I must write about this now or never. These moods are perhaps as rare as these experiences. They’ve been rare for me, at least: times of harmony, when aesthetic experiences have somehow combined with a moment so as to produce something wonderful.
I remember, for example, some moments during my first enthralled reading of Henry James’s “Portrait of a Lady”, moments of utter conviction and engagement. I remember a performance of Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde” at the English National Opera in London maybe 30 years ago. The second act is mostly a long duet of darkness, love and death, and it was sung on a stage almost black with darkness (as I remember it) apart from a myriad of stars. The blast of inevitable shock came with a burst of brilliant light shattering the dark. That hour or so grew into an experience of profundity whose effect is with me still.
A few others, perhaps, and some fantastic moments with wine too. But somehow I’ve never had quite the conviction of wine as a possibly aesthetic experience as I did this evening at the conclusion of a tasting of fine Amontillado sherries in Jerez itself, at the 2014 Vinoble wine fair. The tasting was led by Tim Atkin, and one of the great sherry people, Jesús Barquin. The first five wines were excellent and fascinating, eloquent reminders that sherry is the most neglected of the world’s truly great wines.
But then the last wine came. A most untypical amontillado, in fact – made from Pedro ximenez, the grape used primarily for powerfully sweet dessert sherries. And this amontillado was made not in the classic sherry areas, but in more outlying and even less fashionable Montilla (in fact it’s not technically a sherry at all, because of its origins). Perez Barquero Amontillado Solera Fundacional 1905 (the date would be the foundation of the Solera, but this wine is nearly as old as that).
I couldn’t begin to describe it adequately. Heavenly aromas. Pure umami. Big, powerful, unbelievably intense, unbelievably lingering, yet of a delicacy and refinement to equal the concentration. So supple. A pure reminiscence, a vague echo of sweet fruit on an austere yet generous basis. Yet, admittedly so concentrated that it would be hard to sip at more than a glass or two, perhaps like a great brandy or other spirit. The flavours linger so long, though, that a little goes an immensely long way!
For some reason I found this wine almost heartbreaking, in the way that only great art has affected me before. I don’t think I’ve ever before come as close to believing that wine can be art, can be genuinely mysteriously profound.
Oh well, I also suppose now, having wandered a long way home through the Sunday streets of Jerez, sometimes almost in tears, and then deciding to write about it, I suppose that this was not necessarily the greatest wine I’ve ever had – but somehow it worked for me. Time, place, readiness. Harmony.
Just as lesser wines can work for one on a different level of pleasure and satisfaction.
But I (literally) have still the taste of that amontillado lingering in my mouth, and the impingement of it still on what I could in a weak moment call my soul. It’s an experience I shall not forget and for which I’m deeply grateful.