#40: Azerbaijan

Year: 2013
Grapes: Merlot
Producer: Aspi Winery
Alcohol: 14%
Source: Hetti Curtis

As I’m sure is true for many families, our annual summer holiday largely followed a set routine. Load up the car. Drive to France. Stay on a campsite. Visit friends. Stay on another campsite.

Beach. Pool. Chateau. BBQ. Repeat.

For the duration of my childhood, the same themes and features punctuated the holiday each year. Loud, off-key singing in the back of the car as our parents gritted their teeth and counted down the miles to our next stop. Fights over who got which sleeping compartment. Getting creamed at table tennis by the French and Dutch kids on the campsite. Boules and beach bats on the cool, firm sand left by the receding tide. Orangina and ice cream at every opportunity.

And Test Match Special.

I was obsessed with cricket from an early age, and that obsession did not stop at the Port of Dover. However, even by the late 90s a holiday abroad presented some serious barriers to my daily need for the latest County Championship scores or – even more crucially – for regular updates, reporting and analysis on the fluctuating fortunes of the English Test team. Any British newspapers available in the campsite shop were invariably a day or two out of date, and even L’Equipe, the French paper dedicated to all the latest sports news, didn’t extend its coverage to its near neighbour’s favourite summer pastime.

If we ventured down into the south of France, I had no choice but to remain in a constant state of cricketing deprivation. In fact, I vividly remember occasions when I made multiple trips each morning to whichever local shop sold British papers, so desperate was I to snatch up a copy as soon as they hit the shelves. It didn’t matter that an entire day’s play had unfolded since the scores in that edition had been printed – I had to know how things were going.

Further north, things were at least a little easier, and for that I will always be grateful to the BBC – and to the wonders of long-wave radio. It may have been faint at times – or unbearably crackly, much to Hannah’s annoyance – but the closer we got to the coast of Normandy or Picardy, the more time I was able to spend fidgeting in the back of the car, or sitting in a deck chair outside it, with the radio tuned to 198 LW, and the TMS team bringing me ball-by-ball coverage from a Test ground somewhere in England.

It was glorious. Not just because the calm, measured tones of Aggers, CMJ and the Boil formed their own lilting rhythm – informative without being dry, relaxing without being soporific, unmistakably English without being patronising or pompous – but because no sport is suited to radio quite like cricket. No British sport, anyway – the history of (and nostalgia for) baseball on the radio is at least as culturally significant in the US as Test Match Special is here, and for good reason.

Each has a cadence that gives broadcasters time to tell a story. Each unfolds through a series of discrete, easily-described events. Someone pitches or bowls the ball. Someone hits it. Someone fields it. And everyone resets before they do it again. The breaks between overs or innings, and the pauses before each delivery, prevent the listener from getting lost, without ever diluting the tension or making the whole experience less immersive. Even the terminology – which is unquestionably eccentric in places – is precise and easy to visualise once you understand it; whether it’s a ‘flick off the hips past short-leg and out towards the midwicket boundary’, or ‘a ground ball down the third-base line, picked up in deep left-field and fired back on the bounce in time to keep the batter to a long single’, anyone who knows the sport will be able to picture exactly what’s just happened.

Cricket needs that – the clarity, the precision, the narrative connecting all those individual battles between bat and ball – in order to make sense. It’s not just that it helps the game remain compelling when there isn’t much going on; it also lends context to the periodic spikes in activity and drama. When Devon Malcolm blew away South Africa at The Oval in 1994 – a devastating spell of fast bowling that took place either side of our ferry trip back from Calais to Dover – it was (and remains) one of the most thrilling sporting performances I’d ever seen or heard, but that owed as much to everything that preceded it as it did to the wickets themselves. That’s why I spent so much time glued to TMS on holiday each year, and why I missed it so much when we stayed somewhere beyond its range.

Of course TMS isn’t just for summer. My parents never wanted Sky TV, so for years radio was the only way I could follow winter tours to Australia, India, and everywhere else the England team of my youth would go to get beaten. Depending on the time difference, I’d switch on TMS when I got home from school, or first thing in the morning – even late into the night, when I was meant to be asleep – and listen as the players I idolised sweated and suffered on the dust bowls of Chennai and Kolkata, or put their bodies on the line against fearsome fast bowling in Georgetown and Port of Spain.

TMS did more than capture the drama of those matches; it brought to life all those places for which I had no existing mental picture. It was a way to escape the drab British winter and travel to sun-kissed cities across the world – all from the comfort of my childhood bedroom.

It’s both tempting and dangerous to romanticise our own pasts, but I have little doubt that listening to those tours on the radio resulted in clearer and richer memories of the cricket itself – and of my life around it – than I’d have now if I’d watched them on TV. I know exactly where I was, for example, when Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh ripped through England at Port of Spain in 1994, bowling them out for 46 when it looked like a famous victory was on the cards. That was the spring my dad redecorated the living room, and in my head the two are inextricably linked. I can see myself curled up in an armchair with wallpaper rollers and paint cans all around me, and TMS on the boxy old hi-fi in the corner.

Similarly, I remember counting down the hours and minutes to the start of play in an Ashes Test at Christmas that year. We were in the car, coming towards the end of a long drive up to see family in Scotland; everyone else was tired and irritable, and just wanted the journey to end, but I knew that arrival would mean turning off the radio till morning, so welcomed every red light and every slow-moving lorry in front of us.

I could pick out a dozen other moments in time, each linked to a specific Test match. Mike Atherton’s 185 in Johannesburg. Graeme Hick’s finest moment in an England shirt, a classy 178 in an innings defeat at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai. Darren Gough’s Ashes hat-trick. I experienced all of them live, thanks to Test Match Special.

I listen to TMS less now than I used to, for a whole host of reasons. Time. Television (I’ve had Sky for nearly 10 years now). Shifting priorities. However, it’s still always there when I need it. On New Year’s Eve in 2010, I came down with ‘flu, which left me bedridden for a week. As I drifted in and out of feverish sleep each night, the background murmur of Aussie wickets falling and English batsmen avenging a quarter-century of misery by grinding local noses into the dirt, never failed to cut through the delirium.

I thought about that night last Wednesday. Liv and I went to bed just as the 2017 Ashes were kicking off in Brisbane, and while she snoozed next to me, I lay in the dark and listened to the first morning’s play on our new digital radio. The voices may have changed over the years – they’re now younger, less formal, and happily more diverse – but the rhythm remains the same now as it was in my childhood, and as (I’m sure) it was in my dad’s childhood, and as I hope it will be in our kids’ childhood too. Because wherever England are playing, and whether they win or lose, it’s somehow deeply reassuring to know that Test Match Special will always be there to cover the action.

Wine info

Aspi Winery is an Azeri producer based in the Savalan Valley, in the foothills of the Greater Caucasus mountains. The vineyard is 400m above sea level, uses Italian production methods and equipment, and matures its wine in French oak barrels.

Its 2013 Merlot is ‘a ruby colour natural red wine, matured in oak barrels to gain its rich texture and distinctive bouquet of blackcurrant and spice. Recommended with aged cheeses, meat and game dishes.

Wine Verdict

Chris

We drank this wine with my sister-in-law Hetti, her boyfriend Ollie, and Liv’s cousin Jamie. The three of them came round for an evening of lasagne, sponge pudding with custard, and so much fun, happy conversation that I was still smiling about it when I woke up the next morning. However, the downside to divvying up a single bottle of red between five people is that it can easily slip down without one really noticing – especially if it’s not the first bottle you open!

That’s not to say that the Aspi Merlot was forgettable. It was livelier than I’d expected, and perhaps didn’t have the depth of flavour to complement the initial hit of fruit and spice, but its almost-sweet finish was very appealing. I can see how it would pair really well with a good cheeseboard, especially one that came with quince or redcurrant jelly on the side, and it would also work as an easy weekday drinking wine.

7/10

Livvy

My amazing plan of making notes as we go seems to have let me down with this wine as I never gave it a final score. I suspect my rating will be hugely influenced by my memories of the whole night, which were pretty great!

The wine was a dark, ruby red colour and was really delicious. It has a spicy and rich flavour that was softened by a really good balance of tannins. It was full-bodied and incredibly drinkable. It certainly suited our lasagne very well!

7.5/10, good time had by all but not such a great wine that I remember raving about it!

 

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2 thoughts on “#40: Azerbaijan

  1. I was listening to an England v NZ test in 1965, sitting by the window in our dining room at Radley, when I pulled two inches of razor grass out of my eye. It had gone in the previous evening when I bent down in long grass to pick up a tennis ball, and was the most unimaginably sharp and sudden pain I’ve ever experienced. The TMS-accompanied relief was immense!

    Like

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