The wine was bright and translucent, despite its walnut hue. Vapoury and perfumed, as we all hoped, though the notes varied by taster: crystallised violets, dried fruits, citrus. Rue, for me (that shrubby herb Ruta graveolens, so powerfully scented as to asphyxiate its garden neighbours; here, happily, just a hint).
1914 Christmas truce from Illustrated London News on January 9th 1915
It wasn’t a sweet wine, or at least not at first – and barely at last, either. It began athletically, then widened and grew more sweetly ample on the middle palate, before finishing in the dark, dry shadows. Tonic acidity, burnished by time, meant that it was clean, even pristine. Yes, it was old Madeiran Boal, but this was a kind of Kabinett version, all lightness and grace (the Cossart house style). Raisin? Treacle? They were there, but time had gnawed them down into that sober chiaroscuro which seemed so appropriate to the vintage.
Which was 1914. The generous owners of the wine had wanted to open this bottle (the second of three, originally purchased from Berry Bros) before 2014 was out; I was one of five lucky guests to share it. We drank it appreciatively, if ruminatively: how could you not? Its fruit had set by the time Gavrilo Princip shot Franz Ferdinand; when the grapes were picked, Austria-Hungary had invaded Serbia, Germany had invaded Luxembourg and declared war on France, and Britain had declared war on Germany. Franz-Ferdinand’s nephew Charles proved to be the final Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – and was exiled to Madeira, as it happened, by the Council of Allied Powers, where he died in 1922; he’s buried in the airy Funchal suburb of Monte. This must be one of the last surviving truly fine wines (as opposed to noble but expired relics) of the old European order.
We drank the wine as the final month of this hundredth anniversary year drew on. That also seemed, in its own way, appropriate, since if there are any uplifting memories of the beginning of the catastrophic conflict, then they are connected with the 1914 Christmas truce, when the combatants spontaneously agreed to suspend hostilities and fraternise with each other in No Man’s Land. (The generals disapproved — as did a young corporal in the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry called Adolf Hitler — and in subsequent years sporadic attempts at a Christmas truce were unsuccessful.)
The best-known illustration of the Christmas truce is that which appeared in the Illustrated London News on January 9th 1915, showing a collection of moustachioed officerly types (leavened with a few stubble-jowelled squaddies) puffing on cigars (and cigarettes) as they discuss, let’s guess, the finer points of trench construction. There are two discarded bottles to one side of a potted Christmas tree on the snowy ground. One has squared-up shoulders and sides, and must surely be either a whisky bottle or a bottle of schnapps, but the lines of the other are more ambiguous; could it be Port or Madeira? Consumed, the picture makes clear, from battered tin mugs.
Not that origin matters.The more consequential the moment, the less consequential the wine.
The very fact that we collect and savour and dream on our precious wines, and then jot a few recreational notes on their personalities, underlines the peacefulness of the times most of us are lucky to enjoy at present. Whether or not the vintage was a good one, who the producer was, and exactly what allusions are evoked by the wine would have been a laughable irrelevance for the briefly reconciled combatants, standing in their atrocious snowscape, in a war that was eventually to cost 16 million lives. With worse to come. The very idea of wine would have seemed a cruel dream to the 70 million or more who died in 20th-century famines in Russia, Ukraine, China and elsewhere.
Changes in personal circumstances, too, can reframe the way in which we see wine, rendering what would once have seemed consequential irrelevant. My parents, now in their mid-80s, have always enjoyed wine in a normally casual kind of a way. My mother now has Alzheimer’s, and all the landmarks in her world have been washed downstream; my father, who cares for her, was recently scourged by bladder stones, and subsequently diagnosed with prostate cancer (which he’s probably had for a decade). Shopping is no longer as easy exercise, and my Dad has taken to ordering the occasional inexpensive case of wine from UK mail-order specialist Laithwaites. We often chat on the phone in the evenings.
Eating and drinking is almost the last pleasure left for my mother, and the last activity in which she has a little autonomy (though we have to dissuade her from pouring her coffee onto her breakfast cereal and her wine onto her dinner). My father, though he remains admirably cheerful, needs the psychological restoration that a glass or two of wine at the end of the day can effect. Wine has never meant more to them, or brought more benefit, than it does just now. I was staying with them recently, and my Dad opened what is apparently the “most reordered red” from the Laithwaite’s list, a Côtes Catalanes called Cabalié. Grenache from hereabouts can be wonderful, but this, alas, was a flabby, semi-sweet soup of a wine, its fruit evanescent, without redeeming tannin or extract. “Gosh, it’s good,” my Dad said. We smiled hugely, toasted each other, and knocked it back. Lucky us: still together, and with wine in our glasses.
Written by Andrew Jefford