There is no one time or place in the world that can claim Ernest Hemingway, a reporter as much as he was a novelist, as entirely their own. To think of Hemingway is to think of Cuba, or Key West, and its deep sea fishing. Or Africa, the two plane crashes he endured on consecutive days and the rare opportunity this brought about, as there are very few of us who can claim to have read our own obituaries. Or even the Spanish Civil War or the Normandy landings, both of which he covered as a war reporter. During the latter, once ashore, he took it upon himself to lead a band of village militia as the Allies advanced, actions which saw him later brought up on formal charges. It was classic Hemingway.
These various phases in Hemingway’s life were rich in new experiences, each one inspiring him to write new stories. Did any, I wonder, have as great an impact on him as his time in Paris between 1921 and 1928? That he landed there was serendipitous, his original plan having been to head for Rome. But during his time there he enjoyed the company of a number of the leading authors and poets of the time including F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein, and in their company he surely developed as a writer. And he came to know the city well, its bars, its restaurants, its parks and its avenues. His memoirs written during his stay, and published posthumously in 1964 under the title A Moveable Feast, detailed his discovery of la vie parisienne. It is a work rich in tales of gustatory pleasures, but also tells us of Hemingway’s personal struggles:
“By then I knew that everything good and bad left an emptiness when it stopped. But if it was bad, the emptiness filled up by itself. If it was good you could only fill it by finding something better.”
– A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway, 1964
In early 2016 as I travelled down to Angers for my eighth Salon des Vins de Loire (I have written somewhere else that it was my ninth, but I am embarrassed to admit that I am guilty of a miscount) I revisited A Moveable Feast. Within its pages Hemingway captured something of French culture and spirit, surely one reason why it has surged up the bestseller lists once more after last year’s awful terrorist attack. While reading I chanced upon the quote above, in which Hemingway described his interest in horse racing, and in particular the emptiness he endured as he had to give up gambling. As I read it, it came to me that the concept he described can be applied to many other aspects of life; although Hemingway may turn in his grave, I felt this included wine (now I think of it, with wine involved, perhaps he would have approved). When a wine or a vintage is poor, and the Loire Valley has had its far share of these in recent years (think 2011 Muscadet, 2012 Vouvray, 2013 Chinon and the other red appellations, and so on), time will heal. The memory of less appealing bottles soon fades, the emptiness filling up with thoughts of superior wines instead. Wines such as 2012 Muscadet, or 2014 Vouvray.
When the wines and the vintages are good though, it becomes harder to find something to replace them once they have been and gone. This is something all dedicated wine drinkers experience with time. Whether your seminal bottle was a 1947 Château Cheval Blanc, a 1982 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Riserva Monfortino or a 1990 Vouvray Goutte d’Or from Philippe Foreau (pictured above), it becomes increasingly hard to recapture that joyous moment of discovery when the nectar first touched your lips. Similar wines just don’t live up to expectations, failing to press the same buttons; the search for something ‘better’ becomes ever more fruitless. Applying this to vintages rather than individual wines, it seems more applicable to the Loire Valley than Bordeaux. The latter region somehow claims a Vintage of the Century on average every three years, but in the Loire Valley vignerons sensibly refer to 1989, 1947 and 1921 as vintages that could perhaps live up to such an accolade. Truly ‘great’ vintages are a real rarity in the Loire Valley, and so finding that next bottle to fill up the emptiness is perhaps more of a challenge. What we need is another truly great vintage, another 1989 or 1947.