.’ Recently a Pol Roger 1973 ‘smelt marvellous’, although a bit flat. It responded wonderfully when she added a little NV. She keeps her fridge stocked with halves of Pierre Vaudon NV from her local wine merchant, Haynes, Hanson & Clark, in Stow-on-the-Wold. ‘Much better than Prozac after a bad day,’ she assures me.

Winterson moved to Gloucestershire 10 years ago. Here she is at her happiest, growing vegetables, catching crayfish in the River Windrush which flows past her garden, and eating them with freshly picked salad and pink Champagne. In her cellar are the French wines that she loves. ‘My own brand of protectionism; the French are only over the road and they are in crisis. We should be buying their wines and supporting this market.’ This does not mean she is uncritical. ‘I can’t bear the fashion for these big blockbuster wines, like jam or sucking lemon sherbets. I would become teetotal if I could drink only that. With great wines, it’s the delicacy and subtlety that I love. And I love wine because it comes from the earth – you get to drink the soil. It’s a true miracle, alchemy.’

Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage. Her latest book is Lighthousekeeping.

Written by Rosi Hanson