Do you remember an inn, Miranda?
Do you remember an inn?
And the tedding and the spreading
Of the straw for a bedding,
And the fleas that tease in the High Pyrenees,
And the wine that tasted of the tar?
And the cheers and the jeers of the young muleteers
Under the vine of the dark verandah?
And the Hip! Hop! Hap!
Of the clap
Of the hands to the twirl and the swirl
Of the girl gone chancing,
Backing and advancing,
And the ‘ting, tong, tang’ of the guitar…
Apologies to Hilaire Belloc, for abridging his poem ‘Tarantella’ there. Belloc is great. He's known for saying, “Wherever the Catholic sun does shine, there's always laughter and good red wine.” Religious or not, you can’t disagree with sunshine, laughter and good red wine. The guy was a legend.
I love Tarantella, for its rhythm, pace, drama and nostalgia. Mum introduced me to it when I was eight years old. It was a seminal poem for me. Thirty years later, I like wines that taste a bit of tar, and ‘ting, tong, tang’ is as far as I’ve got with my classical guitar. I’ve even been to the high Pyrenees, although entirely by accident, and that’s where the story unfolds.
On a sweltering hot August afternoon, in 2001, my then-girlfriend and I descended unexpectedly from a sticky, hot, rickety train carriage. The locomotive had broken down half way up a mountain, leaving us stranded in the tiny town of Ribes de Freser. We were returning from a romantic weekend away in Barcelona, to Toulouse, where we were both studying. Our broken train left us the choice of spending three uncomfortable, grumpy hours returning to Barcelona, or staying overnight in a peaceful mountainside town with fresh air, wild flowers, cool, tumbling streams and local wine. The decision didn't take long.
The only room available was in the poshest hotel around. Terrifyingly expensive for my student budget, but I was keen to impress – and probably to have a little more indulgent fun before allowing the weekend to end. The bedding was definitely not made of straw, and we didn’t get teased by any fleas. There were no muleteers in evidence, either. But there was a guitar at one point, and we did find a beautiful wine that tasted a little of tar…Not Barolo, no (wrong mountains); this was a red Priorat. I had no idea what it meant at the time, but I remembered the odd name.
I have zero idea who made the Priorat, or what vintage it was. I just remember what it tasted like. Memory is rarely faithful (but neither was said girlfriend as it turned out). I know full well that today’s memory is filtered through what I have learned since then, but the flavours are all there right now, clear as a bell. Maraschino was something I wouldn’t try until several years later, but it definitely tasted of that. Coconut wouldn’t have occurred to me back then, but I can still taste those clear, sweet traces of American oak. Dried herbs were there too. And a childish tinge of aniseed balls. Most importantly to this story, there was a dark, sweet-sour whiff of tar.
It wasn’t just the wine that was seminal, it was the whole experience. Ever since then, when I taste a memorable wine I remember it in context; who I’m with, how I feel, and where I am. If I close my eyes, I can hear that mountain stream rushing down below the raised railway platform. You can see and hear it for yourself, if interested. See: www.hotelsderibes.com/en/how-to-get-to-ribes-de-freser
Tarantella is energetic, powerful, structured, heady, evocative. And it has that ‘ting, tong tang' factor which jumps out at you. Sound familiar? www.jancisrobinson.com/tastings/view/469141.