By Zsolt Láng
Translated from Hungarian by Erika Mihálycsa
It almost seems not to be wine but pure spirit (15,5 % ABV). Born to be the king of wines. Of course, many a pot-bellied hangdog relative would like to get there first. With a cunning marriage (cuvée) they soak off the singular truth of the terroir. A full-bodied wine, even if not quite as robust as we might expect from the aroma, perhaps due to the high Malligand: the regal character is dominated by the excessive proportion of alcohol. It needs breathing, but even afterwards a somewhat thorny backbone of acidity is left behind. The excess of tannin reminds one of the past – that is, of fermentation. For the rest, it contains all the elements in adequate proportion: sweetness for the foreplay, pyruvates for the afterplay – and yet, structure fails to assemble. Some tartness going to waste. This is not ullage, nor barrel sweat, but some dark perplexity: the choking fumes of a morgue in summer, the silky thread of saliva dried in a corner of the mouth, the chalkiness of sperm stuck on pubic hair. There are perils to engaging the dead in conversation. It could only escape the convulsive grip of tannins by sleeping with its mother, that is, by devolving back into the barrel to give birth to itself anew. This presupposes, as we can easily see, no lesser thing than the mythical breaking of the law.
Sommeliers, the inexperienced especially, would sometimes call a Sauvignon a wine with an identity crisis because its bouquet is reminiscent of a Kadarka. However, there are wines whose essence lies in their identity crisis. They are both cockily self-confident and faint-hearted, strong and wilted. The wine’s colour turning to brown breeds suspicion, its sheer name calls forth headachy disappointments, but as soon as it is poured into the glass it sweeps everybody off their feet. At the apex of its triumphal march, however, midway in the sip its flight is broken. What is the cause? There are things with no explanation or rather, with an explanation that can be presented in one hundred and fifty-six ways. On the wine’s stage the battle of malic acid with the tannins lasts for three seconds only, but the full story starts from the moment the scion was planted in the earth. A true warlord of the cellar bottom: there he defeats everyone, but is quickly spent in the absence of black mould, becomes uncertain in the light and in the open, and mutely collapses into itself – or on the contrary, turns wildly splintered, its wicked alcohols stick out, destroying its exotic savour. Even among the noblest wines there are some that have to be tasted from the gourd, or drawn directly into the mouth in the dark of the cellar. The true Messiah arrives stealthily, like a thief.
Its colour, vintage, the fame of its terroir promise grandeur and the first part of the sip fulfills that promise. It reminds one of Beethoven’s Ninth where in the first movement’s fifth minute everything seems to have been said. Midway through the sip an unexpected turn occurs, bringing kitschy flavours. This is followed by the sign of voiding: paprika coarseness. It keeps swelling and scorching, as if the wine were itself indignant at what befell it. Is it irked by the fact that it has allowed itself to be led on by the tannic suggestions? Yes, it seems so. For if we leave it to rest for some time – presupposing some penchant for asceticism on our part – the acid-driven slaughter is replaced by a flood of subatomic aromas and savours. Wisdom dwells in this wine, even if it doesn’t yield itself easily. The astringency of the tannins spreads like the militant truth of matter. Its bouquet is like the kitchen of an old manor where the cupboard loaded with curds, tin boxes of flour, coffee and tea is just being aired, and through the open window the smell of the garden, of dead winter leaves and of earth dug up by the waking sprouts floats in. But underneath there are the dead laid at rest, countless dead, for the garden, the house, the whole estate was built on a graveyard.
One of the most dramatic wines, even among the products of the Estate that is thoroughly committed to allowing only such grapevines to be trellised that can accommodate, if necessary, a whole Shakespeare play. Only a small quantity is produced and even that is the work of chance, for the vine-dresser was drunk at the time of planting and a few white grapevines of unknown variety were mixed among the black grafts. Only the housefolk, mostly the women keep visiting the barrel in the cellar corner, because its contents are completely different from the types known in the area. Due to yet another error, a jugful is drawn and brought to the guests’ table. After that there is no stopping it. They label it the wine of queens in jest and heap gold medals on it. Il Magnifico! It is by no means short of talent of course, it has abilities that can evolve, once it gets out into the open. It makes a masterly show of its misshapenness and of its ungainliness become suddenly fashionable. Its success is a drunken monkey business. Actors would sometimes choose the company of a colleague who has much to be modest about, so that their own talent shines all the brighter in comparison. Its pungent catpiss smell is praised as a prime asset. What is more, some take to sipping it from cathead-shaped glasses. It is advertised with obscene slogans like, “It will harden your manhood and lubricate your hole”. All this foreshadows global social decline. Fortunately they soon bring it to its knees. What truth needs is not a predicate but a subject.
The perfume of an outlandish aftershave of middling price range flares up in its bouquet, quenching the tasters’ curiosity a bit. The feel in the mouth is like going to the theatre only because we have been invited by the actor son of the nice lady from whom we like to buy our soup vegetables on the marketplace. If we add up the years spent maturing in the barrel with the years that passed since embottling, the vintage will seem suspect. There is some snow wine effect, too: in these parts they call snow wine the thawed-out ice that has been removed from chilled wine. Unquestionably, an obdurate prejudice sticks to rosés. This wine could get a far better score in blind tasting. It would then inescapably lose its previous ranking in a control tasting with the labels on view, however much tasters like to deny that their trade is prone to corruption. Besides, the fact that it opens up all too easily tends to be registered as a fault. Because of this quality it risks falling into the trap of well-meaning, fuddy-duddy winemakers’ relentless polyvalence – some of whom might not be above forcing its spirit with forbidden Mutage. A faint odour of clay washed in persists even after breathing, mixing a Gypsy-ish tambourine note beneath the tone of horns, more in tune with its character. While sipping it, we are overcome by a sinister premonition, that we are not drinking wine but kissing a stiff drunk girl or boy.
Everything in it serves to seduce the living and the dead. A sole glance and we are enslaved. It has been demonstrated that the wavelength of its colour is identical with the wavelength of the Javan blood cobra’s skin colour that feeds on small macaques. It commands us to a halt even if we do not look at it. An infrasound wine! Its bouquet is the deep tannic lily of doble-pasta spirits, but according to those who have been to some of the world’s sacred places, it is more like the vulva of goddesses. For some reason or other it is equally avoided by would-be Casanovas and amateur feminists. Not recommended for those with suicidal drives, for it soaks up the long-sedimented extras of old sins. In such cases drinking on top is of no help, on the contrary: as if we made it clear how much we are at its mercy, it starts storming and draws its taffeta skirt of stifling perfumes over our head with tempestuous whirls. Despite its rampant eroticism it calls to our mind the moment we realized that the one we were making love to was making love to us as though we were someone else: was imagining somebody else in our place. We are submerged in the whirlpool of its flavours at such speed as if we had just dropped into the midst of a Vaseline-producing chemical plant working at full gear.
Hairs start growing in the ears, age spots appear on the skin, the body slackens, once irresistible charm diminishes. And yet, and yet! Topaz and sapphire let its light through, being of the same wavelength. It is able to bind with any flavour. Arguably, it develops to its fullest in the coffee-addicted mouth cavity, although any such observation is rather fatuous, especially if it lacks the comparative analysis of mouth cavities. Professional wine tasters are ultimately interested in a wine’s structure of inner relations the most. Its terroir? How would we say it? Its place of growth? Not really. Just as a human gaze is more than simply a face and eyes, the terroir is more than soil and climate, for the deer family hopping among the grapevines at dawn is also part of it. The particular is adjustment to the habitual. The habitual is describable; for the unusual no letter exists. Through the letter, the subject brings to life its own inability to think. Thus, and on the contrary: this is a thinking wine. The letter is the character, the thought the play. It is the Estate’s freest wine. Thoroughly indescribable. A mirror-wine. We look into the glass and the vague contours of our face surface. But it offers a more concrete experience than that: we take a sip and we are overcome by some sort of hope that finally we might be able to suck in all our bodily parts. In wine there is truth because it is able to put the thought into the subject’s mouth.
Zsolt Láng is one is one of the most original and critically acclaimed writers of his generation. He has published eleven volumes of short fiction and criticism, as well as a tetralogy entitled ‘Bestiarium Transylvaniae’. Both his short fiction and his novels are suffused with literary and cultural references (including faked arcania), rich wordplay and a relentless exploration of the poetics and politics of language.
Erika Mihálycsa teaches 20th century British fiction at Babes-Bolyai University, Cluj. Her research is focused mainly on Joyce, Beckett and Flann O’Brien, and she is a prolific translator from English/German into Hungarian. Her translations of Hungarian literature into English have previously appeared in B O D Y magazine and on Hungarian Literature Online.
Editor’s note: ‘The Wines of the Shakespeare Estate’ is sui generis, but described by its English translator as ‘a short story written in the form of wine labels’. It previously appeared in the April 2014 (Shakespeare) issue of Lato magazine.