What is your idea of charisma in a wine? And where does it come from?
It’s entirely subjective, of course. Look at it too hard and it might vanish. But some wines have an inbuilt glamour, do they not? It’s a kind of terroir, in a way, less measurable than climate or soil, but perhaps more powerful in the mind of the consumer. It doesn’t actually affect the flavour, but it certainly affects how one perceives the wine.
What might be charismatic? For some people, presumably, rosé made by a film star. For me, it’s history or landscape, and the history of the landscape. The Douro has charisma; so do volcanoes. My late friend the bookseller John Sandoe had a large collection of paintings of erupting volcanoes, although that’s probably a bit of a male thing. Santorini has charisma – those nested Assyrtiko vines of great age, the only green things in a lunar volcanic landscape –and luckily the wines match up. What a let-down it would be if they were flabby and forgettable.
Etna has charisma too – those lava fields, destroying everything in their path, and then, over several hundred years, helped first by lichens and then by broom plants, turning into soil that gives astonishingly alive wines, all grown with a smoking crater at their back. And again, the wines, especially from the Carricante grape, are astonishing.
Go to the other side of Sicily and you can find charisma of a different kind. The vineyards of Marsala are very beautiful, but it takes a lot to lift a vineyard out of the seen-one-ravishing-vineyard-seen-’em-all category. Here, the charisma – the story, too – is in the cellars, built within salt-smelling distance of the sea (albeit for boringly practical reasons of transport), and every barrel tastes different according to where it is in the cellar. The closer a cask is to the sea, the cooler and more humid its environment, and the less the oxidation of the wine. Each cask lives in a slightly different world, and lives there on an earth floor with no topping-up and no air-con. Florio’s cellar houses 3000 casks of different sizes, over two hectares. The cask nearest the sea is just 95 metres away, and all this is imprinted on the wine. The 1998 Vergine, with its lovely powdery old nose, silky, and pungent with bitter orange peel, had spent 23 years 147m from the sea; the layered, gracefully unwinding 1952 Aegusa lived 200m from the sea.
The same happens in Sherry-land. Butts of Sherry mature differently according to where they are in the bodega, and where the bodega is in relation to the sea breeze. Is it sheltered, warm and dry, or is it high enough up to catch the breeze and be cooler, perhaps more humid? You can taste the difference. In the bodegas – the old ones, of course, with earth floors and slightly wonky esparto-grass blinds filtering the sun, and that compelling, pungent, unforgettable smell of old Sherry oxidising in old wood – and they’ll take samples from this barrel, and then, the other end of the bodega, from that, and one tastes so much denser, more roasted, more black-coffee-and-burnt-toast than the other…. Perhaps I’m just rationalising the charisma of Jerez, but I’m not the first to feel it.
Remember Chaucer’s The Pardoner’s Tale? I’m not the first to quote it either, but here it is again:
‘That whan a man hath dronken draughtes thre
And weneth that he be at hoom in Chepe,
He is in Spaigne, right at the toune of Lepe’
Drinking draughtes thre will help, but just a whiff of that bodega-scent will do it.”
It’s illogical, of course. I can think of plenty of seaside towns where spending 30 years, even 200m from the sea front, would not be considered the least bit glamorous. Why should Marsala or Jerez be different from, say, Worthing? (According to Google there’s a flamenco school in Worthing, so maybe they’re getting closer.)
More illogicality: a person of some 90 summers, living in Worthing – or anywhere; I have no wish to pick on Worthing – will be addressed as ‘dear’ and will be assumed to spend their time watching daytime television with the volume turned up. Yet a vine of 90 summers is a hero, forged in drought and frost, its wine fascinating just because of that vine age. Charisma is not fairly distributed in the world.
The Barossa Valley has quite a lot of such vines, and even older. Yalumba has precisely 820 Grenache vines (unless one has died recently, of course) in its Tri-Centenary block, and the wine is bottled as The Tri-Centenary. It’s a big wine, like red velvet cake in texture, earthy, bright, aromatic, deep, herbal and raspberry-chocolatey, with a hit of alcohol too – well, it is Grenache. And the vines were planted in 1889, when the Australia was a very different place, and so was Britain. It’s about as direct a link as you could find with the world of 130 years ago.
The only vinous link that is more direct is a wine made at that time, and that is probably going to be a fortified, if it’s still going to be drinkable. The oldest wines in Taylor’s Coronation Very Very Old Tawny Port are around 90 years old, and it’s an amazing wine – pungent, tense, linear. Taylor’s served it at a dinner at the Tower of London to celebrate the 650th anniversary of the Anglo-Portuguese Alliance – and those sorts of timescales make 90 years, or 130 years, look like yesterday.
And talking of time – my publishers (of the annual Pocket Wine Book) are dragging me into the 20th century, and so I am now on Instagram. Yes, I know. You don’t need to laugh. But if you can remember the days when you too had a handful of followers and felt as if you were shouting into an unheeding cacophony, do me a favour and follow me. Margaret_randpocketwine. I’ll be grateful.
Photo by Guille Pozzi and Unsplash