Title: Cellared Days

Author: John McCrystal

In: Sport 22: Autumn 1999

Publication details: Fergus Barrowman, March 1999

Part of: Sport

Keywords: Prose Literature

Conditions of use



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Sport 22: Autumn 1999

John McCrystal — Cellared Days

page 37

John McCrystal

Cellared Days

The sun has dropped below the ridge and suddenly, as it seems, it is dusk. The warmth is draining from the landscape. I watched the shadow glide across the valley below me, and now it has swallowed me. For a time, the buildings above me were gilded, and the vats shone like gold; now when I look again the buildings are chalky white, with a thread of golden smoke twisting from the chimney.

Mist hangs in the valley. The valley does the dance of the seven veils, I shall write.

I am standing at a point where the path hooks back upon itself, a point on a spur of the promontory upon which the buildings are situated. It gives the visitor a fine vantage, a prospect of the valley, with the vines extending in pleasing rows toward the hills. The mist hangs above the fading green and gold vineyard.

I paused here and sat in quiet contemplation, on a seat without doubt sited for that purpose, built of gnarled lengths of grapewood. I watched the spectacle of the day's end, an ordinary day ending in splendour. A few minutes ago, a pair of wood pigeons lurched toward the hills. The fluting of their wings made me notice the chill and the time. When I paused here, I was glad to be early. Now I am late.

I resume my climb, the pebbles on the path squeaking and rattling. At the top—it is neither steep nor a long way, yet here I am puffing gusts like a steam train—is the main building with its doors flung wide. Light spills onto the pebbled courtyard. There is a crowd inside, but nothing is underway. I can smell the food—charcoal, spices and could-that-be-lamb. There is a fire on the brick hearth, and wood piled high beside it.

Wood pigeons in the shelter trees and a well-stocked wood-box, I shall write, puts you in mind of bounty, of plenty.

page 38

For some time, we stand about empty-handed and expectant. There is no sign of the proprietors. There is a huge window giving an even more exalted view of the valley, although little can be seen but the dim sky and the dark ridge. In front of the window is a long table dressed with a white cloth, bearing dozens of bottles of wine arranged in neat rows. They are all uncorked, and there are long-stemmed glasses, but no one is certain of the protocol and no one has helped themselves. There seems to be a light behind the table; it strikes through the bottles and their contents and they glow—deep red, rose, lemon and amber, gold and green. There is a happy buzz, but the tones are hushed, in deference to the air of ceremony that each of us seems to have sensed. Occasionally, everyone falls quiet and glances at the door by the table, but so far no one has appeared. There is an avid glitter in every eye I meet, as we breathe the roast and eye the wine.

At last a voice speaks, a thin, strange voice.

‘Dobro Dosli,’ it says. Then it says it again, and again. We look for the speaker. It is a large, threadbare parrot on a perch made of a tortured, polished length of vine.

Everyone looks at the parrot. The parrot watches us.

Matty Lijvsebic, I shall write, is stocky, nearly bald, a well-preserved fifty. He has dark eyes with laughing deltas and a bristling black moustache.

I pay attention to Matty's appearance out of a sense of professional obligation; I had really rather look at his daughter—one of three daughters, celebrated for their dark eyes and black hair. She pours red wine into a line of glasses, her long fingers clasping the peculiar, tall bottle, half-turning the bottle to catch the drops with a deft flick of her slim wrist.

‘Welcome,’ calls Matty. ‘Welcome, as my friend over there has said. Please come forward and take a glass.’

We crowd forward and take a glass each. We retreat and stand attentively, leaving a semicircle clear. Matty stands before the table with a glass of the dark red wine. The sensational daughter withdraws. We wait.

‘The first on the programme is this,’ Matty says, speaking slowly page 39 and clearly. He has a fine voice. There is a perverse tendency to expect an accent simply because of his name, but the New Zealand twang is there if all-but educated out. ‘The wine has no name. What is the grape, you ask?’ He spreads his hands, the glass fitted into one of them. ‘Who knows? I don't know. The Old Man did not know. The Old Man brought it with him, a cutting from an ancient stock on his family's estate. The vine was two feet thick at the ground. He wrapped it in cheesecloth and carried it slung over his shoulder on the long sea-voyage out. The land here,’ he thrusts the glass at the window, ‘was all scrub, except for bits and pieces where his brother had made orchards and gardens. The Old Man spent a week walking about the property, from the hills back to the house, from the stream to the bush. Finally he settled on the low hills at the southern boundary. Uncle Milo was planning to plant plums, peaches, apricots. There was a big fight. There were always big fights. The Old Man always won.’

Matty's eyes twinkle at us.

‘It was Milo who propagated the vines from the cutting. So the story goes.’

He raises the glass so that it catches the light. It glows a deep, sullen red.

‘There are thousands of varieties of grapes in the old country,’ Matty tells us. ‘You wouldn't be able to pronounce the names of some of them. I can't pronounce the names of some of them. Many of them have no names. The fruit of the Old Man's vine is small, black—almost like blackcurrants. It is strong, bitter.’

The wine is glowing in the delicate, tulip-shaped bowl of the glass which he holds aloft sacramentally.

‘They say,’ he says, ‘that if you hold it up to the right kind of light, you can see the sunset on Prvic.’ He shrugs theatrically. ‘My brother and I have never seen the sunset on Prvic,’ he says, ‘unless it is in here.’

He lowers the glass, and bowing his head he thrusts his large nose into the bowl. We hear clearly his whiskers crisp against the glass.

He lifts his head with a preoccupied expression.

‘Hmm,’ he breathes. ‘Sharp on the nose. Smoky—burnt ti-tree, burnt broom, scorched earth…Raw, healing earth. Sharp. Sweaty— page 40 sweat, denim, steel. And in the background, peat and…?Resin. Kauri gum and hessian.’

Matty raises the glass to his lips and sucks at the wine noisily. He rolls it around his mouth, his cheeks bulging and his eyes lowered meditatively. He does a peculiar thing. He reaches his left hand and fumbles about in the air as though rummaging on a shelf.

He turns his head and spits his mouthful into a silver bucket.

‘It is surprisingly fruity on the palate. It is haunted by apricots, peaches, plums. Robust, but with a wistful finish. It is determined and confident but with a hint of faiblesse. Almost sweet but with—how else shall I put it—regret. A lingering regret.’

Other tasters are moving forward to use the spittoon, but I have grasped the significance of the odd, tall bottle. This is the very wine that Matty's father made. It must be sixty years old, and how many bottles, I wonder, remain.

I drain my glass. I find Matty looking at me, smiling, and here is that daughter—or is it another—bringing around a basket of big, Mediterranean olives.

There is salt and teak in the first sip, I shall write, and the vine misses the encircling vigour of the sap of olive trees.

‘Heresy, they say,’ Matty says, ‘to taste the reds before the whites. But our wines have a logic. Forgive me if I offend your sensibilities by offering you a further red. The Old Man bought a cutting from our friends down the road,’ he jerks his thumb in the general direction of a dozen other vineyards. ‘It was grafted onto stock growing here. Perhaps it was Pinotage. Perhaps it was Cabernet.’

Matty shrugs.

‘The grapes are round, voluptuous, sweet.’

Each of us has a glass of the ruby wine. Matty holds his up to the light, and it glows vivid, scarlet.

‘Smell,’ Matty invites us, and bows his head to his, breathing deeply. He looks up again, smiling mischievously.

‘Musky. Spicy. Raupo bread and a horseblanket spread on a summer hillside. Something else—a wet puppy lightly anointed behind the ears with peppermint oil…’

page 41

He slurps it.

‘Spicy to the taste, too. Too much, almost too much, but it leaves the palate stunned, lazy, and soon, thirsty for more. A love affair of honey and citrus, but with due respect to the Old Man, there's a language barrier. It shouldn't work, but it does. There's something basic that joins. Opposition, discord, reconciliation, harmony.’

When I phoned, I spoke to Ivan, the younger brother, the viticulturist. He was abrupt. He could not help me, he said. I was discouraged.

‘Talk to Matty,’ he said. ‘Matty is the singer. Matty will sing for you.’ Then he laughed until he coughed, and coughed until I worried that I would hear a man die down the telephone.

‘I am researching a history of the vineyards in this area,’ I told Matty when I spoke to him. ‘It will be called “101 Dalmatians”. I should like to ask a few questions about your father.’

‘You have called at a good time,’ he said. ‘The Lijvsebic Brothers are celebrating their seventy-fifth anniversary this Tuesday. Come along and have a taste. Then you will learn.’

‘Another red. Forgive me. You are my distinguished guests, but my first loyalty is to the wines. Take a glass, please.’

The light shows the wine brownish, muddy.

‘Pinot Noir,’ a woman guesses.

‘That's it,’ Matty says, tilting the glass toward her. ‘Classic Pinot Noir. Disturbing, almost offensive on the nose. What do you smell?’

He looks around us, eyes creased merrily.

‘Ordure. Second-hand nappies. No doubt about it. In the days before disposables—before automatic wachine machines!’

He toasts us with it.

‘Don't be put off. Classic Pinot Noir. Don't trust your nose—this is a happy wine, a joyous wine. It swiftly outgrows the scatology.’

He knocks his glass back and sighs in satisfaction.

‘Compensation in full, no? Tart to the fore, sweet in the finish. Healthy tannin, a vigorous, robust mulberry fruit. Rosy cheeks, good times.’

I wonder whether I ought, perhaps, to begin spitting out the wine page 42 instead of swallowing. I feel warm and buoyant: thistledown on the evening's breeze.

The brothers build a bonfire of the prunings every year at midwinter, I shall write. The locals are all invited. They spit-roast a pig or a lamb. At midnight, they stoke the fire with the staves of old barrels. The locals say that Matty can conjure ghosts in the smoke. They say that he speaks to wraiths in the smoke, and that the ghosts reply. There is a line here—yes, I have it. Wines and spirits. Of course.

‘At last, a white! A Sauvignon Blanc, distinctively pale. You see? Lemon in colour. Clear, beautiful.’

He sniffs.

‘Sultry. Watermelon. Leafy shade, hayfield breeze. Pollen and sneezing.’

He sips the pale wine.

‘The best of years, don't you agree? Cool, crisp, but taste the sunburn. Taste iced water after a day's hard work. Taste the blue sky. Taste ice cream on the porch.’

All three sensational daughters are among us, bearing trays piled high with dainty kebabs, chunks of seared lamb and garlic cloves on skewers, and sprigs of rosemary floating in bowls of piquant dipping sauce. My mouth is full of spiced lamb and tingling from wine; my head is full of wine fumes; I am warm, and I gaze from one sensational daughter to another. My cheeks are aflame, and there are happy tears in my eyes.

‘The perfect accompaniment, this Chardonnay,’ the enchanter, Matty, says. 'Golden, almost amber. Autumnal in colour. An antipodean sunset, this one. I know this sunset well. Rich, toast aroma.

‘Some say that Chardonnay will not go with lamb. Trust me. Smooth, rich, generous to the point of profligacy. A cup running over. Golden weather, my friends. Contentment with not the least trace of regret.’

Those among us who would have blanched at the thought of drinking Chardonnay with lamb are hard to identify. Everywhere there are exclamations of pleasure, little sobs of joy. Well-dressed men and page 43 women are tossing the wooden skewers onto the fire and crowding eagerly about the young women for more lamb. No one has so far spat their Chardonnay into the silver bucket. Indeed, two or three more bottles are fetched and opened, and glasses smeared with greasy thumbprints are filled to the brim. For now, tasting is forgotten. It has become a bacchanal, with the rotund Matty presiding, standing there at the front of the room nodding benignly.

The lamb has gone, the empty glassware has been cleared away. At some point, some moments ago, everyone became aware that a change had come over Matty. He seems older. The youngest daughter, I think it was, brought a bottle from the back and Matty received it gingerly. With slow movements, an air of great solemnity, he twisted a corkscrew into it and drew the cork. The cork left the neck with a sombre plop. The mood of celebration has evaporated and we have all fallen silent. Matty himself fills a set of small-bowled glasses.

‘This is not for the fainthearted,’ he says quietly. ‘Do not feel obliged to try this one, but I shall count it as a favour from those of you who do.’

Everyone, of course, takes a glass.

He holds his glass up to the light, but the wine is black. Perhaps there is a dim gleam of crimson there, I cannot be sure: it looks black. Matty makes no comment about the colour.

‘It does not have a pleasant bouquet,’ he warns, yet breathes deeply with his big nose. ‘It is floral on the nose. Flowers, yes, but there is more. Candle-smoke and incense, and more. Rosewood and silver. Ashes.’

He looks at the glass in his hand for a long time, then, impulsively, he drinks from it. He grimaces, but does not spit.

‘Shocking,’ he says. There are a few nervous giggles, swiftly stifled. ‘Wine of the fruit of a mean season, too strong, too much. It defies description. Lachrymose. A handful of dust. It is inconsolably bitter on the palate. It leaves desolation. It is almost undrinkable without watering or blending. It is a tincture wrung from the heart of a mystery. I can say no more.’

He puts his glass down and watches as we taste. We taste tentatively, page 44 with trepidation. There are small gagging noises, and few waste time moving forward to the spittoon. My jaw aches and my salivary glands go crazy; my tongue wallows, seeking respite. A sensational daughter has thoughtfully placed a jug of water on the table and I join the queue.

Now it is after midnight. It is the end of the evening. The fire has died to glowing embers in the hearth, and the cold is shouldering its way through the doors. We have recovered from the black wine, although it haunts us still. It has made the gay bouquet of the Shiraz frivolous, it has rendered the delicate fruit of the Riesling vain and pretentious. But we have tasted wine after wine and the memory has dimmed. Perhaps the wines that came after were sweeter for the memory.

I am swaying happily where I stand, my empty glass clutched in my hand. Everyone seems a little reluctant to leave. I smile like an idiot as the eldest of the sensational daughters, I think it is, relieves me of my glass. Matty is laughing and joking with a group of people by the table. I see a tall man staring intently into the spittoon as though he hopes to see something in its contents. I realise that I am watching him for a reaction. As I watch, however, he spits a mouthful of red wine into the bucket and reaches for a glass of water. The ancient parrot, quiet all evening, utters what sounds like a cry of exasperation. I take my cue.

There is a minibus at the back entrance to take us back to the carpark where the taxis wait, but I decide that I shall go back down the way I came, down the path in the moonlight. It is very cold. My breath steams in the light from the building as the sound of voices and of glasses being cleared away fade behind me. The pebbles squeak and rattle. My breath steams in the moonlight, and the vineyard is a moonscape. It is cold, and very quiet.

I pause at the seat, and even sit for a few minutes, but I shiver until my neck aches. The vista of the silver vineyard makes me colder still. I continue down the path, stumbling occasionally, and once sliding on the pebbles. I think of the vineyard as it was during the day, in the autumn sunshine. I think of the vines, each day with their roots more deeply pressed into the earth, with their leaves supplicating the sun, page 45 drawing water from the earth and straining it through the dappled sunshine. I think of their bunches of purple or green grapes, where drip by drip, the vines store their memory of each time the sun crossed the sky.

I think about chemistry, but remember alchemy. Perhaps I shall write about the vintner as sorcerer, the vine as his apprentice. I remember the taste of the black wine, and Matty's hand shaking as he poured it. Perhaps, I think, I shall not write of this at all.