Nina Caplan’s wine diary from an extraordinary year

As our columnist Nina Caplan reflects on her tasting notes from a year in wine, she also observes how the great bottles enjoyed in 2021 did more than dazzle the palate – they transported to places she longed to reach

Words by Nina Caplan

a vineyard at sunset in south australia
Sunset in the vineyard in South Australia, a place Caplan found herself metaphorically transported to through her wine selections this summer

In the greying days of late autumn, as the year trickles to an end, I open my wine diary and look back on 12 months of drinking. I am no Samuel Pepys, although there is plenty of wine in his famous diary of the 1660s, most notably the first known reference to the great Château Haut-Brion: ‘to the Royall Oake Taverne in Lombard-street… And here drank a sort of French wine called Ho Bryan, that hath a good and most perticular taste that I never met with.’ My document diverges from his on more than access to Bordeaux First Growths: there are far fewer references to the ‘good wine’ I drank with my breakfast oysters, for instance. Although, I’m not judging. If I lived without indoor plumbing in a plague- and fire-prone city, where the only bridge featured traitors’ heads on spikes, I would be drunk by lunchtime, too.

Still, I pity him less his lack of flushing toilets than his sensual deprivation, although the two were probably connected. In Pepys’ London, people sewed themselves into their vests for winter and expected hair to clean itself (Claire Tomalin’s biography of Pepys mentions John Evelyn deciding to experiment with an ‘annual hair wash’), so it’s no surprise that Pepys mentions the taste but not the fragrance of his wine. I’m luckier: there will be future bottles whose scent will immediately return me to the year that is coming to its end, and to the company in which I drank their predecessors.

oysters and champagne with yellow tulips
Oysters and a bottle of 2006 Cristal helped Caplan mark a special occasion and served as a sweet reminder of family trips to France (Photo: William Craig Moyes)

In April, my husband Craig celebrated a big birthday. We couldn’t be in France with his children, a deprivation that the most exquisite cuvée could not remedy; and dinner, shivering outdoors as the rules then decreed, was nothing like as good as the meals he makes us. I can cook, but he is the more talented chef: he once, in his youth, made dinner for the great American cookery writer Richard Olney, a daunting mission that probably helped his confidence. (It also won him a taste of Château d’Yquem 1980 – Olney had just written a book on the estate – and an imperishable dinner story, so I’d say it was a fair deal.)

So, in the afternoon, I took a leaf out of Pepys’ diary and shucked oysters, and with them a drink that poor Samuel probably never had the chance to try, given its explosive potential and the fragility of 17th-century bottles: Champagne. Here was a chance to wash down those saline morsels with the tensile purity of a 2006 Cristal; never one to waste a great excuse, the next day I also opened a Krug Grande Cuvée, the 163rd edition. It was a delicate but toasty combination of honey and nuts, and of 2007 and the many other vintages that make up a great blended Champagne.

A new decade in one’s life is not an end but a beginning, as I pointed out to a slightly glum Craig – but a great wine is always, in several senses, both.

Lulu Peyraud posing in pink cardigan
The late Lulu Peyraud, who Caplan raised a glass of Domaine Tempier Cabassou to in the summer (Photo: William Craig Moyes)

In July, we raised a glass of rich, spicy Domaine Tempier Cabassou in honour of Lulu Peyraud, wife of pioneering Bandol winemaker Lucien Peyraud and a legendary cook – the Peyrauds were great friends of Olney, who lived a few miles away and, clever man, didn’t drive. Lulu died in 2020 aged 102; I interviewed her in her nineties and while, to my everlasting regret, she no longer cooked, she had lost none of her wit. ‘I can’t,’ she said, twinkling, in response to Craig’s request to remove her fabulous fuchsia jacket for another picture: ‘I’m stark naked underneath.’ She chatted for an hour, downed more than her share of the house’s gorgeous rosé, then climbed aboard her stairchair and floated upstairs like a superannuated butterfly.

I will never again drink these wines without thinking, affectionately, of Lulu, but this 2001 was also perfumed with other memories: my late father loved Tempier, and this was a vintage he would have been alive to drink. That stream of lovely Mourvèdre seemed to form a delicate red thread linking the Provençal winemakers and their forebears to the American writer, my Australian doctor father, my Canadian Craig, and me.

Not all the memorable bottles I tried this year were old although all, inevitably, in some way recalled the past

Not all the memorable bottles I tried this year were old although all, inevitably, in some way recalled the past. The Clos de Mosny was a 2019, but the first glorious mouthful of lemon and cream, like syllabub without the sweetness, transported me straight back to Domaine de la Taille aux Loups, which I visited in 2009. A fabulous Cabernet-Shiraz blend from Terre à Terre’s Crayères Vineyard in Wrattonbully, halfway between Melbourne and Adelaide, was given extra pungency by my present longing for Australia. In The Cellar, a small, charming bar in King’s Cross that appears not to have survived the pandemic, I sipped a delicately herby Mas de Daumas Gassac rosé and believed, briefly, that I could walk out into the Languedoc, rather than onto Pentonville Road.

And in a sense, I did, driving down in August in 32-degree heat with no functioning air conditioning, children in the back stoically spraying themselves with an atomiser, to the fabulous new Château Capitoul near Narbonne, where our villa had a private pool overlooking the La Clape vines. After this heady interlude, a drab resort in Le Grau-du-Roi was made bearable, for the adults, by a surprisingly good wine warehouse within walking distance, where I found another fabulous rosé, Maxime Magnon’s Métisse, a Grenache-Cinsault-Carignan blend the glowing raspberry of an apocalyptic sunset.

Before quitting the South, we paused overnight at a friend’s vast house, dining beneath trellising in a cheery, noisy group, drinking Rétour aux Origines, made (by Clos du Gravillas) from obscure local grapes – Picpoul, Terret, Carignan Blanc. Excellent wine, full of smoke and citrus, and appropriately named, given that a crowded dinner table is a home from which, during the pandemic, we have been largely exiled. Change is the only constant, in life and in wine, but then, that’s what makes it worth documenting – with or without Ho Bryan.

Nina Caplan
By Nina Caplan

Nina Caplan is the Lifestyle and Travel columnist for Club Oenologique online and wine columnist for The New Statesman and The Times’s Luxx magazine.