Olly Smith
Columns 4 May 2020

Olly Smith: What I’m drinking in lockdown

In a new series, personalities from the food and drinks world tell us what wines and spirits they’re turning to in confinement. First up, wine broadcaster Olly Smith

Words by Olly Smith

Photography by Catherine Benson

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Lockdown has made me nostalgic – in life and in wine. I’m writing this on the anniversary of my venerable dog Barney politely making his excuses and leaving this planet some years ago. Looking back now, I can appreciate that he’d accrued a glorious tally of years. In a similar fashion, the baffling unpredictability of the current time has made me reflect more deeply on the things I’m grateful for: Ghostbusters, pickled onions and, more seriously, friends and family.

From a wine perspective, this has translated into me lifting my usual embargo on drinking bottles of extreme sentimental value. This week, I cracked open a bottle I brought back from one of the first ever press trips I conducted as a wine writer: 2004 Riesling GS from Weingut Gutzler in Gundheim, Germany. It was one of the first dozen or so wines that I ever laid down.

That memory was circling the glass as I took time to contemplate the complexity of it all on an evening that, in spite of lockdown, was laden with loveliness. I could waffle on about the sensual creamy texture of the wine, its encyclopedic flavours reminding me of murky mushroomy Cladosporium Cellare in the deep caves of Tokaji, through to nasturtium leaves in the garden, baked pineapples in the tropics and everything in between (and, in a moment, I will). But reading someone else’s personal tasting notes can be a bit like listening to a loved one’s dream: sometimes fascinating, often weird.

Riesling

Instead, what first struck me were the memories. The mischievous spirit of Gerhard Gutzler – winegrower, Spätburgunder superstar and, back then, the guy with the wine-guzzling dog. Tasting in the yard by the barrel hall, Gerhard would theatrically spit his wine high into the air, and his sheepdog would leap into the sky and snatch the arch in its jaws. His Rieslings were pristine – as impeccably defined, tight and minerally as a diamond in a vice. What the dog made of them, history doesn’t record.

Pulling the cork, it was intact and attractively tapered – an early offering of encouragement. First sip, it gave parallel tracks of richness and zing, not quite knitted but offering hope of reunification. Swirled in the glass, it clung in golden stalks like an ancient Viña Tondonia Blanco, but with the tenacity of Brian Blessed summiting Everest.  And then I gave it a sniff. Spectacular. I know I said I wouldn’t wax lyrical with tasting notes, but suffice to say this moulded into a monorail of unified curiosity, a lexicon of loveliness – oil, petrol, sweet gorseflower, baked nuts, mushroomy depth.

This particular wine is a whole bunch of things to me: place, memory and grape

I don’t think the wine was break-the-bank money in those days – the figure of €8 is knocking around my Rolodex of recollection, but I could be wrong. More meaningful is the element that originally drew me into wine and which, in lockdown, I’ve finally been able to savour once more – pure enjoyment. This bottle, the actual physical bottle, is a holy relic to me, representing a time in my own life of hope and new things. Our first child, Ruby, hadn’t quite turned one. I’d begun to get work in a field that I love. And Barney had finally stopped chasing other dogs and started lying down next to Ruby every evening, just to make sure she was OK. I adored it all.

Drinking the wine was beguiling, odd, challenging and congenially conspiratorial – as though, after all those years, I’d finally been let into a satisfying secret.  And that’s what wine does – it transports us, brings us back, connects and simultaneously disassembles bits of us in a way that unlocks another section of the line ahead. This particular wine is a whole bunch of things to me: place, memory and grape; a time in my own life; a dog who drank wine; and, today, our own beloved Barney. In lockdown, it set me free.

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