Shortly after five this morning, I offered my two-year-old son John the chance to take part in an experiment. He has recently become a ship owner. The ship in question is about a foot tall, made of brightly coloured plastic, and crewed by a rascally bunch of polymer pirates, few of whom retain all their birth organs. The experiment was as follows. If John would consider returning to sleep, I was prepared to place the ship in his cot. The proximity of the ship would engender pirate dreams. I would simultaneously return to my own bed and solicit (by unspecified techniques) pirate dreams, too.
We could then meet up and together undertake piratical adventures before breakfast. Digging up buried doubloons, scuttling Spanish galleons, swinging from yardarms in order to board rival privateers: that kind of thing. John gave the matter some thought, and after tough negotiation, agreed. We launched ourselves back into semiconsciousness, bound for a Caribbean rendezvous.
The almost limitless openness of the young child’s mind is both an inspiration and a lesson. An inspiration, because the range of the possible stretches away like starlight; a lesson, because it reminds us just how tightly closed we normally keep our own minds. My suggestion would have been dismissed as irritating and fatuous by anyone much above the age of seven; John, though, was prepared to give it a try. He allowed the possibility.
When I taste with others, one of the qualities I admire most is the readiness to ‘allow the possibility.’ This doesn’t mean suspending critical faculties: allowing the possibility is the starting point, but the wine still has to convince and impress over the course of its journey from bottle to stomach. What I like in others is aesthetic width. Let no beauty go unremarked; give every felicity its chance to delight.
Consider Jura. This is a region where a sizeable percentage of all white wines are given controlled oxidation, and where reds are so pale that they are often described as ‘coral’. Most would last seconds before being shown the sink in the context of competitive Anglophone wine shows, yet the best have a beauty that is all the more compelling for its singularity. Sulphur notes, horsey brettanomyces yeast characters (‘brett’), and the distinctive sweetcorn-like odour of dimethylsulphide (DMS) are all regarded as faults when they appear palpably in wines, yet sulphur is welcomed as a trait in Burton-style real ales; brett is a vital component of the flavour spectrum of Belgian lambic and gueuze beers; and popular British lagers are defined by their aromatic DMS component. Taking exception to these traits as wine faults is, for catholic British drinkers, learned behaviour.
Nothing closes minds more adroitly than fashion. In my callow years, I thought that fashion was limited to the sillier forms of dressing up; as my fifth decade draws on, I have realised that fashion is a vast counter-current of stupidity, eddying to and fro in every aspect of human activity like bilge water in the hull of our communal intelligence. In contrast to political fashions, wine fashions don’t cost lives, but they exist nonetheless. The fashionable forms of excellence in red wine barely need iteration: they are modelled, to be over-schematic, on the flavour profile of merlot from St- Emilion or Pomerol, combined with the aromatic and textural legacy of expensive new French oak barriques. That’s the ‘look’ for much international fine wine, whether it be Chianti, Chilean syrah, or Californian cabernet. Beside that ‘look’, the red wine in front of me is Quasimodo.
It’s 1988 Cabassaou from Domaine Tempier in Bandol. It’s magnificent. And like nothing else on earth. The colour is dark red-black; there’s even a little lingering opacity. The aromas are complex. Where do they take you? Rabbit burrows and beehives; pine groves on hot hillsides; a garden where contadini are preparing tomato paste for the winter; the rosehips that my brothers and I used to dismember in order to make our very own itching powder. Of what other red wine in the world can that be said? As with all great wines as they breast their summits, the aromas modulate in the glass, growing more harmoniously fragrant and refining the wine’s singularities towards a qualified sweetness underpinned by honey, treacle, malt.
On the palate, the wine retains great weight, presence, intensity, and density; the tannins have the quality of wellworn leather, and its acidity is ripe, vivid, and rounded. In a way, it strikes me as being France’s answer to a great Barolo, though it’s softer and fuller than craggy, piercing Barolo can ever be. There’s a sumptuousness seeping into its pores behind the leather and the crushed stone; it has, too, the natural hip-swinging balance of the great vintage to it. Yet I can imagine many drinkers disdaining its oddities.
Isn’t this simply mourvèdre doing its thing? Not really. Spain’s monastrell wines can be ferocious by dint of solar force, but they are usually built on a core of more conventional blackberry fruit; so, too, with mourvèdre in Roussillon (as, for example, in Jean Gardiés’s magnificent La Torre). Mataro mingles tar with the fruits. Even in Châteauneuf, most daringly in Beaucastel’s famous Hommage, the notes are different, although the structuring force can be as fierce. No: the singularity is Bandol itself, that seadazzled amphitheatre where the vines rummage in the petrified bones of Jurassic sea-crocodiles. Maybe it’s a pirate wine, there to teach us broadmindedness. I must tell John.