From 1986 until 1992 I spent six years at Royal Holloway University of London, first doing a BSc and then a PhD. Last night, I returned for the first time in almost 20 years (I went back in 1993 for my PhD exam) to do a wine tasting for postgrads and some staff in the biomedical sciences. I’d been invited by my PhD supervisor, who is just one of the two or three remaining faculty from my time there.
It was an interesting experience, and the tasting went really well. But going back to a place you once knew so well brings up a complex set of feelings. On one level, there are happy memories, and it’s great to see old faces. On another, it taps into the sense of loss caused by moving on from a much-loved environment. [I remember that, a few years back, curiosity led me to revisit the village I grew up in. It felt very odd.] But things never stay the same. You can’t stay in the same place, even if you don’t move location.
What wines did I show? 6 bottles, purchased (for convenience) from Majestic, and all around the £8 price point. First, Villa Maria Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc, to illustrate the classic Marlborough Sauvignon style. Then Yali Reserve Gewurztraminer from Chile, to illustrate an aromatic variety, and of course the distinctiveness of Gewurz. The third white was a nice, typical Viognier – Anakena’s single vineyard, again from Chile.
For reds, I chose two different expressions of Syrah. One was ‘new world’ – the Mayu Syrah from Chile’s fabulously crazy Elqui Valley, which is ripe but meaty and exotic. The other was from the northern Rhone – Gaillard’s Vin de Pays de Collines Rhodannienes (the one with 2010 on the label and 2009 on the cork) – which shows the peppery, fresh, more structured side of Syrah. And the third red was a chunky but tasty Casabel Tinto from Lisboa, Portugal.
I had a chat with a couple of PhD students. One was working on quorum sensing in bacteria. I learned that some bacteria secrete peptides into their environment. When they are in the company of a sufficient number of their peers, the level of these signal peptides causes the bacteria to secrete enzymes into the environment to dissolve it, so all can feed. It’s a sort of cooperative behaviour. You’d think that selection would favour the evolution of cheats: bacteria who don’t secrete enzymes but who benefit from the enzymes that others secrete. But apparently this isn’t the case. Another student was working on cold tolerance in basil. You know those pots of herbs you get in the supermarket? Apparently the basil has to be shipped separately from the others because it is sensitive to temperatures below 10 C. If there’s a way to grow it that could make it more hardy, then this could save quite a bit of money.