What my brush with coronavirus taught me about my love of wine

As Club Oenologique CEO Christelle Guibert recovered from a debilitating bout of COVID-19, her thoughts turned to the impact of the disease on her sense of taste and smell…

Words by Christelle Guibert

Christelle Guibert

The first symptoms hit me on Saturday 14 March. For the next 10 days, I was seriously unwell, and completely exhausted. Amid the worries and the discomfort, I barely noticed that I had also totally lost my sense of smell and taste.

I can’t pinpoint exactly when my ability to smell disappeared; I guess I was feeling too unwell to actually notice, let alone worry about it. Even once I had recovered slightly, I was still in no shape to contemplate opening a bottle of anything notable. I was too busy trying to find out who I got the virus from to worry about the aromatics of an Alsace grand cru. Nonetheless, it was a disconcerting feeling, as my appetite slowly returned, to put my nose in a bag of hot chili peppers and get nothing at all.

Once fully recovered, and in splendid isolation, I was determined to make up for lost time and open some special bottles with dinner. But it became obvious very quickly that whether we had a Coche-Dury Meursault or – less of a personal favourite – a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, they both tasted the same – cold, watery alcohol. The wine provided some relief through inebriation, but zero pleasure in terms of flavour, complexity or subtly.

It was at this stage that my opportunistic partner Chris took the chance to palm off some random bottles that have been slowly cooking in a 30˚C boiler room for more than a decade. Taste-impaired or not, however, I had to draw the line when he presented me with a bottle of Asti Spumante from the early 1990s…

The eureka moment came when I hugged Chris and picked up the scented lavender detergent on his freshly laundered polo shirt. Had my sense of smell returned? I immediately determined to put it to the test, via a rigorous, if somewhat eclectic crash course of blind tasting. The rules of the game were quickly established, with increasing acuity rewarded by Chris opening better bottles. Fairly quickly, I could spot any heirloom boiler-room bottles that had been strategically placed in the line-up.

The happily consumed bottles of Domaine Henri Gouges’ 2005 Nuits-St-Georges Les Chaignots and Domaine Lafarge’s 2006 Volnay

Seven weeks since the first symptoms, I am almost 100% recovered, and enjoying wine again. But for my own piece of mind, I still needed to rebuild my tasting confidence. Another excuse to open some good stuff… And I can say with some certainty that the two bottles I have enjoyed the most so far have been Domaine Tempier’s 2015 rosé and Domaine du Tunnel’s 2013 Saint-Péray, both of which I would feel confident in recommending. I’m not saying that simply because Tempier is the best rosé in the world – even if your sense of smell is not finely honed, the palate reveals so much complexity, depth and texture, it can hardly fail to enliven your taste buds. The same goes for the Roussanne, a delicate wine but again, so textured on the palate.

The loss of my smell and taste had been more than a little unnerving

I remember the great Champagne producer Anselme Selosse explaining how, as a committed smoker since the age of 14, his attention was particularly focussed on a wine’s texture. This now makes perfect sense to me; with a muted sense of smell, you pay more attention to the wine’s mouthfeel. Both of the above two wines have that ever so slightly oily, viscous sensation of hotter climates, and both were held in lovely focus by refreshing, masterful acidity and balance.

Christelle Guibert

Last weekend, it was finally time to celebrate with two special Burgundy bottles and a slow-roasted rack of lamb. We picked two very traditional, but nevertheless very different producers – Domaine Henri Gouges’ 2005 Nuits-St-Georges Les Chaignots and Domaine Lafarge’s 2006 Volnay. As expected, the Gouges was still shy, a baby in the glass. The palate was muscular, with grippy tannins, some earthy characters and pure red, spicy fruits. The Lafarge, on the other hand, was more rustic, with secondary characters coming through alongside notes of undergrowth and Asian spice– very moreish.

The overriding emotion, however, more than the individual nuances of the wines, was an overwhelming feeling of comfort in being able to appreciate and enjoy again two gorgeous wines in their own individual style and splendour. The loss of my smell and taste had been more than a little unnerving, particularly for someone who – like many of you, I’m sure – is used to spending a lot of time sniffing, swirling and slurping. It reminded me how complex and nuanced these senses are; how much we miss them when they’re not firing on all cylinders; how much we take them for granted.

Holed up in bed during my illness, I had noticed how, in lockdown, social media has been inundated with wine porn. Like any self-respecting voyeur, I had watched it passively and with envy. Now, finally, I feel ready to join the party…