Competition – Jonathan Bates


Below is Jonathan Bates' unedited entry in our seminal wine competition. Here's how he describes himself: 'After a lifetime involved in the management of UK research science, I’m enjoying an active retirement in Brixham, Devon, and enjoying pairing the wonderful local turbot, sole and brill with a variety of white wines. My main wine interest these days lies in Argentina: following five trips in the last ten years I’m saving for the next opportunity to taste at El Enemigo, Walter Bressia etc etc.' 

There were so many wines it could have been. 

So many it should have been. 

I enjoyed wine, but I was still trying to discover what great wine was. I was in my early twenties and I didn’t know that many people who drank really fine wine. I was reading voraciously, experimenting, treating myself to special bottles. My budget was limited, though, and I still hadn’t found that special bottle, the one that would really demonstrate quite what all the fuss was about.

The first wine it should have been was an Alsace Grand cru. I don’t quite remember which one, beyond the thought that it ended in berg. It was more than I could afford. But then the young woman I bought it to share with was out of my league too. She’ll love it, the assistant at a local wine shop suggested. It’s distinctive, original, its gewürztraminer.

Maybe I gave it too much of a build-up. Maybe it was a mistake telling her the price I’d paid, in a desperate attempt to impress. The advertising I had seen suggested flowers would spill from the opened bottle… I told her that too, knowledgeably. As if I drank this stuff for breakfast. She gazed at me as if I was an idiot.

Burgundy was proving particularly elusive. I liked the region, but could these wishy-washy, vaguely cherry flavoured reds I drank really be examples of fine wine? Was there a problem with my taste buds? The same wine shop proffered a very special bottle. A ludicrously expensive Clos Vougeot, albeit from a maker with a name I didn’t know. The assistant assured me that the young woman would love this one. Wishy-washy it isn’t. He should have said, she’ll love it but not until she’s had children with you and seen them through primary school . Hard, unyielding, mouth piercing, it was one of those wines that was well and truly built for the long term.

I needed someone to point me in the right direction. I needed a better wine shop, too.

It certainly wasn’t the first growth claret the Master of a Cambridge college left for me to drink whilst my wife and I were staying with him a few years later. He had to go out to dinner; he wanted us to enjoy ourselves. I’d worked for him, we’d become friends. My first opportunity to try a first growth… It had to be good, didn’t it? From his own cellars? I looked at the bottle and my heart sank at the sight of the year. I knew my vintage tables. When he quizzed us on his return I didn’t have the heart to say well no, far from exciting it was sharp and sour and everything 1969 was, which wasn’t much.

By rights I think the wine it should have been was a mature Chateau Fonsalette that Jancis sang seductively of during a tasting in an Edinburgh bookshop back in the early ‘eighties. This was the days of the late and great Jacques Reynaud. Oh, Jancis made that wine sound so enticing… and then, just as she poured it, just as I was reaching for my glass to try it, my wife fainted at her feet. A friend, who I bumped into a few days later, could not stop talking about that wine...

Quite rightly too, for when – some years later – I came to taste not just Fonsalette but Pignan and Rayas too, I knew why Jancis’s eyes had lit up at that event.

So what was it, in the end, that ensured I would spend the rest of my life with very little in the way of savings but an increasingly large number of bottles of wine to share with good friends? What was it that would open my eyes to the real glory of good wine?

It turned out to be something relatively modest, just a few weeks after my wife had quite literally lain at the feet of Jancis Robinson. June 1985, I think. For our wedding anniversary I took my wife to the Pomapadour restaurant at the Caledonian hotel (then in its heyday) and tentatively ordered a Gevrey-Chambertin to go with our lamb. The sommelier looked at me. He was the sort of man who looked as if he’d been to central casting before getting his job. He had a look that spoke of years of experience of trying wine. Don’t drink that, sir, he urged. Let me suggest something…

The wine he chose for us had a nose that transported me back to my schooldays and shaded rooms filled with spiralling chalk dust. Ink wells and blackboards and a teacher who spoke of his recent holiday and of sipping wine at French restaurants. It had layers of silky fruit. It had length. Length? I felt my tongue searching my mouth for the last vestiges of flavour.

It wasn’t a third growth, let alone a first growth. It wasn’t even a ridiculous price. Chateau Cissac, 1978. What a revelation.

And to think that these days I don’t drink red Bordeaux – but that is a different story.