If some kind of vinous catastrophe – other than the 100pt scoring system and mandatory screw-cap bottling – hit the world and I was down to having only one bottle of wine left to choose for drinking by myself, it is : Calon Ségur. Château Calon Ségur from Saint-Estèphe.
Yet, I am not even that into Bordeaux, preferring the focussed and sterner agricultural approach of Burgundy when the chance to buy and drink French wines makes an appearance. And why go to France at all for great Cabernet Sauvignon-led blends? Three, four Stellenbosch properties make a better blend than Calon Ségur, a Bordeaux 3rd Growth whose price-point fortunately still has to reach the stratospheric levels of the more well-known Châteaus adorning the ties and T-shirts of Chinese wine lovers.
But with Calon Ségur I have a history, and it has a history with me. The Australians talk about “emotional take-out” linking a wine to the consumer. And if Calon is a take-out, it needs a 18 wheeler truck to deliver the emotional baggage it carries.
My parents have always consumed wine, rather than sniffed and swirled it. It is enjoyed. “Life is too short to drink bad wine” is a common phrase still heard around the house, but wine-geekisness was never part of the scene.
There were and still are some serous wine folk in their circle of friends. Jan Boland Coetzee, Johann Krige, Duimpie Bayly and Danie de Wet. Also the late greats: Nico Myburgh from Meerlust, the legendary Ronnie Melck and George Spies of GS Cabernet fame. But they are and were friends first, and whatever the wine may be which is consumed during their spirited gatherings, it is always secondary to the importance of the personable camaraderie.
Growing up, thus, in a family with a lot of bottles, wine books and wine people around, I was but eight or nine years old when I started taking an interest in the labels on the bottles as well as their origin. This was in the early 1970’s in London, and most of the wines opened were Spanish, French and Italian, probably run-of-the-mill stuff. But then again, I learnt at an early age that “plonk” was not bad, and “snobbery” is awful. Plain common.
I do remember a period of Australian wines poured from clunky tins, but this was probably at the end of the month when my father’s employer, Nasionale Pers, was late in wiring the pay-cheque from Cape Town to the UK.
On a day there were hushed tones in the Earl’s Court flat. My father had placed a wooden crate on the kitchen table, and he and my mother were looking at the contents: 12 wine bottles, each with a heart on the label.
And inside the heart the words: Calon Ségur.
Moi, a kid of eight or nine, was probably running around in a set of Star Trek pyjamas, and upon asking what the fuss was about, was told that this wine came from France, and from a special region in France named Bordeaux. This was the first time I was drawn to the fact that wine is not only made in different countries, but regions, too.
For the next few years, the arrival of the case of Calon Ségur was met with equally hallowed terms. It was put away, the opening of a bottle reserved for moments of importance. I was given a small sip which was wasted on my infantile palate. I mean, at the age of eight I was still trying to make sense of Sancerre and Languedoc, how was I prepared for high-octane Bordeaux?
Through the years, many great wines passed through Casas Joubert in London, Cape Town, Paarl and Washington DC. Burgundies and Bordeauxs higher up in the food chain than Calon. Some fine Spanish wines. Californian monsters. Ancient Ports. All the South African greats.
But to this very day that Calon bottle with the heart continues to remain imprinted on my memory, taking me back to an innocent, pure time when the fascination and wonder expressed by your parents had a profound effect on what you deem to be important in the world.
“Why Calon Ségur?” I asked my father a few years back, long after I had become a legal drinker and devotee of this wine.
Working in Fleet Street in around 1971, he and other journalists would meet up at the famous wine bar El Vino. Buying classed Bordeaux was on his wish-list, but the Margauxs and Petrus’s and Lafites were out of a newspaperman’s league. One day, glasses of plonk in hand, the South Africa writer Roy MacNab told him about Calon Ségur, stating it as a Château punching above its weight in the price-to-quality ratio, and so the relationship began when that first wooden box arrived.
I am currently drinking Calon 2004, and while an interesting and good wine with obvious class, it is not going to shoot out any lights or cause any earth-tremours in calm urban squares. This is Saint-Estèphe’s most northerly classed Growth, poor soils and salty wind making it anything but a tame wine.
But as I smell the stone and dust and broken twigs on the wine, taste the crushed raw fruit and feel the bloody embrace of the fine old world of Bordeaux, the wine takes me back to a part of me I wish to see again. That’s why this will be my last wine. It is a wine of hope, and memory immortal.