In my memory, the tomatoes are great glowing ruby spheres, the cheese is ship’s-sail white and the wine is the perfect midpoint between the two. Everyone is smiling and the temperature is ideal. We shouldn’t be eating and drinking at all – this is a winery stop for a tasting between a copious breakfast and a lavish lunch – but the owner insisted and nobody is sorry. A light breeze flickers across our faces and the glasses of cool pink wine never seem to empty, but no-one becomes drunk or hot or full. As for our tardiness: nobody cares. This is Lebanon.
My trip to the Bekaa Valley was over a decade ago but that Cinsault rosé still glints in my mind. I couldn’t write you a conventional tasting note if my life depended on it but, somehow, that wine represents the whole wonderful trip, even though I spent most of my time eating and drinking other things: Lebanon is known for rich reds, not rosés, and doesn’t stint on grilled meats to accompany them.
I am lucky enough to drink a lot of excellent wine – but not all of it must be good in the conventional sense to be wonderful. It’s a cliché that the circumstances make the experience, but I have been in situations where the tedium of the company has dulled the wonders in my glass until they tasted like flat Coke, while happiness can elevate anything.
I spent most of the pandemic in France, where restrictions were fierce: at one point it was forbidden to travel more than a kilometre from the house. When that limit was raised to 99km, we whipped out a map. Chablis was 87km away and Irancy, where the Pinot Noirs are still just about affordable, and the racy, stony whites of the Goisot family (including, unusually for Burgundy, Sauvignon Blanc) in Saint-Bris-le-Vineux were 10km beyond that. We dashed for the car. Of the many social deprivations of that strange time, winery visits were, for me, one of the cruellest: tasting something delicious delights the palate but doing so while talking to its creator expands the mind as well. Those first personally sourced Pinots of the post-pandemic era possessed a quality that had more to do with relief than terroir; nonetheless, no Domaine de la Romanée Conti could have tasted better – and DRC is a lot closer to us, geographically at any rate.
When my husband’s children were young, we took them on a mini-tour of Italy intended to inspire in them our love of ancient Rome. Their father has done a Latin course in the Vatican; their stepmother, a few years later, would write a book on wine and the Romans. So, we visited the Colosseum and Pompeii, then crossed to Syracuse in Sicily, where there is a church that still has the vast columns of a long-defunct Roman temple embedded in its walls.
As with historical remnants, the survival of memories seems to be arbitrary: there is no telling which experiences will entrench themselves in an impressionable young mind. Still, I suspect that none of the fascinating experiences of the ancient world will linger as long as their stint in the kids’ club at Verdura Resort on the island’s west coast. Similarly, my recollection of the many excellent wines consumed on that trip has reduced, a decade later, to two. The first is a glass of Ca’ del Bosco, one of the best sparkling wines from Franciacorta in northern Italy, that we adults shared on a balcony overlooking Rome on the first day of that trip. The second, a simple Grillo (a local white grape) that we inhaled right at the end, while the quartet of small Latin scholars were playing mini golf and baking badges. It was the taste of leisure.
Alcohol, taken in sufficient quantities, can convince you that you are happy, at least until the hangover kicks in; but wine judiciously applied can amplify happiness that really exists. I have tried Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier, the elegant and complex red that is the pride of Canberra’s wine district, in situ with the estate manager, after tramping through the vines, and that was interesting and instructive. I have drunk it in Sydney, at a fine dining establishment, on the insistence of my host, and it was beautiful but the old-fashioned dish demanded an older-fashioned wine. I have opened a bottle with my husband, who has never been to Canberra but is perfectly capable of appreciating a terrific wine on its own merits. None of these experiences holds a candle to drinking Clonakilla at my friend Nicole’s house in Melbourne. We are the daughters of two doctors who met in medical school, who both remember my father waxing lyrical about the wines that meant something to him – this being one. Wine is more about time than it is about place and more about love than either.
As for that Cinsault rosé, I took a bottle home to open with my sister, who had just weaned her third child and was eager to put down the baby and pick up a glass again. Fizzing with excitement about the treat I was about to offer, I opened the bottle, pausing only briefly when I noticed how its joyous pink had faded, in the weak English sunshine, to the greyish apricot that the French call oeil de perdrix: partridge’s eye. Reader, it was ordinary. Without the tomatoes and the sunshine and the bombastic owner burbling about grape varieties and winemaking techniques, it dimmed in my glass and became… a nice little rosé. Still, as I drank it with someone I love, a faint scent of Lebanon rose to my nostrils. And after all, here I am writing about it 10 years, and many forgotten rosés, later. They say that the test of a great wine is whether it can age but sometimes ageing happens in the memory rather than the bottle, and that’s just a different definition of greatness.