Olly Smith Interview: Trafalgar, sipping 1805 Cognac and sharing bottles with Roman poets.
I’m delighted to present a first for ‘Past Cuttings’ – an interview with award-winning wine supremo, Saturday Kitchen star and author, Olly Smith.
In a week which saw his new book “Fizz” hit the #1 spot on Amazon marketplace (out 16th May), we went on a journey through wine and time to pick his top bottles from the ages. Like me, Olly has a love of wine and history; and I know he has a particular fascination with the heritage and character of Greece and her wines. I was, therefore, all set for a Homeric voyage. I was wrong…
So have a read of this fascinating evocative take on a huge moment in wine’s (and our country’s) story. Plus, buried within is a tasting note like no other. It is deeply personal, utterly emotive – and inspires sickening levels of envy.
What period in wine history would you most like to have been around during?
I’ve always been fascinated by the Battle of Trafalgar. 1805 was a time of grim upheaval for a great many Europeans.
…what kicked off that fascination?
Growing up, I was always haunted by the power of the ocean, one of my most intense memories was my first night on the coast of Jersey in the Channel Islands when I heard from my parents that the tide was rising. I lay awake all night terrified by the sound and smell of the sea which was just a few metres away on a misty eerie new night in an unfamiliar place – I incorrectly inferred that the tide only rose and never ever fell. I expected at any moment a great salty wash to seep under my bedroom door and carry me off into the cold fog. The swell moving under the timbers of those few vessels off the coast of Spain all those centuries ago pulled the tides of history but also moored themselves to my young mind.
On school holidays staying with my Granny, I visited HMS Victory in Portsmouth and still guard a precious piece of original oak from her timbers as a souvenir. I’ve seen Admiral Lord Nelson’s uniform in the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich and peered at the very hole torn by the musket ball that tore the man down. As the years flow on, my fear and fascination of the conditions on board those few ships that marked out the destiny of Europe has lulled but never dwindled.
What’s the closest you’ve ever come, in wine form, to that time?
At a convivial lunch at Charles Metcalfe’s Sussex house some years ago in the company of David Baker (the mind behind brandyclassics.co.uk). David produced a small flask of Cognac from 1805, I sipped a liquid that had travelled through centuries, from barrels themselves surrounded by stories and wars and families and uneventful seasons intact, which now became part of me.
The vines behind that distillation knew those few months of 1805, those same real skies, the sunlight that reigned over Europe to ripen those exact grapes that year reached me in a tangible and time-defiant chain of good fortune and a happy lunch.
Blimey. What did it taste like?!
The intensity and apparent youth of the Cognac’s flavours struck me vividly, yet all the tasting notes in the world that I could re-scribble here don’t really deal with the core of this extraordinary gift.
To taste a time of difficulty, of European chaos and gain a closeness with a myth, that brush with a world of legendary stories, sacrifice, opened my small window through history lessons, museums and books a little more widely. I’d love to pop back and roam the vineyards of that year to pin that backdrop to the foreground and take a look at the fields, the workers and the wonderings of the people who must have found that time so very baffling, whether they knew of the epic stories we would later convey is neither here nor there. At that time, in those summer days, I’d love to see those grapes hanging without knowing what was to come.
And if you had free reign over space and time, what would you drink and with who?
It’s a great question and honestly there isn’t one, rather there are many. There have been several bottles that have changed my life, the Terret made by the Lurton brothers for just over three quid that I bought from Oddbins some 25 years ago which plunged me into a world of questions about provenance, flavour, food pairing, geography and weather is certainly one that set me on a course to learn more about wine.
But if I could get back in time and taste anything at all, I’d love to pop for a pint with the poet John Clare early in his career and just take it easy, in the times before his struggles manifested so cruelly. I imagine the beer, from a barrel in his local pub, would be a good deal filthier and more oxidative than my usual tipple of a pint of Harvey’s Best Bitter here at home in Sussex, and I’d mull over his famous line, “I am – yet what I am none care or knows”.
And if it was wine…?
There are just so many gone bottles that hide behind the years that beckon. I’d surely love to taste what Titian sipped when the inspiration for his painting Bacchus & Ariadne struck.
But if you’re pressing me to just one taste of a single wine, I’d love to share a glass of local stuff with the Roman poet Horace at his Sabine farm. I think Harry Eyres’ translation of Vile Potabis (Odes 1:20) has it bang on:
“…. you’ll get no grand crus here,
Just what I grow in my own shady valley
Here, in the corner that you blessed me with.”
I’d be grateful to know that moment in the company of the person who wrote it.