Red Devil

Trainspotting and Winespotting
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Whenever I am in a new town, in any country, or re-visiting one after a long break, I have to check out the shelves of every bottle shop.

Even the chain supermarkets, which is bizarre as I know that their range of wines is usually standardised across the nation. I greet the wines as old friends; ‘hello again, Muratie’, ‘ah, there you are, ‘Andreas’. I rarely purchase, just looking seems to suffice. It would have to be a significant find for me to buy anything, and though that has happened in the past, more often I just browse then leave, satiated.

Why do I do it? Well, as mentioned, sometimes miracles happen and there is that old bottle unseen by others, or something being cleared out or wrongly priced. I acquired a 1988 Krug champagne for R500, and a Dom Pérignon for R400 that way, and some Kanonkop 1998 Cabernet Sauvignon for R75 a bottle (naughty, I know, but the staff didn’t know the wine so sold it to me at the same price as the ‘Kadette’, and as it was ‘so old’ I took 14 bottles off their hands as a favour; it is drinking beautifully! – I don’t think I should mention the store).

So miracles happen, yes, but more often they don’t, so why my compunction to browse shelves as a higher priority than finding somewhere to stay?

Freud would have me look to my childhood, and therein lies the answer. Trainspotting. Other than playing football from dawn to dusk, my life was trainspotting (my brother got the brains). Sad, you are thinking, but surely not when you are 10 or 11 years old? Anyway, I defy anyone to ride on an open footplate at forty miles an hour on an old steam engine through Somerset countryside and call it sad!

Those who trainspotted during the steam era know the excitement of standing feet from the track as a work of art such as the ‘Mallard’ class at full throttle thunders past, 100 tons weight (and that is just the engine) at some 140km per hour, deafening and choking and earth shaking – it was fabulous. There must be those out there that did the same as 650 tons (9 with coaches) of ‘Red Devil’ flew by at 100km per hour.

And a perfect hobby for poor kids such as me. I couldn’t imagine who could afford to go to such exotic places as Bude or Wrexham or Dundee, but I could say I had ‘seen’ the train that took them there and record it in my Ian Allan book. There I wrote (underlined, actually) all the train numbers I had seen and those I had ‘cabbed’ – the ultimate boast, to climb onto the footplate of the engine while it was moving. We often rode the old bucket engine that ferried people the few miles from Town to Junction, helping throw in coal or sticking our heads out to shout at sheep as it chunterred along. Ah, the glorious days before ‘Health and Safety’ spoilt everything. Think ‘The Railway Children’ without Jenny Agutter but with spam sandwiches.

And there was my winespotting training. Stare, dream, imagine, but don’t (or can’t) try or buy. Even now I drool over the wines at La Cotte Inn in Franschhoek and despite being able to buy most probably wouldn’t do so. They are the 92220 ‘Evening Star’ and the 2994 class 15F (now in a Worcester museum) of the train world. Look, touch, imagine, sigh, then walk away.

It must have been the years of standing on cold platforms in obscure places that imbued in me the need to wonder at the excitement and fantasy that the 3.10 to Exeter St Davids offered and now to do the same to a 2009 Sadie Columella. 

When you could afford it, a journey to anywhere by steam was an event which enveloped you, it was more than a trip, it was emotion and smell and feel and sound and that is why I love wines that do the same to me. I want a wine that has soul and that leaves me with a memory, wanting more.

I bet, even now, play a recording of ‘The Flying Scotsman’ leaving King’s Cross, or 3450 ‘Red Devil’ accelerating away from Pretoria in the early 80’s to anyone of a certain age and you will see their eyes well-up and a wistful sadness descend upon them. Much like would happen if you cornered Dave Hughes, Duimpie Bayly, or Michael Fridjhon and passed them labels of a 1967 Zonnebloem Cabernet Sauvignon.

Maybe that is why I find myself hoarding wines that I promised I wouldn’t – opening and drinking them would mean I could no longer glow in expectation,the reality might be less than the dream. Also, it might explain why I am drawn to wine shows and flit from one stand to another recognising old favourites like Ataraxia and Meerandal just as I did to 92203 ‘Black Prince’ and 34067 ‘Devon Belle’. One difference that gives me hope is that unlike the steam era versus today's hideous rail travel, wine is better now than in the past, at least in the most part, and that when you have opportunities to drink a Rijk’s or Le Riche or Hamilton Russell there is no need to feel nostalgic.

Trainspotting ended for me when steam trains died. The ugly electric replacements had no glamour and little character. I wonder if my passion for wine will do the same if ever we let the bland, mass produced to a recipe, international branded ‘red wines’ replace the esoteric and idiosyncratic creations of artists like Bruwer Raats, Marc Kent, the Sadie’s, Strydoms, Jordans and Forresters and many more. With characters like that at the helm, perhaps there won’t be another ‘Evening Star’ ringing the last sunset of individual wines. I may not always buy them, but thank God they are there.


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