There are pieces of music that stop me in my tracks. I mean that quite literally, as I do a lot of my listening to music while driving. I recall the slow movement of Brahms’ A minor string quartet, played with such richness and poignancy by the Jerusalem Quartet that I had to pull in to the side of the road and listen to the end. Then there was the finale of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, dancing with an irresistible stomping energy, as performed by the great Catalan viol-player and conductor Jordi Savall with Le Concert des Nations, which had me wanting to tap my feet rather than apply them to the pedals. It seemed wiser to pull in and park, once again.
I’ve been thinking that the “stops you in your tracks” test can and should be applied to wines also. What was it that got any of us wine-obsessives hooked on the fermented juice of the grape in the first place? Probably it was not an impeccably clean white of unassailably neutral character (let’s say a well-made commercial Pinot Grigio). Nor was it likely to have been a correct pin-stripe-suited Cabernet Sauvignon that ticked all the boxes but somehow didn’t sing a memorable song. Nor even a Provence rosé of the supermodel tendency, alluringly clean-limbed and elegant but vacant in other important areas.
I was captivated by the first wine I remember drinking, or sipping, and probably the first wine I ever drank, or sipped, a Maximin Grunhäuser Herrenberg Spätlese from the 1958 vintage (better, in general, for humans than wines). This late-gathered Riesling from the valley of the tiny Ruwer, which flows into the Mosel near Trier, glittered greenishly in the Treveris crystal, and enticed me with its floral scent, intense green apple freshness and pristine crispness. It was incredibly delicate, and invigoratingly alive. Or so I think I remember, while bearing in mind the evidence that our memories are constantly being remade by the mythologising mind.
I was extremely lucky to have been brought up in a house built over a cool cellar full of bottles which my father had begun collecting in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when Lafite 1953 and 1959 could be had for less than £2 a bottle. It wasn’t Lafite, however, which opened my senses and my being to the perfectly poised combination of perfume and structure found in great left-bank Bordeaux; it was Château Palmer, especially in the 1959 and 1966 vintages. In certain vintages Palmer equals or outshines any wine from the Médoc.
Around the time I experienced those revelations – my mid- to late-teens – I was also turned on to the almost indecent truffley, rooty sensusousness of great Burgundy by Armand Rousseau’s Chambertin and Chambertin Clos de Bèze (before they became cult wines of astonishing price) and to the wild spice and herb magic of the northern Rhône by Jaboulet’s Hermitage La Chapelle 1961 (ditto).
You may think my “stops you in your tracks” rule is rather thin and lacking definition, like the house white at that Italian restaurant I won’t name. I’ll give a more recent example soon but first it might help to rule out what this doesn’t refer to. Being well-made, lacking obvious faults, even possessing such virtues as balance, scoring heavily on some numerical scale: these are not the name of the game here. I am talking about being surprised, almost having one’s breath taken away, by a kind of beauty never before encountered. The beauty in question must be more than surface beauty; it must go deep. Penetrating deeply into the receiver, it summons up its own depths, the far-off plot of land where it was grown, all the influences which attended its birth and upbringing (thinking of terms like the French élevage and the Spanish crianza). If this sounds a bit like the language of falling in love, so be it.
So to a very recent experience. This was at a tasting held by a long-established wine outfit of unusual corporate structure – a co-ooperative wine society, to be more precise – held at 67 Pall Mall in London. By the time I got to the wine or wines that stopped me in my tracks, I’d already been surprised and delighted by several unexpected finds: a delicious sparkling Pinot Noir rosé from Assmannshausen in the Rheingau, a dry Moscatel from Alicante, a California Pinot from a vineyard and region I’d never heard of. Then came the trio of Syrahs from Swartland, to be more precise from a single vineyard of blue schist on a wildly exposed mountain called Porseleinberg.
I didn’t know any of that at the time; what struck me, on the first of the three I tasted, the 2017 vintage, was an utterly enticing combination of wildness and finesse on the nose. If this was a come hither wine, it beckoned the drinker to a distant, remote place of isolated beauty. My tasting notes on the three vintages are frustratingly short on the precise taste references currently in vogue: I do not mention any red or black fruits (or even stone fruits, that odd new category), or any particular spice, white pepper, tar or creosote. These wines had gone beyond such banalities.
My notes keep repeating the refrain of exciting wildness combined with extreme delicacy and finesse, with just one reference to Côte Rôtie as a point of comparison. They are the notes of someone a little overcome by enthusiasm, possibly one who has fallen in love. “Extremely delicate, fine, long, utterly exciting” I say about the 2017. By the time I get to the 2018, after the Côte Rôtie reference, I am reduced to “extremely delicious”. The 2019 – who knows, this may turn out to be the best of the three, but there’s hardly anything between them – there is “wildness but also sweetness and richness, gentle but long tannins, salty.” All hail to the modest farmer Callie Louw: long may he produce such arresting marvels.
Photo of Callie Louw by Tim Atkin MW