Great wine experiences

Francois Haasbroek (his own-label is Blackwater Wines) posted a tweet about his recent tasting of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti wines and dinner with Aubert de Villaine: it was, he wrote, “the single best wine experience of [his] life thus far”. It must indeed have been a marvellous event, and I’m envious.

But Francois’s remark inevitably prompted me to wonder about my own greatest wine experiences. My immediate thought was that certainly none would have centred on a formal wine tasting – I would prefer them to revolve around sharing bottles with friends, perhaps. But thinking about it, I realised that I’d have to have at least one tasting near the top of my list (I can’t limit myself to just one great experience, and I hope for his sake that nor will Francois be able to when he’s my age!).

So here, in case anyone’s interested, are three of my best wine experiences – I’m not going to work at interrogating my own list; these are the three that occurred to me immediately, but I’m lucky enough to have had many wonderful times in my wine life.

The marvellous tasting was in the beautiful old Alcazar in Jerez, at the 2014 Vinoble wine fair. It was of great amontillado sherries, climaxing with the Perez Barquero Amontillado Solera Fundacional 1905, a wine which, as I wrote shortly afterwards, I found “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.” If I hadn’t written about the experience immediately after I returned to my hotel after wandering the streets of Jerez, still with the taste of the wine on my lips, I never would have written about it at all. Now I’m pleased I did, as it helps remind me. (Here’s the original posting.)


Rosa Kruger among Voetpad’s old vines

I also wrote a blog about another of my great wine experiences (two blogs, in fact: here and here), though in less ecstatic tones. And in fact, if there was any actual wine involved I can’t remember what it was. But surely vineyards and wine-people can constitute a wine experience? This was undoubtedly the most marvellous wine-day I’ve had. It was in February 2009 and I was being taken for my first visit up the West Coast, by Rosa Kruger and Eben Sadie, to the old-vine sites which Rosa had “discovered” and from which Eben was vinifying grapes for his maiden vintage of the Ouwingerdreeks wines. We visited, amongst others, the Skurfberg vineyard with both red and white semillon that produces Kokerboom, and the century-old, isolated planting of mixed vines (chenin, semillon, palomino and hanepoot) that gives us the ‘T Voetpad blend. And we had lunch in a bizarrely, wittily retro little place in obscure Graafwater called Afrokaan (sadly it closed not long after).

But this day was great not just because it was unreservedly happy for all of us, and an adventure for me, inaugurating my love for and fascination with these extraordinary West Coast vineyards; in my mind it marked a new stage in my friendship with two people who, together, sum up so much of what the Cape revolution has been about in this century.

lafite81The third great experience that occurs to me was a comparatively quiet and modest one, I suppose, with a much older friend: Louise Hofmeyr, then winemaker at Welgemeend. It must have been the mid or late 1990s, I suppose. We were dining at a restaurant in Gardens, Cape Town called The Hideaway – a really fine place, which (like Afrokaan!) didn’t survive for many years and which I still recall often. Well, on their winelist this night were a few grand wines at fairly reasonable prices – single bottles expelled from the cellar of some rich collector who wanted to keep only wines that Robert Parker had scored highly. Parker didn’t much admire the quietly classic Bordeaux reds of 1981 (the more showy ripeness of 1982 was what allowed his reputation to be made, of course). So, for R700 (seems crazy now) I could buy a bottle of Château Lafite 1981 and, with a gulp at my extravagance, did so. Appropriately with Louise, who’d taught me about proper, old-fashioned Bordeaux with the aid of mostly more modest wines from the cellar her father had built up, I drank my first bottle of Premier Cru bordeaux. I know that it was so wonderful (and the occasion so special) that it brought tears to my eyes.

If anyone else is spurred into sentimentality or happy recall, and would like to mention a great wine experience or two in a comment – well, I’d be delighted to share them.

3 thoughts on “Great wine experiences

  1. My first great wine experience was in 1962 when I was just 20. Taken to dinner in La Chaux des Fonds in Switzerland my host ordered a bottle of 1924 Chateaux Margaux which was utterly sublime. Later in the sixties at the home of David Baker at Eagles Nest a group of the Wine Taster’s Guild gathered for a tasting of a bottle of pre-phylloxera 1884 Ch. Lafite. We bought four modern vintages ranging from 1960 back to 1949 and tasted from youngest to oldest. By the time we got to the 1884 we had learnt the character of Lafite and amazingly the 80 plus year old wine was still in excellent condition and exhibiting the Lafite signature.

  2. Great wine experiences were much cheaper to come by in those days, of course, Stephen, when the rand was strong and Bordeaux pretty cheap. Can you imagine trying to organise a Lafite tasting like that now unless you were a multi-millionaire? Michael Fridjhon mentions in his Business Day column today that “In the 1970s Johannesburg’s Civil Service Wine Store offered classed growths from R3 per bottle, and 20-year-old first growths from R20.” Gulp.

  3. Many year’s ago, Len Evans took me for a drive in the Hunter Valley, showing me some vineyards and generally schooling me on all things wine. After about an hour, he stopped in the middle of a paddock, pulled out a bottle of Billecart and some plastic cups and we sat on the bonnet of his 4WD drinking and chatting. I was just starting out on my wine journey and I felt like king for a day. Havn’t forgotten it.

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