Jon Wyand writes about himself, ‘Almost forty years ago, as a still slightly damp behind the ears freelance photographer with negligible experience or knowledge of wine, I was sent to France, Germany and Italy with a list of forty-nine “Great Vineyards and Winemakers” to photograph.
'Previously I think I had only caught sight of an actual vineyard when driving between breweries or distilleries. Well I can say it was certainly a seminal experience. When I think back on it there were a few days at the start that helped prepare me for the odyssey ahead and a future change of career direction. Here is what I remember. It was rather akin to being blindfolded and spun around before being asked to “pin the tail on the donkey!”‘ This is his (unedited) entry in our seminal wine competition.
Somewhere, despite my predilection for Burgundy, I keep an empty bottle of La Mission Haut Brion 1929. Not because it was a fabulous bottle, a blinding light on the road to Damascus, or a souvenir of a special evening with friends. To be honest, I knew none of the three people I shared it with and my wine initiation had barely begun so I was, and probably still remain, utterly undeserving of having it in one of the four glasses in front me.
I had only a few days earlier begun an assignment to illustrate Serena Sutcliffe’s book, Great Vineyards and Winemakers”. It was late September 1979, seven days into a seven week, 5000 mile trip around France, Italy and Germany and today I had been offered dinner, bed and breakfast at Château La Mission Haut Brion. Perhaps things could get better, but I doubted it.
I remember many things. The location in the Bordeaux suburbs, the gravelly soil and Francis Dewaverin extolling the benefits of an almost almost imperceptible slope as we toured the vineyard after dinner while he had his last cigarette of the day.
I had arrived in the late afternoon from Pomerol and lunch chez Christian Moueix, where garbed in my working clothes and minus muddy shoes I passed two hours in a state of blissful shock along with a dozen smart and knowledgeable people who were not at all fazed by the Picasso on the wall or the thick pristine white carpet. Nor were they sitting there in their socks !
So, arriving in an already sort of Alice in Wonderland state, I was shown to my room overlooking the vineyards, complete with half-tester and ensuite that seemed large enough for a game of tennis.
My fellow dinner guests were to be Francis himself and a lady and gentleman by the name of Mr and Mrs Edmund Penning Rowsell. More memories; Edmund being given the cellar keys and asked to return with a white and three reds for dinner. I don’t remember the white but the reds were 1961, 1949 and 1929. I don’t remember the dinner as I was undergoing serious training in telling the three apart by eye, nose and taste. Edmund was writing systematically in his note book while his wife hardly spoke.
Was this to be a vinous equivalent to the Madhatter’s tea party….?
One thing I had learned since my trip started was to say as little as possible about wine. I remember finding the ’61 too tannic, the ’49 very powerful but the ’29 wonderfully soft and seductive. The general verdict was that the ’61 was not ready but would be great, the ’49 approaching its peak but the ’29 was on a downward slope. I still had a feminine taste I was told and liked the ’29 for its softness and lack of tannin. All very understandable at my level of wine appreciation but I had managed to pass the evenings tests !
I doubt Edmund Penning-Rowsell ever shared a bottle with anyone as ignorant but he found ways to include me in what must have been a very special tasting. He warned me Serena would shriek when I told her, and she did, pleased that this ingenue had been given such an opportunity.
Earlier in the week at Château Loudenne I had joined a Boston bar owner and his wife in a tasting of three recent vintages. My first gob-smacking introduction to tannins !
The Bostonian swallowed all he was poured but at the last his wife said “Gee honey, I think you’re supposed to spit it out…” The gruff response from husband, built like a Boston bar owner, came back immediately, “I didn’t come all this way to spit out, anythang !”
I think the lesson I was learning was that wine was different things to different people,
there were no golden rules or easy answers. There were experts and no doubt pseudo experts but
perhaps the rest of us should just please ourselves and learn as we go along and enjoy the ride.
After Graves, I continued my trek, this time up to the Loire, the Ladoucette estate at the fairytale Château du Nozet and Pouilly Fumé.
That night it was dinner with Baron Patrick and his mother at one end of a huge baronial table with a magnum. The remains of that magnum travelled with me down to Burgundy the next day where they were shared with Louis Latour’s pickers at their dinner in Aloxe-Corton.
That seven week journey taught me that wine of all pedigrees should be about sharing and enjoyment. That tasting any wine should remind us that it is something, at whatever level, most of us could not create.
Not only Montrachet is best approached with humility.
Nowadays, many wines but no notes later, Montagny can amaze me too.
I returned home safely at the beginning of November with, as I recall 96 and 1/2
bottles as souvenirs and an inclination to a bottle a day. I was dreading Customs at Dover but got through with a bill of under £50. I asked how they valued it for VAT, “at 50p a litre” I was told…!
Various bottles and been stolen from my car at the Palais de Papes car park in Avignon along with my diary of three week’s visits and my passport. Thankfully all the film was untouched.
Which mean b****r gave me a half bottle ? Well it was a ’76 Konigen Victoria Berg Rheingau spatlese with a beautiful label, and came with 6 small tumblers, so not so mean !
It still sits on top of the dresser, a bottle of pleasure that punched above it weight.