Uncork now: Humagne Rouge, Maurice Zufferey 2012
It was early evening as I walked across crusty January snow to the trunk of the old apple tree. Dents appeared on the white surface, small shadowed pits of snow gleaming in the late afternoon light. At 120 years the tree’s branches reach high into the sky but also outward towards the farmer’s field and the road, to what were long ago pastures where cows grazed. My clogs, not really winter garden wear, filled with mini-iceballs of snow as I sank now and again, and I was glad to reach the trunk, where I leaned in close and breathed deeply.
Apple tree bark, at least in winter, doesn’t smell of much, it turns out. I broke off a piece that was peeling and held a scrunch of snow next to it. By the time I reached the house the newly dampened bark had a rich and pungent smell, an earthiness redolent of the kind of soil – we called it dirt at the time – that we breathed in deeply as small children. We lay on our stomachs, watching ants and worms busy with insect chores as they trundled across garden floors, the scent of humus a part of their world and ours.
The apple tree was my target for finding the smell of bark, an aroma, that might match one I couldn’t identify in my wine glass the previous evening. There were still two glasses of wine left in the bottle of Humagne Rouge 2012 from Maurice Zufferey, whose cellar is in Muraz-Sierre, in Valais. I could see his vines 500 metres below me from my garden if it weren’t for undulating mountainside and trees. He is one of the best producers of this old grape from Piedmont: it grows on slopes over the ridge of Alps now facing me, that run down into Italy. Canton Valais in Switzerland long ago adopted it and for decades has made ten times the quantity that wineries in Aosta produce (according to Jancis Robinson et al, Wine Grapes), of a far superior quality that gives the wine its good reputation.
Humagne Rouge, the wine
Humagne Rouge, whose proper name is Cornalin, can be an enchanter when the grapes are allowed to ripen fully. It should not be confused with another grape widely known in Valais as Cornalin, a name-usurper. But no matter how good the wine, and this one was excellent, I wouldn’t hunt for bark at dusk in winter so I could more minutely describe the wine for you. I simply wanted to indulge in the memory of a smell. If you love wine, you should do this, often.
We talk ourselves silly profiling wines, using excessive terms for hues and smells and tastes and textures, the language of overwrought social media sommeliers. The wines we love come more simply equipped to please us. It’s our job as drinkers to bring our own secrets and stories to any conversation with a wine. This time I brought a 40-year-old Irish glass, a book of wicked humour from a tale of crimes and love in Venice at the end of the last century and images of a remarkable man with eyes that match the colour of the sky on a sunny day high above St Luc.
The wine glass
When I opened the bottle of Humagne 2012 because I felt like a glass of companionable red wine while I stretched out on the sofa to read a book by a favourite author, I suddenly decided not to go with a 21st century thin tulip curved wine-correct glass. Instead, I took from the cupboard one of the thick handmade Irish wine glasses I bought from Keith Leadbetter near Kilkenny in the south of Ireland the year after he opened a glassblowing studio there. Sparks flew, liquid hardened as I watched. I was poor in 1980, so could afford only his seconds. My glasses have quirky stems and uneven sides. They also have the telltale spun threads of glass as it is spools into a cooled surface. I carried them miles home on the back of a bicycle, on narrow lanes bordered by high stone walls and wild blackberries.
The Humagne has a dynamic relationship with this glass, especially looking straight down into its depths. Like the crusted snow outside, the light creates a set of shadows, dips, whorls so that the face of the wine is continually changing.
The book, the writer
Donna Leon is an entertaining and thoughtful writer, and although I’ve never met her I get a kind of silly pleasure from knowing that I could perhaps see her house if I had a very long telephoto lens, for she lives somewhere up the Rhone river from me in another small Swiss alpine village, or so I hear. I would reread any and all of her books about Commissario Brunetti in Venice; I have, in fact, reread most of them and I thought I had read all of them. Then Friends in High Places, published in 2000, found its way into my hands this week. An unread Donna Leon! This calls for celebration and good company in the form of a well-cellared Humagne of great character.
Pulling the bottle off my cave shelf I read on it a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, the Bohemian-Austrian poet who spent much of his life down the road from where I write, and from Maurice Zufferey’s cellar. The poem wraps around the front of the bottle, oblivious to marketing seers’ words of wisdom about labels that sell wine. Rilke dedicated some 400 poems to Canton Valais and he is much loved here.
Instagram images of the winemaker flitted across my phone screen this week, showing his crinkly white hair and blue eyes, delighted smile as he paused on pristine slopes high above St Luc. This is his ancestral and childhood home. He is a true man of the mountains: quiet, discreet, focused, with a penchant for blending purity and simplicity, in his conversation and his wines. His grandparents shared these landscapes with Rilke.
Part of the charm of a perfect Donna Leon book is that descriptions of characters are limited and yet we’re sure we know just what they are like, so full of life are they. Thus I was astonished after reading several of the Brunetti books to learn that my favourite inspector is tall. I was sure he was short. His desk, it turns out, is not quite where I thought it was, a fact gleaned only after several novels were consumed.
Words for a wine
And so it goes with a good wine. I want to tell you, so that you can have the same experience of it, that my Humagne Rouge is a deep ruby, with aromas of very ripe black currants, blackberries and violets, with an imprint of damp bark and fresh peat moss. That the tannins are silky but a bit on the wild side, but more than anything, that this wine has a way of wrapping itself around the inside of my mouth that makes me want to chew it. And at the end, it catches me offguard with a peppery flash that lingers on the tongue and a final soupçon of licorice aroma that gives me pause, just as I am reading, “‘That is, there are no papers in the Ufficio Catastol to show that building permits were ever granted for this entire floor [where we stand] or,’ and here he smiled again, ‘that, in fact, it was ever built.'”
Simpler perhaps to write of my Humagne: red, rustic yet elegant, black fruits, earthy. And let you bring your own stories and memories to a conversation with this wine. It won’t let you down.