July 29 2011
The other week I was heading down to Pamplona (pictured) for the encierro and bullfights – a previously annual pilgrimage which, for the past three years, circumstances have prevented me from continuing. Forget Edinburgh, Notting Hill or even Rio: this fiesta for international drunks and unpublished authors and a favourite among the poverty jet set has no comparison. A celebration of civic unruliness, homage to Hemingway, madness, cruelty and magnificent bravery ensures that for one week San Fermín resembles the middle panel of Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights – with red scarves and sashes.
Why do thousands participate in such a foolhardy and dangerous exercise as the bull run, and why do many return repeatedly for more of the same? For some, usually American and antipodean students, like the chaps from Louisiana whose taxi from Bilbao I shared, it’s a rite of passage, an essential box to be ticked during their summer in Europe. For the locals and habitual runners, it’s an opportunity to demonstrate one’s cojones, with nothing more than a shot of Pacharán beforehand and a rolled-up copy of La Corrida to serve against 500kg of sharp-ended bovine aggression.
For others who are older (but, arguably, not wiser), it’s an opportunity to reflect, over the first Guinness of the day at 9am, how successfully concluding another run puts your life in perspective – to appreciate with greater clarity all you have, and hold less important the things you don’t. A combination of the latter two, plus a whimsical penchant for The Sun Also Rises, were my excuses for being present.
Following our successful “altitude tasting” (examining the effects of cabin pressure, air quality and altitude on the palate; www.youtube.com/winechaptv#p/u/13/S7YT4OJO3sc), I also intended to carry out and film an “adrenaline tasting”. Based on the idea that your palate is physically and psychologically affected by adrenaline coursing through your veins (much as animals shot when fearful taste more bitter), this involved, first, drinking a fine Bodega Muga rioja the night before the encierro, when relaxed, happy and full of the convivial spirit(s) of the fiesta. I then intended to compare tasting notes upon sampling the same wine at 7am on the streets of San Fermín, gripped by an escalating terror shortly before the bulls are released. Friends and certainly my fiancée questioned my sanity and fitness for running the bulls after the intervening years of physical dissolution, but I pointed out that although I may be older and slower, I was now wiser: you don’t need to outrun the bull, just the chap next to you.
My alarm and then the nervous chatter of the assembling runners below forced me up blearily at 6.30am from a sofa in the apartment of one of Pamplona’s true legends, Welshman Noel Chandler, the living embodiment of Hemingway’s bon vivant Count Mippipopolous. He’s a 50-year veteran of San Fermín and a hugely respected aficionado whose champagne party to mark the opening of the fiesta is the equivalent of Vanity Fair’s Oscars bash, with the mad, bad, and dangerous to know of all ages, imaginable professions and conceivable origins arriving from 11am to accept his generous hospitality.
Previously more eclectic in his champagne tastes, Noel, no longer in the first flush of youth, now prefers Moët & Chandon because the deal with the local supplier ensures that all cases are carried up the five storeys to his apartment on Calle Estefeta. The sight of 100-plus empty bottles neatly stacked in the kitchen the following morning was a bizarrely appropriate juxtaposition to my circumstances of less than 48 hours previously: a tasting across five decades of Moët’s Dom Pérignon and Penfolds’ iconic Grange and dinner hosted by the winemakers at Dublin’s two-Michelin-starred Patrick Guilbaud – a fitting last supper in the event that the encierro would claim an early casualty.
The event was inspired by a dinner hosted previously in New York by Australian-born Trent Fraser, Dom’s American brand ambassador and prior to that Penfolds’ man in NYC. Fraser had invited a group of the city’s top wine collectors to James Beard Chef of the Year award winner Dan Barber’s Blue Hill in The Village; the entrance requirement was the best and oldest vintages of these two superstar wines from their cellars. That evening and this one Peter Gago, Penfolds’ chief winemaker, acted as a willing MC; but we were also graced with the presence of Dom Pérignon’s oenologist Vincent Chaperon, a phonetically and otherwise appropriate guide through this unique trawl of extraordinarily rare wines from the private vaults of Epernay and Magill.