Monday, 20 August 2007

The Club Cruise

Mature clarets. Starboard tack. Course 30 degrees for Portoferraio, three jibs, all staysails, topsails and topgallants. 21° centigrade.

Tasting notes starting like this generally have a favourable outcome. They only happen at all, unfortunately, on our biennial cruises on tall ships, but the memory lingers. Some come primarily for the wine and some for the sailing. Don't ask me to choose. The perfect accompaniment for a Sardinian Vermentino? Force seven on the starboard quarter off the Costa Smeralda. It could become a habit.

130 of us set sail from Cannes on July 28, supported, if that's the word, by a crew of 75, bound for Calvi in Corsica. You can do it in 2 hours 55 minutes in a car ferry from Nice. Is it a sin to feel toweringly superior? Guilty m'lud, and I want about four hundred similar offences taken into consideration. We were, after all, on our toweringly superior ship for seven whole days.

There is a time-honoured ritual to getting going on the Star Clipper. These are sailing Club President, Hugh Johnson, reports back from another breath-taking Mediterranean adventure ships, remember; the first Sailing Passenger Vessels to be registered for many many years, and some of the biggest ever. You don't just start the motor, ship a pilot and get chugging. With a great deal of uncoiling ropes and looking aloft, the first signs are acres of white canvas unfurling far above your head. You look in vain for mariners bending over the spars, though; the duty officer has a wand with big yellow buttons controlling electric motors. Nor will you be required to suffer for your sense of history either, only to listen once again to a worn out recording of a heroic chant they tell me accompanied the Onedin Line. Suddenly, the sky above you is full of booming rectangles and straining triangles of sail, incomprehensively high. The deck tilts, the breeze freshens, and 3,000 tons of ship (wine-cellar included) is heading out to sea.

You are not allowed to forget the winecellar. We could fill the ship with more passengers than the 130 Club members who so gamely volunteer, but only by using the cabins we fill with hundreds of bottles of the best. It's not as though ports of call were bereft of wine. Everywhere we stop tenders seem to surround us with crates of the local creations. Nor are we remiss about appraising them. We send expeditions ashore to scour the vineyards, invite (unreluctant) growers to come and show us their wares and congregate on the Tropical Deck in attentive attitudes, holding out glasses as though there had been weeks of drought. Still the human chain fetching clarets and Burgundies and Kiwi Sauvignons and Chilean Cabernets up from below seems to labour unceasingly. When John Kemp and his staff are not pouring for eager tasters on deck you will find them in earnest session in the saloon, discussing whether the Crozes or the Central Otago is a better match for the evening's duck breasts in honey.

Am I painting a picture of excess? It can't be so. 50 chefs and stewards laboured day and night producing every dish you can think of, but up to five people were reported at one (the only) P.T. session squeezed in before the (substantial) breakfast. And no sooner have the tenders touched the quay, wherever we drop anchor, but queues form up to read the menus of the row of restaurants mercifully within 50 metres of the landing.

There is an unavoidable tension built into the schedule of a Sailing Passenger Vessel. It is the dialogue between the skipper and the restaurant manager. We have learned over the years, and many happy voyages, that the restaurant manager must be allowed his way. Eager sailors longing to see the ship beating to windward, white water bursting from the bows, decks running with solid seas, must see their dreams for what they are. Heeling at more than 4 degrees makes the cutlery slide about. At 8 degrees it is difficult to hold a glass correctly.

The organisers were taking no chances, though. Popular, and almost continuous, as our daily shipboard tastings were, if we were to have a serious session, an epic in the tradition of The Club's Vintage Festival, it must be on land. Cindy-Marie, our travel agent and much more than that, our energizer, our tonic and scourge of the reluctant, had scouted out the ground. She had found the place, the only place, on the whole Tuscan coast where a vineyard overlooks an anchorage for such a ship, a vineyard able to host a glamorous tasting of Tuscany's top wines, to tempt their growers from as far away as Florence, and to feast the whole ship's company in style.

Italy seems effortlessly to produce elegantly saturnine young men with large estates and a passion for wine. Also slender women in Gucci with marked views on fermentation and barrel-ageing. Mario Bacci, our host on his hilltop Terre de Talamo, was the epitome of the breed. The typical Tuscan tasting list, at least on the coast, runs Vermentino, Rosato, Morellino (or Brunello or Supertuscan I.G.T., or Chianti). Vermentino cools you, Rosato quenches your thirst and the red makes you seriously hungry. Beside the tasting tent, as an emergency resource, stood an airy pavilion with half a dozen exquisite (and subtly different) prosciutti and a millstone of Parmesan. That prince of the vine, Leonardo Frescobaldi, presided over a table of his magnificent Chianti Ruffina Montesodi and his irresistibly delicious Chianti Tenuta di Castiglioni. The sun beat down on the white tents, the green vines and the glittering water in the bay. It was a scene you were reluctant to leave - until the word went round to repair to another tent sitting among other vines for a sundown collazione.

A note, here, on Vermentino, the great discovery of the cruise. Tuscany has always been notoriously deficient in good white wines, and the islands of Corsica and Sardinia not much better endowed. As we found to our delight all three have made impressive progress. Memories of Vermentino are often of a skinny thing getting by just by being cool and sharp. The best modern versions have Sauvignon-like freshness but also a plump middle and a satisfying grip; the very thing with fritto misto di mare. Best of all was the version brought on board by Valentina Argiolas from their family's winery in Sardinia. Poor girl, she had to brave a decidedly frisky sea in a tender to come aboard and show us what Sardinia (or Cerdegna) can do these days; Vermentino of almost nutty richness, resounding red Turriga made from Cannonau and treacle-dense dessert wine from Nasco - two Cerdegnan grapes we will hear more about.

The collazione? A multi-part feast, with its climax a barbecue of bistecca fiorentina that involved five chefs, a battery of steel barbecues in clouds of fragrant smoke, and half a herd hung till it was meltingly tender. Elba was our next port of call after the Tuscan coast. The Etruscan Powers made two blunders when they captured Napoleon. They gave him too nice an island to live on - and they let him escape. Elba is peaceful, green with woods, if not oversupplied with memorable wines. We enjoyed, though, the examples their creators brought on board. My choice (Napoleon's, too) is the strange sweet Muscat-scented red Aleatico.

Portovenere lies at the mouth of the gulf of La Spezia, on the borders of Tuscany and Liguria. Some of the party took a boat ride up the Cinque Terre coast to see its absurdly steep vineyards on cliffs above the sea. How much of the vintage, I always wonder, rolls off into the waves? Others stayed to explore the old town and swim where Byron swam.

For our purposes Portovenere was the port for Piemonte, and half a dozen of the best growers of Gavi and Barbera and best of all Barolo came down to greet us with a noble range of wines. Gavi, I noted, has advanced in bounds since our last visit. You can think Chablis, and Chablis Premier Cru and Grand Cru when you meet a grower like Bereagli. Dr Broglia brought us, besides excellent reds, the sort of one-off cellar treasure you rarely meet, a 25-year-old sparkling Gavi that had taken on the deep nuttiness of old Champagne. Prosecco is all very well, but after a while ...

What, I had to ask him, did our Ukrainian commanding officer make of our consuming interest - not to say obsession?

A solemn toast, and an unexpected compliment: 'Never have I had such a sober cruise'. Practice makes perfect.

Hugh Johnson,
Club President

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