Alistair Scrutton describes himself as 'a former journalist who has worked across the United States, Latin America, Asia and Europe (and who once interviewed Jancis Robinson for an article on Scandinavian wines). I now work as communications director for an environmental foundation in Sweden. I travel with a large suitcase and plastic bubble cases to bring back wines from afar.' Here is his (unedited) entry in our seminal wine competition.
In his short story “The Airplane of Sleeping Beauty” Nobel-prize winning novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote of a brief, unconsummated encounter with a beautiful Latin American woman whom he sat next to on a plane. The woman, with “soft skin the colour of bread and eyes like green almonds” slept soundly through the whole, long-haul flight. Based on experience, Marquez was always left wondering the identity of this mysterious travel companion.
My own seminal experience with wine came in 2002 through my own frustrated flirtation with an anonymous enchantress – a glass of red by the side of a highway in Argentina. The two of us met in a café in the wine-making province of San Juan in Argentina. It had been a long day of a reporter on the road, interviewing some scientists there investigating the origins of the Universe.
Hunger soon distracted me from contemplating the Universe. I had parked the car to eat in a local café in the middle of nowhere. Open-air plastic tables hugged one of those lonely Argentina roads that crIss-cross the country’s empty plains, a Latin American version of Highway 66. The sun was setting, the light was golden, the occasional car approached from the horizon before disappearing into the next.
I took a sip of my new companion, expecting the rough edge of most house reds. But I immediately felt a silkiness, followed by the taste of sumptuous deep fruits and far away oak. It was all the more delicious for the simple steak sandwich I was eating.
I asked the waitress what the wine was. I was met with a shrug.
“From around here,” she said, in a curt way that suggested she had the final word, at least on this highway.
I sipped more, my initial curiosity about its identity dimmed by the sheer enjoyment of a tipple along an empty highway in the dry, chilled air of the high Argentine semi-desert – home in years to come of some of the New World’s most exciting wines. Still, it was quickly time to hit the road again. I stood up to leave, glancing down at the now orphaned glass.
A few hours later that evening I was sitting in a wine bar in the regional capital of San Juan, tasting various bottles. I am sure they were good, some very good. But I don’t remember even one.
Two decades, three continents and many, many more glasses of wine later, that memory of a red on the desolate highway has stubbornly persisted. I have wondered what the identity of the wine was. A plummy Malbec? Quite possibly. But there were other alternatives. I have had some delicious cheap Bonardas in Argentina. And a few Cabernets.
I don’t have a great palate. Early years of smoking probably blurred the lines for me between a “chocolate”, “leathery” or “earthy”. I once even mistook a Pinot for a Syrah. But drinking wine continues to fascinate.
An excellent wine is always about balance, they say, how different strands of acidity or tannins or fruitiness play off each other. My wine memories have always come down to the seamless meeting of wine with its environment – whether friends or landscapes or bars. A taste of “earthiness” can be quickly forgotten amid the laughter of a friend, a view from a bar, an intense political discussion.
That has dictated my finest hours with wine. I have drunk a Georgian wine in Kabul, so awful it brought welcome laughter to the tired journalists around the table. A 10-euro bottle of ordinary Bordeaux proved sumptuous on a humid night in New Delhi. On the way to Cape Town airport, I made a diversion to drink a delicious white at the tasting room of Steenberg winery perched high on a mountain overlooking the city. I was so taken by its flagship Magna Carta – a war correspondent friend told me it helped cure him of PTSD – that I still was inanely smiling as I walked – shall we say swayed – though airport security.
My memories of that iconic wine are forever associated with it providing me an unusually carefree and jocular experience with airport scanners.
All this takes me back to the master of the “magical realist” novel, Senor Marquez. After he died, the identity of his travel companion was discovered by some journalists. Yes, she was beautiful, but her identity almost proved a disappointment. The mystery and the moment had gone.
The moral of the story? The next time you try drinking wine, smell and sip and try to avoid words to accompany the pleasure. Empty your mind, just a little, of thoughts and comparisons. Forget about earth, oaky, fruity.
Let the mysterious beauty rest on your tongue, undisturbed by your wine reasoning.
Focus on the friend around you or the landscape in front of you.
And if you are drinking in an aeroplane, your taste buds dulled by cabin pressure, noise, and dry circulated air, think of the melancholy of Garcia Marquez, and raise a glass.