Where shall we go next year? I remember when that question was pure pleasure, with only our diaries and our wallets to thwart us. Still, at this darkest point of this very dark year, I’m fixing my gaze on the sunlit uplands. Next year I want to drink wine with the people who made it. I intend to taste the grapes beneath the sun that plumped them and then sit outside and watch that same sun light up the liquid in my glass, like a proud parent showing off their offspring. Hell – I even want to look around wineries, which I usually view as the babies of the wine world: stunningly unique only to their progenitors.
If the worst comes to the worst, I can travel virtually, as we have all been doing for close on two years. But it’s the most wonderful time of the year, and the only thing on my Christmas list is the renewed opportunity to gain perspective the old-fashioned way: by looking at the world from a different vantage point.
So, on my fantasy world tour that will not, I very much hope, remain a fantasy, I will start with a visit to Australia, my parents’ birthplace and my second homeland. I would like to see my family, of course, but I also long to drink juicy, elegant Pinot Noirs from Mornington Peninsula, south of Melbourne, on the peninsula itself.
I’ll go back to Yabby Lake Vineyard’s restaurant, where I once watched a kangaroo hop busily among the vines below me as if he owned them, while I ate duck and drank red wine on the veranda above as if I did. I’ll stop by other favourites, too: Ten Minutes by Tractor, Paringa Estate, Ocean Eight. But I’ll also travel to less familiar territory, walking South Australia’s Shiraz Trail between Willunga and McLaren Vale, which at just over an hour (and I’m told the landscape is gorgeous) is my kind of hike, especially as the route is dotted with wineries – and, having tried a gorgeous, mulberry and liquorice Battle of Bosworth Shiraz in lockdown, I’d rather like to break my journey there. Then into the Adelaide Hills to pay my respects to Taras Ochota, the eccentric, outlandishly talented winemaker who died, far too young, last year, and to walk around the Mount Lofty Botanical Garden, with its ferns and roses and rhododendrons.
Most of all, I want to smell eucalyptus, beyond my glass as well as within it. Not all Aussie wines have this pure and piercing scent, but those that do make me homesick, for a place that has never, strictly speaking, been home. Sherry lovers know that, while Manzanilla is aged nearer the sea than Fino, there is no scientific reason for the former to taste saltier than the latter. But it does. Not everything is explicable. And our senses have a memory, too.
I’m longing to go to an Italian wine region I don’t know at all: Valtellina, a tiny patch of vertiginous vineyards in the very north, where the Nebbiolo grape is known as Chiavennasca. Then, meander all the way south to Sicily, because I recently tried a Perricone – a native variety that makes earthy, textured reds, that went wonderfully with chicken livers – from Feudo Disisa near Palermo, and I want to find more.
And I’ve never been to Hungary, even though many of my favourite photographers came from there, including Robert Capa, the daredevil who landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day, and who died on assignment during the Indochina war, aged just 40; André Kertész, the poet of loneliness; and Kati Horna, who fled the war and became part of a fascinating clique of female artists in Mexico. See? I began this section wanting to try a few indigenous varieties – Furmint, Hárslevelü, Kadarka, Kekfrankos – on their home territory, and I’ve somehow wound up across the Atlantic. How the mind broadens our travel.
I went to Switzerland in summer 2020, but to walk in the Alps rather than taste wine – a mistake I’d like to rectify. And this past June, sitting on my balcony with a view of the City of London, I attended a Zoom tasting by Matthew Horsley of The Wine Society on the fragrant, lightly spiced reds of Naoussa – a wine area a very long way from the Gherkin or the Shard, and even a long way from my experience of Greece.
Years ago, I visited the late, great winemaker Haridimos Hatzidakis, on the island of Santorini. I knew, before arriving on this crescent-shaped piece of volcanic pumice, that it was the result of an ancient volcanic eruption that, some say, sank the lost city of Atlantis. I knew the white wines from the local Assyrtiko grape were stony and electrifying. But I didn’t know (although a million honeymooners could have informed me) how the setting sun turns the whole caldera fiery pink; nor how the place actually smells of sunset. And don’t bother telling me that’s impossible. One of Hatzidakis’s best Assyrtikos is called Nykteri, meaning ‘nightwork’, because the grapes must be picked in the cool before the hot Santorini sun rises. Those ancient vines, some over 150 years old (no grafting needed here: the dreaded phylloxera louse cannot survive on pumice) are coaxed into circles like birds’ nests, as curvaceous and haphazard as the wines are structured, aligned, and exhilarating.
Sometimes, an imaginative journey simply won’t suffice, and I’d like to brush that pale soil, a crumbling memory of ancient catastrophes, and admire the unconventional vines that thrive in it. I have such a great longing to be where I am not, to suck the juice from places so that, when I come home, and have only the juice to sustain me, those sights and sounds will rush in and encircle my glass like a Santorini vine.
I am rich in memories and I never run short of wine, but sometimes, even that great good fortune isn’t enough; my New Year’s hope for us all is that, in 2022, it won’t have to be.