Vinous Vignettes – Pen portraits spanning the globe

Another half-dozen pen portraits of wines, a sextet that spans the globe. Each one is a standalone treat and, when taken together, a testament to wine’s enduring attraction as the most varied, diverse and interesting of all drinks. Indeed, it is far more than simply a drink, it is also a cultural symbol, a beacon for mankind’s achievements over thousands of years – to be celebrated and cherished, especially in these troubled times. In Evelyn Waugh’s novel, “Brideshead Revisited”, Charles Ryder described wine as “my stay in many barren years”. Words to ponder today.

Three Choirs, Classic Cuvée – United Kingdom

English sparkling wine is on a roll at present – a roll that was still far in the future when I visited the Three Choirs vineyard in Gloucestershire back in 1995. Curiosity rather than real interest prompted a visit, aided by proximity, as I found myself driving close to the winery on my way to visit a friend in nearby Wales. The cellar door tasting didn’t leave an indelible impression but I was sufficiently taken with the wines to buy this one – my intention being to meet up with a few wine loving friends on my return home and sample it together. That never came to pass, so the bottle lingered in the cellar, where it took up near-permanent residence, half-forgotten, to be re-discovered every few years before being long-fingered again. Then, the publication of my good friend and colleague Oz Clarke’s book on English wine last September finally lit the fuse.

After a quarter-century compressed in the neck the cork slipped out of the bottle with no fanfare and only the faintest exhalation of breath. Poured gently, the wine shone full gold, verging on honey, and a whisper of bubbles trickled upwards in the glass, rising reluctantly to the surface. The wine was understandably a little tired but it was still a ‘valid’ drink, with a smoky-savoury-toasty, old marmalade palate and an echo on the finish of what had once been youthful exuberance.

Inniskillin, Vidal Icewine 1998 – Canada

The world rowing championships were held at St Catherine’s in Canada’s Niagara region in August 1999 and, as a former oarsman, I didn’t hesitate to attend when invited by an American friend to share a house he had rented for the occasion. Attendance also afforded the perfect opportunity to visit a host of nearby wineries so, for a glorious week, the days divided neatly into spectating in the morning followed by vineyard visits in the afternoon. Included in the roster were: Stoney Ridge, Henry of Pelham, Cave Spring, Vineland, Pillitteri and Hillebrand, finishing up with Inniskillin on 26th August.

Icewine lies way out on the margins of winemaking, far removed from the mainstream, needing a special kind of perseverance if nectar is eventually to be wrung from frozen grapes. When it works, however, the resultant wine has a special kind of precision – lusciously sweet yet never unctuous. This bottle – a wedding present in 2000 from a Canadian cousin – could, perhaps should, have been drunk that year but, being the hoarder that I am, I did it away for 20 years before broaching. A worryingly dark walnut colour sparked concern – but that was immediately scotched by the incredible intensity of slightly singed fruit on the nose. Lush sweet prunes drifted into concentrated tangerine and sparkling fresh acidity on the palate. There was a balsamic quality too… and toffee… and herbs… all dancing together. “Zesty lemon treacle,” my tasting note concluded.

WeingutBollig-Lehnert, Trittenheimer Apotheke Riesling Spätlese 1990 – Germany

I always think of German – and most particularly Mosel – Riesling as the poetry of the wine world, deceptively light yet possessed of hidden depths unimagined on first acquaintance. And, I must confess, my first acquaintance years ago saw me dismiss this, one of the world’s greatest wine styles, as a lightweight, unworthy of serious attention. (In my defence, at the time I was going through a torrid affair with beefy Californian Zinfandels – an affliction since remedied.) A friend took me in hand and under his tutelage my palate was re-calibrated by wines such as this.

Today, having visited the Mosel on a number of occasions and having stood in the vertiginous vineyards I never fail to be amazed that a wine so delicate can come from such harsh origins. The contrast between the wines’ finesse and the ankle snapping slopes yawns like a chasm and I can summon nothing but awe for the winemakers who continue to make wine in such challenging circumstances.

Drunk at 30 years old this bottle showed maturity rather than the decline of overt age. The flavour was enhanced, not desecrated, by the passage of three decades. There was no tiredness, no sagging at the edges. Preserved lime and lemon competed with a pleasant mineral bite for the taste- buds’ attention and only on the finish did it exhibit a little shortness, like a long distance runner on the last lap.

Château Montus, Cuvée Prestige Madiran 1997 – France

The Rossignol family name is well known in Burgundy, particularly in Gevrey-Chambertin, though it is not confined to there. Indeed, in Irish wine circles, Pascal Rossignol is a well-known figure, proprietor of Le Caveau, a highly regarded wine shop in the city of Kilkenny. Meanwhile his brother, Hubert, has remained closer to home and is vineyard manager at Domaine de la Pousse d’Or in Volnay. As an aside, Hubert is a firm believer in biodynamics, as well as a hands-off approach to winemaking, and the fact that some of the Pousse d’Or wines are made in amphorae is down to his influence.

Pascal founded Le Caveau in 1999 and I visited shortly afterwards to check out the new kid on the block. I had vaguely heard of Montus, particularly its ability to age, shrugging off time’s passage like few other wines – so I bought a bottle to put it to the test, finally running out of patience last July. I was not disappointed.

The colour was a blood red crimson, with no hint of russet. One sniff carried me back to my student days at Trinity College Dublin, where walking through the old library, with its many thousands of leather-bound volumes, was a treat for the senses. Sweet leathery notes of old furniture, with an earthy savour of truffles and wafts of tobacco, made this a wine to sniff and sniff. The palate was leaner, marked by a dry bite of tannin but no aggression. Bracing acid slightly dominated the recumbent fruit. A lovely vinous antique.

Graham’s 1977 Vintage Port – Portugal

Christmas 1983 – my first in the southern hemisphere – was spent with friends in Swaziland, with nary a turkey or plum pudding in sight. Instead, we celebrated with a barbecue beside a waterfall, washed down with Tassenberg Dry Red or ‘Good Old Tassies’ as it is commonly called in South Africa. ‘Tassies’ is a high volume, low impact wine, principally composed of Cinsault and Cabernet Sauvignon, and is available in five litre bottles for the heroically thirsty. As I splashed under the waterfall to keep cool, thoughts of vintage port were far from my mind.

Yet a few days later in a supermarket in the capital, Mbabane, I chanced upon two bottles of Graham’s 1977 for the giveaway price of R10.35c. They were bought without further consideration and carried home to Ireland in my hand luggage, as could be done in those days. A generation later I broached the first bottle with a port-loving friend. Numerous house moves and some less than ideal storage locations had done nothing to dim its magnificence. It glowed in the glass and on the palate. Sweet perfume segued into caramelised fruit wrapped in satin-soft texture. There were no hard edges, nothing out of place, nothing to disturb the lovely flow of baroque flavours and the resonant length on the finish.

Rockford, Basket Press Shiraz, Barossa Valley 1999 – Australia

The Barossa Valley Music Festival was a fixture in that region’s cultural and social life in the latter years of the last century, the concerts taking place in the barrel halls of the supporting wineries. In advance of the 1999 event I interviewed the Leader and Artistic Director of the Irish Chamber Orchestra, Fionnuala Hunt, prior to the orchestra’s departure for Australia to perform in the festival. Thereafter we kept in contact and got married shortly afterwards.

Thus it was a sentimental occasion when we visited Rockford together in November 2001, buying a stack of bottles that we couldn’t possibly carry home in one go, no matter how generous our luggage allowance. So this bottle and some siblings were stored by friends and only made it home, shipped as part of a mixed dozen, in July 2002.

It came of age in 2020 so it was time to check it out. The colour was still a full garnet with no weakness at the edge. Smoky dark fruit, dense and arresting, dominated the nose. To that was added spice on the palate, with extra dollops of plump fruit and a mild note of liquorice. The texture was firm but not aggressive. Lovely composure bestowed immediate attraction and fresh lingering length gave enduring satisfaction. Worth the wait? Yes, definitely.

This article appeared first in Sommelier India, Issue 1, Spring 2021