Competition – Stuart Johnston

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Stuart Johnston writes,I am a retired 70 year old. A career in the oil industry and subsequent travels have given me the opportunity to try wines all over the world. Some were obscure and, frankly, dreadful – such as those from Cyrenaica in pre-Gaddafi Libya and from Dodoma in 1990s Tanzania. But I made many wonderful discoveries throughout Europe, North and South America, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Along the way, my wine education has been informed by the Wine Society and, of course, Jancis' entertaining writings on the subject. I have been accompanied on this journey by Margie, my wife of 44 years. We are fortunate enough to have a winter bolt hole in her Mother City – Cape Town – which, to my mind, is in the most beautiful wine region in the world with so many superb wines on offer. I have set myself a retirement objective of visiting every winery in the Western Cape – well over 300 and counting – but I'm doomed to fail. I have managed less than a hundred since starting in 2005 and more new wineries are being established than I can visit in a year. But I shall continue to try despite a propensity to keep returning to old favourites as new vintages and varieties come on offer!’ This is his (unedited) entry in our seminal wine competition.

I was 15 when I lost my wine virginity in the summer of ‘63. ‘She’ was a small, warm glass of Mateus Rosé. The deed was done at the Bulkeley Hotel in Beaumaris on Anglesey. The occasion was a Sunday lunch outing from the nearby naval training school, HMS Conway, where I was a cadet. The ‘go-between’ was the indulgent father of a fellow cadet. Like many of life’s firsts it was memorable, but… seminal? Hardly! For this callow youth, however, it was the height of sophistication; until then, my colonial African upbringing had been devoid of any vinous intake. An occasional shandy and surreptitious sips of parental whisky or gin were the limits of my alcoholic experience – apart from a disastrous New Year’s Eve encounter with a bottle of Crème de Menthe, which is altogether another story.

THE seminal wine experience came a few years later in 1970 at a friend’s Bolton home. There were uncanny echoes of my Mateus moment: the classically curved bottle was present again, but only as a wax covered candle holder; a fellow Conway cadet shared the experience, but by then we were university students; and the ‘go-between’ was another indulgent father. His daughter had invited us home for the weekend and, despite his absence at the dinner concerned, Father generously allowed us to help ourselves from his cellar.

Since my ‘first time’ in Beaumaris, I had become a wine flirt and had let my affections wander wherever fancy took me… and my wallet allowed. Student grants were limited; quantity was more important than quality; off licences (remember them?) did not have the range of affordable wine so readily available today; and I had yet to discover the Wine Society. My wine affairs were thus limited to plonk from those parts of Europe that created wine lakes. I even tried making wine from a Boots kit until exploding bottles and, eventually, taste ended that flirtation.

Then I experienced real love for the first time… and was smitten. From the cellar in Bolton came two bottles of Chateau Leoville Barton 1949. The wine was a year younger than me but oh so much more mature. I later learnt it was from one of the best post war vintages of the Left Bank; up to then, the only left bank I knew was the scene of student riots in Paris! Our generous benefactor returned home as we were still enjoying the second bottle of his wonderful wine. Without patronising, he started my wine education; 48 years later I am still learning. He introduced us to Bordeaux; told us of the rivers that thread the region; mentioned chateaux, villages, classifications and terrain – but left terroir for another day. I learnt about classic grape varieties, different wine styles and that blends can be much more than the sum of their parts. Many connoisseurs consider Bordeaux wines to be the best, he said, but there were great wines waiting to seduce us all over the world. Like an ageing Casanova, he was envious of our youth and the many opportunities that lay ahead of us to seek out and savour new wines.

Above all, our host encouraged us to let the wine do the talking and our palates do the listening. Throughout the evening, ‘Mme. Barton’ had, indeed, been talking seductively and my palate stimulated as never before. It was a seminal experience that started a lifetime love and exploration of wine. Many years and many wine affairs later, when I could afford to buy and lay down en primeur, my first choice was my first love – Chateau Leoville Barton. Despite an affection for many other wines, she is the one to whom I have been most faithful, is ever present in my cellar and has never let me down.