I imagine most members had a moment in their lives when they discovered wine. I mean in a way that really made them think, wow, this is something serious. I have found “my thing”. And it led to a lifelong journey.
I wrote a piece a couple of years ago for a Spanish wine publication and below is an edited extract. I would love to know other members’ first big wine experiences – what the wine was, what the situation was, how it made them feel, what it led them to…
After about five years of irregularly drinking basic Rioja Crianza, and English ales with frequency, by December 1988, I had heard or read enough about wine to know two things: that wine was capable of greatness, and that I had tasted something I liked a lot. So I set out to buy the best bottle I could afford to celebrate my 21st birthday. I went to a shop in Charlotte Street, Soho, which is long-gone, a little delicatessen specialising in gourmet products from Spain. I had a limited budget, perhaps £20 of the day, and made a purchase on the shop owner’s recommendation: a bottle of López de Heredia Viña Tondonia from the 1979 vintage. I now know this could only have been a Crianza. The vintage was rated “Satisfactory” by the Consejo Regulador, and López de Heredia chose not to make a Reserva or Gran Reserva in that year because it was an unremarkable vintage, perhaps even quite a bad one. Only the great winemakers can get something passable or even decent in a difficult vintage. Greatness is not just about transcendence or the sublime – it’s about consistency in the face of adversity. So I was sold the most basic red wine, from a poor vintage, from a great winemaker. Did this matter? Not on the day. On the day, it was the most hypnotic, complex and charismatic wine I had ever tasted. I drank it with a great friend in a ramshackle, bohemian seafront house in Whitstable. I looked for beauty and I found it: the wine was nine years old then – too old for a Crianza from a weak vintage. But perhaps this is why it was so attractive. The tannic vigour and definition I was more familiar with from CVNE wines was absent. Instead I found a soft, velvety mouthfeel, a multi-layered fragrance of molasses, carob, prunes, cherries, cigar box, charcoal, a touch of mint, and a slightly melancholy mushroomy note, reminiscent of ancient cobwebbed cellars, long-lost secrets and whispers of history.
This paved the way for my lifelong passion for wine – in particular three things: (1) Tempranillo, a variety more versatile than people think (compare a modern Ribera del Duero with a traditional Rioja, or a Toro – spectacularly different); (2) a fascination for what happens to wines as they age; and (3) a realisation that wine knowledge is particularly given to the art of classification and cross-referencing – vintages, varieties, regions, labels, brands, winemakers, soils, terroirs, and an infinity of adjectives. This is very appealing to my slightly nerdy collector’s mentality. I collect words and numbers and what they mean, endlessly refining definitions in my head, looking for precise correspondences in the world. Combining this with a hedonistic pursuit like wine is irresistible and has marked the course of my life ever since.
So Tondonia was my wine epiphany. What was yours?