David’s Entry in Jancis Robinson’s Seminal Wine Competition

David Smith was a longtime foreign correspondent for ITN TV, then a UN diplomat, manages the family vineyard in Paraje Altamira, Mendoza, and makes the SonVida range of wines www.sonvidawine.com. This is his (unedited) entry in our seminal wine competition.

I believe a mosaic of experiences, across our world, led me to wine. Each of them teaching me so much, about the way of life in the world of viticulture, wedded to the past maybe but a culture forever thinking tomorrow, and the next harvest. And dreaming perhaps of the ultimate vintage for the ages.

I think of an evening in the old Soviet Georgia, its capital Tbilisi, and an invite to the home of one Grigor Shalikashvili, a fellow bent on helping his people leave the Soviet Union. For an hour we forgot the politics of secession, and Grigor took me to his cellar, to show me an ageing qvevri, the earthenware pot used for thousands of years to ferment local grapes I’d never heard of before. Mtsvane, a zingy white. Saperavi, a spicy red, said to be a favorite of that infamous Georgian Joseph Stalin. ‘We were the first to make wine, millennia ago,’ said Grigor, puffing our his chest. ‘This wine represents who we are. We make it our way, in our qvevri, the eternal link to our past with the eternal promise of the future.’

I didn’t dare tell him that, years before, I had visited a vineyard in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley, that dated back to the Phoenicians. And, of course, the Lebanese liked to think of their ancestors as the first winemakers. An unforgettable day, because that morning Soviet Mig fighters belonging to Syria had clashed with American F-16s from Israel, over the valley, and specifically Chateau Kefraya. The fuselage of an F-16 lay on the edge of the Chateau’s vineyard, and as a foreign correspondent I had gone to film it. I can still remember Emile, one of the Chateau’s winemakers, offering me a glass of their signature red blend. ‘We will survive this, and we will harvest in a few weeks, even with war going on, just as our Phoenician forebears would have.’ It was the first time I recognized the spicy quality of Syrah, the lead grape in a blend that embraced Cabernet Sauvignon and Mourvedre. And the first time I heard of the age-old quest that goes with winemaking.

And then. Well, the memory bank goes to South Africa, in the very dark days of apartheid in the late 1970s. I had gone to the Cape, to the town of Franschoek, to speak to local militants of the ruling party, to have a sense at grass-roots level of what drove the apartheid machine. It was a depressing morning, listening to racial hatred, violence legitimised, with absolute impunity. On our way out, I stopped at a farm, seeing African workers and wanting just to glimpse their thoughts. It turned out to be part of an old wine estate, Boschendal. A young worker named Jacob told me of life’s hardships, and humiliations, but he celebrated his work. ‘We make good wines here, and we do it together, my work in the fields and their work in the winery.’ It was the first time I tasted Pinotage, that earthy, barnyard red that is so distinctively South African. ‘This can be our future,’ said Jacob, as I gave him a glass, and he thanked me in a way that made me realize such fraternizing was unthinkable. It was a delightful afternoon.

What was it Plato said ? ‘The Gods granted man nothing more exceptional and valuable than wine.’

Maybe the gift of the Gods is so special because it links us, almost universally, to our past, to our history, to our culture, forever thinking yesterday but also tomorrow. Each harvest makes hope spring eternal with the future, the rich experience of that past shaping what we do with the next vintage. No matter, by the way, that recent archaeology suggests the Georgians were indeed our planet’s first winemakers, not the Phoenicians. I’m sure my friends in Lebanon would understand.

It’s that eternal quest, hearing it first-hand from many corners of our planet, that led me to wine. Today my wife and I own a vineyard in Mendoza, Argentina, in a special place called Altamira. We make Malbec, and Cabernet Sauvignon, and that spicy Syrah, respectful of the past that brought old vines from Europe in the late 19th century, and a talent pool from Italy and Spain in the same period, many fleeing hunger and war.

Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow, they told themselves. So we have just planted Cabernet Franc, respecting an old grape from Bordeaux, thinking of future blends, and tomorrow’s world. The dream, the quest, born thousands of years ago, lives on.

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