The winelover’s secret map

Standing in his sun-drenched hallway, my friend and I stood before the newly-hung painting that he bought not long ago. “With a bit of luck, it might even go up in value,” he said, with an arched eyebrow. I couldn’t help but think of the altogether stranger investment of my wine collection.

It’s not much to look at – a couple of hundred dusty bottles behind a mop and a vacuum cleaner. It’s outwardly illegible to all but other wine lovers. Unlike a record collection or a library, you can’t pull out individual entries and enjoy them from time to time. Once you extract the cork, that’s it – with every bottle opened the collection is depleted. Will it increase in value? It’s a moot point – I’m going to drink every bottle, one by one. The drinking of each bottle is the pleasure it provides of course – but not the only pleasure.

The collection isn’t the aim, it’s not even the real investment. The true asset is an ever-growing network, a puzzle solved, a map gradually sketched out. The winelover’s most prized possession isn’t his or her rarest, most expensive bottle, it is this – the glorious, sprawling, detailed, internal wine map. I once tried to replicate just part of it infographically with the help of someone far smarter than me, but it proved impossible – it’s too complex and dynamic to pin down. It has multiple dimensions, comprising regions, varieties, styles, producers, vintages and more. And it’s constantly changing; producers hone their styles, bottles gradually mature and a new vintage is delivered every year.

With every bottle drunk this network gains intricate new connections. As it grows, the map gives greater context and meaning to every bottle drunk.

Each individual bottle is a tasty breadcrumb that guides you down a path towards better and better wine. The wine map encourages you to extend your reach to outlying styles, and emboldens you to stretch for higher levels of quality. It leads you to glimpses of the ancient, the bizarre and the beautiful.

Part of the enjoyment of creating the internal wine map is the challenge. Some set out purposefully to explore the undiscovered country; others stumble upon it by accident and become enthralled. Perversely, part of its appeal is that you can never know it all; there is no destination, you can’t complete the collection, it’s a game that can’t be won. But wine exists, and it is wonderful; you might as well grasp of it what you can, no matter how vainly, rather than ignore it.

Sure, there’s a geeky element for some winelovers; there is a certain crossover between the record collector and the wine collector. But a wine collector who doesn’t drink his bottles is like a record collector who doesn’t listen to his records – both are joyless exercises. And beware of collecting wine with speculation in mind – you can easily find yourself mired in the tourist traps of Bordeaux and Burgundy. It’s better to follow your heart than your wallet.

The internal wine map is an artifice built of memory, experience and pleasure. Unlike other collections it’s weightless and goes everywhere with you. It’s invisible: to be shared and displayed it must be discussed – no wonder wine is famous (or infamous) for its vocabulary. Wine is intrinsically sociable, and the map needs words to breathe life into it. Each map is unique to its owner, and they’re best compared over a bottle of wine; an anchor, a benchmark, a starting point to commune over.

Although the ever-growing wine map can’t be stolen or mislaid, it is only as permanent as a memory. It dies with us – it can never be sold or bequeathed. And it can be expensive to produce and maintain. I’d rather not calculate how much money I’ve invested in mine.

Do I regret it? Not for a moment. It’s not just a map but a prism through which you can experience the world. Mine has led me to villages, cities and breathtaking countryside. It’s introduced me to fascinating people. Looking back, many of my most treasured memories were generated or accompanied by brilliant wines. The internal wine map I’ve invested in may never increase in value like my friend’s piece of art, but to me it’s worth much more than any painting.

Image © Shutterstock

First published on

Are you on the list?

There’s so much to enjoy when you visit a restaurant: a friendly welcome, the convivial atmosphere, catching up with friends… then some smiling bastard hands you the wine list. Pages and pages of wines you’ve never heard of, at prices you’d baulk at in any shop, and it’s your job to pick one to please yourself and your guests. Some wine lists offer tasting notes, but others give no such clues. There are some useful points worth remembering, however, that can lead you to a smart choice when handed even the weightiest of leather-bound tomes.

Plotting a course

If the head chef writes the menu, then who writes the wine list? It could just be the salesman the restaurant buys their wine from. It might be a wine-savvy restaurant manager – or an indifferent one. It’s hard to tell how seriously a restaurant takes their wine offering just by looking at the list. The name of a sommelier or wine consultant within tends to be a good sign – like Martin Lam, who consults to Brindisa, the Zetter Group and Grain Store in King’s Cross.

If there are no tasting notes, where does he suggest you begin when choosing a wine? “They should at least be grouped in some kind of useful way,” says Lam, “hopefully by style. This should steer you towards the wine you’re looking for or put you in contact with something you don’t know that you might like.” A list laid out by country or region he thinks is “next to useless – it presupposes knowledge.”

Choosing a wine by sticking to a grape variety or region that you know and love can be a safe option, but you risk getting stuck in a rut. Jade Koch is an independent wine adviser to restaurants such as Trullo in Highbury and Padella in London Bridge, and she recommends trying “something new to you from a region you have heard little about. The wine will normally be good because it has had to earn its place on the list amongst the more well-known names that sell themselves, and will generally be priced more competitively.”

Famous names such as Bordeaux, Burgundy and Chablis rarely offer the best value – these wines can be glorious, but the best always come with a hefty price tag, so beware of buying cheaper examples blind. For reliable quality at sensible prices in red wine, consider Côtes-du-Rhône, Languedoc, southern Italy, Portugal and Chile; in white, look to the Loire, Germany, Greece, northwest Spain and South Africa.

House swap

When it comes to house wine, it’s impossible to generalise. Lam explains “I know some people that would swear by their house wine, but it can go the other way, it can be deplorable, just the cheapest option.” As for the urban myth about the second cheapest wine on the list having the most inflated price, he says “I’ve never met anyone who’s admitted to that.”

The house wine tends to be the cheapest, but the sweet spot for value is generally between £30 and £100. The grander the restaurant, the higher their running costs, so the steeper their mark-ups need to be; as such, wines in restaurants tend to be pitched anywhere between twice and four times their retail price. Consequently, you’ll be hard pushed to find a genuinely exciting wine in most London restaurants for less than £18 a bottle, or less than £30 at more exclusive addresses.

Koch points out that the house wine “is often also available by the glass, so feel free to ask for a taste and then you start a discussion from there… do [they] have anything lighter, fruitier, etc.” Asking your server which wines they personally enjoy is worthwhile, even if they’re not qualified sommeliers.

Lead by the nose

If there is a sommelier on hand, so much the better. Sommeliers are sometimes unfairly maligned, but their advice can be invaluable – particularly at restaurants like The Greenhouse in Mayfair where there are 3,700 wines to choose from. Elvis Ziakos is their head sommelier. The Greenhouse opened in 1977, so he inherited the wine list from his predecessors, and has since built on it. “Always have a conversation with the sommelier,” he says. “Wine is like food,” he continues, “always having the same wine is like always having the same food… trying something different is the only way to develop your knowledge, palate and experience.”

If you have a budget in mind, spell it out – sommeliers in their monochrome liveries might resemble magicians but they aren’t mind readers. If you’re worried about sounding stingy in front of your date, just state a broad price band and choose one of the less expensive suggestions. Some of the rarest wines at The Greenhouse are worth thousands of pounds, but “good value, even for me, is exciting,” says Ziakos.

Orange is the new white

As with food, wine also follows trends and enjoys new innovations. Two new developments that you might encounter are Coravin and orange wine. Coravin is a wine dispensing system that extracts a small measure from a bottle of wine while keeping the remaining liquid fresh. This means restaurants can offer a broader range by the glass or small serving. It’s a relatively affordable way of experiencing rare wines without shelling out for a whole bottle.

Orange wines are white wines that are made more like red wines. Normally the skins are quickly removed from the juice when making a white, but with orange wine the skins are macerated for a period of time (like in red wine production) to extract more texture, flavour and colour. The resulting wines are varied in style, but tend to be more powerful and notably more tannic – dry and textural – than white wines. Some can be challenging but a shared glass can be a mind opener.

Another trend we can all be thankful for is that wine lists are getting shorter, making wine selection quicker and easier. In respectable restaurants at least, the house wine should be a safe choice; but for better value and a more entertaining night, skip over the famous names and try something off the beaten track. If it’s available by the glass ask for a small sample first. And don’t forget to state your budget and ask for advice – your waiting staff have probably tried enough to give you a steer even if there’s no sommelier. Keep trying different wines and soon enough the wine list will read more like a novel than a telephone directory.

Wine list Dos and Don’ts

1. Decide on what you’re eating first. You might wish that you ordered a bottle of red wine rather than white if everyone around the table then orders a steak.

2. Ask questions. There’s no reason anyone should know anything about wine, no question is stupid.

3. Try something new. Unusual regions and grape varieties tend to offer better value compared to famous names. You’ll expand your repertoire and discover new favourites if you always try something different.

4. Don’t feel under pressure. Advice can be useful, but you’re under no obligation to follow it; only you know what you feel like drinking.

5. Spend as much as you can afford. Unlike some luxuries, with wine, you tend to get what you pay for.

First published in Foodism magazine, but with way better images.

J.L. Chave Sélection 2015s

Jean-Louis Chave makes some of the greatest wines in the Rhône. The Hermitage and Saint-Joseph he produces from his family estate are among the best of their respective appellations. Naturally this level of quality doesn’t come cheap, so they are a rare treat even to committed Rhône lovers like me.

Although he doesn’t produce second wines, Jean-Louis does have a négociant label, J.L. Chave Sélection, a range of wines produced from younger estate vines and sometimes bought-in fruit as well. They are made just as diligently as the wines from his estate, but are considerably cheaper.

There are six wines in the collection:

Côtes-du-Rhône Rouge ‘Mon Coeur’
Crozes-Hermitage Rouge ‘Silène’
Saint-Joseph Blanc ‘Circa’
Saint-Joseph Rouge ‘Offerus’
Hermitage Rouge ‘Farconnet’
Hermitage Blanc ‘Blanche’

The 2015 vintage was exceptionally good in the Northern Rhône, and the 2015 vintage of the Cotes-du-Rhône, the Crozes-Hermitage and the Saint-Joseph Blanc are now available in the UK. All are excellent and well worth getting your hands on. I’ll write up the remaining three when they’re released.

J.L. Chave Sélection Côtes-du-Rhône Rouge ‘Mon Coeur’ 2015 (14.5% ABV)
£80.00 per 12 bottles in bond (equivalent of £10.60 per bottle including taxes), A&B Vintners
45% Grenache, 40% Syrah, 15% Mourvèdre mostly from the Southern Rhône villages of Vinsobres, Rasteau and Cairanne. Blackberry, loganberry and the faintest whiff of bonfire, all very enticing. It's the palate that really makes an impression though, this is a remarkably well tailored and sophisticated Côtes-du-Rhône – one of the finest I've tasted labelled under this modest appellation. Lush, but well balanced, with a richly textured mouthfeel and juicy berry acidity. Very good value at under £11 a bottle – essential mid-week drinking.
90 points, 2017-2019

J.L. Chave Sélection Crozes-Hermitage Rouge ‘Silène’ 2015 (14% ABV)
£130.00 per 12 bottles in bond (equivalent of £15.60 per bottle including taxes), A&B Vintners
Sleek, cool and fragrant, this is a very pure expression of Syrah from Crozes-Hermitage. Plenty of ripe berry fruit and a straight, tailored profile make for a considered and precise wine. Well balanced and well judged. Good value at less than £16 a bottle.
91 points, 2017-2020

J.L. Chave Sélection Saint-Joseph Blanc ‘Circa’ 2015 (14% ABV)
£25.25 per bottle including taxes, Yapp
Pure Roussanne. A discrete nose of honeycomb and vanilla over yellow pear and quince, with integrated oak. Unashamedly full-bodied, rich in glycerol and flavour; acidity is on the low side, but it retains a sense of freshness. It takes its time to saunter over the senses. Dry yet generous on the finish, which is lengthened by an ember of toasty oak. Fairly priced at £25 for a wine of this class.
92 points, 2017-2019

Martin Lam: The chef that writes wine lists

Martin Lam

Which comes first: the celebrity chef’s animated persona or their success in television? Martin Lam has largely eschewed the media over his 45 years in the restaurant business. Perhaps it’s how he’s remained so down-to-earth; at 62, he has the affable but astute demeanour of a QC on his day off. Another consequence, however, is that he is not as widely recognised as his peers. Nonetheless his career has been exceptional – head chef at Le Caprice and L’Escargot, owner of Ransome’s Dock – and he deserves to be as well known outside the restaurant trade as he is within it. But what really makes Lam unique as a chef is that he has an equal grasp of both food and wine.

Footholds and hands up

Born in Bristol in 1955, Lam’s father was a food importer. While still at school he had a job as a kitchen porter, and was a full-time chef by the age of 18. After a few years cooking around the west of England, he moved to London to work at the pioneering delicatessen of Justin de Blank. “Justin was Anglo Dutch,” says Lam, “he worked for J. Walter Thompson in advertising, he worked alongside Terrance Conran. He left advertising to open a traiteur in Belgravia. They were way ahead of their time, importing stuff that only places that Fortnum & Mason even touched on, but not with the depth and accuracy that he had. We [the staff] were able to use their produce and develop our repertoire.”

It was here that Lam developed an interest in wine. Justin Le Blank was a friend of Aubert de Villaine (co-owner of Domaine de la Romanée Conti) and stocked de Villaine's own label collection. “Justin encouraged me to learn about wine, sent me off on a WSET course. Because he saw I was interested… we really got into it, tasting regularly. He was a real inspiration, as was his partner Robert Troop, in showing how it was possible to work with people and encourage them. Cooking in those days wasn’t a particularly attractive area to be in, you did it because you wanted to. They encouraged people to think, and to be good to each other.”

Talking to Lam reminds you that the catering business is precarious and unpredictable, but also companionable; when thinking of a restaurant, we imagine the enduring façade of a building, but it's really more like a human pyramid. He mentions countless people who have given him a hand up over the years, his gratitude still warm.

From Justin Le Blank’s, Lam moved to the English House, a restaurant in Chelsea that focussed on antiquarian English recipes, where he was promoted to head chef at just 26 years old. The food writer Elizabeth David lived opposite and was a regular. “We were hand-churning ice cream, she said ‘come over, you can borrow my electric one’. I was trembling in my boots! But she was incredibly nice to me.” She allowed him to use her library – a priceless resource before the days of the Internet.

Le Caprice and L’Escargot

Elizabeth David’s library proved particularly useful when he needed to learn how to make pasta before he joined Le Caprice in 1981 as opening head chef. “Chris Corbin was working at Langham’s. Jeremy King was working at Joe Allen’s in Covent Garden. They hatched an idea with a customer of Langham’s with a dream of opening a restaurant…. It was Joseph Ettedgui, a sweet guy, a Moroccan. He was a hairdresser that sold frocks in the back of his salon, that eventually became the Joseph clothes range.”

But after several busy opening months, disaster struck. “Joseph pulled the plug and he closed the doors after a falling out with Jeremy. We were in shock... I had a 6-month-old daughter at the time, I remember falling asleep at my chef’s desk at 2am after doing the ordering. Chris and Jeremy found alternative finance, but I ducked out.”

Shortly after leaving Le Caprice, Lam visited a friend who was working at L’Escargot in Soho, which had just been opened by Nick Lander and Jancis Robinson. “They were desperately looking for a chef. I said, ‘not me, but I’ll help you out for a bit’.” After making some changes, “it all just went click. It was one of the best working relationships, teams, that I’ve ever had in my life.” He ended up staying for 10 years. “It was so unpretentious – great food and wine and no bullshit… It was Jancis who persuaded Nick to write the menus in English – it was quietly revolutionary. Up until then, everything was in French.”

For his last three years at L’Escargot, Lam was responsible not just for the menu, but also the wine list. “I used to send it to Jancis to check it over for me,” he says. Jancis has fond memories of the time. “It was a real delight to me,” she says, “to see how interested in wine he swiftly became. The list there was initially all-American and was distinguished by being one of the first to group wines by style and to include brief descriptions of each wine.” His wine lists today are still designed with the casual wine drinker in mind, using layout, groupings and descriptions to help guide customers towards something they’ll enjoy.

Ransome’s Dock

By the time Lander came to sell his share in L’Escargot in the early Nineties, Lam also owned a significant stake. Lander initially offered to sell his to Lam, but it would have meant raising a cool £1m. Instead, Lam took a gamble on opening a new restaurant at a riverside site in Battersea, far away from the busy West End. “I got friends and family to chip in, we all got paint brushes out to get it open,” he says, and along with his wife Vanessa, he opened Ransome’s Dock to glowing reviews.

Lam worked behind the stove, but at the same time he built up an award-winning 400-bin wine list, every wine with its own description. His understanding of wine and how to create menus to work with diverse styles made it a popular venue for wine merchants to hold winemaker dinners and events.

Ransome’s Dock rapidly became known as ‘the wine trade canteen’. “I find it weird that there aren’t more chefs who are wine savvy… It’s a shame, as someone that works with food and flavour all day long has a natural affinity to finding those things in wine. I’m yet to find a winemaker that doesn’t think about the food to go with their wine. There’s such a synergy between them, a natural fit.” There aren’t many other chefs with a solid grasp of wine, but Lam gives the nod to Roger Jones, Rowley Leigh and Bruce Poole.

Making the restaurant welcoming for families was just as important to Lam. “One of its greatest successes was seeing three or four generations of the same family at Sunday lunch all eating together. And having people coming up to me saying ‘this is my 18-year-old child, I taught them about food here’… we made a difference to people.”

Albert Bridge connected the restaurant to much of its loyal clientele in Chelsea over the River Thames. When the bridge closed for 22 months, it severed this crucial artery and they lost 25% of their business overnight. Then a large company next door that yielded many customers relocated. After 21 years in business, “it was time to stop, before we became seriously ill – longer and longer hours, but still putting in 100%... It was a hard decision to make, but we were resolved to do it, and we haven’t regretted it since. It was all-consuming – very little holiday, and seven days a week... The only reason we’d have hung onto it was if [our daughter] had expressed a desire to take it on herself – but she’s too sensible for that!” They closed the doors for the last time in 2013.

Paying it forward

Freed from the confines of the kitchen, Lam now consults to other restaurants, currently working on wine lists for Brindisa, the Zetter Group and Grain Store, with several other collaborative projects in the pipeline. “One thing I’d like to do more of is to find people that are in the first stages of planning their first business. I have no plans to be a restaurant doctor, but I’d love to stop people becoming a casualty in the first place, by nurturing them and giving them a helping hand.” When discussing previous Ransome’s Dock staff members who have since gone on to open their own establishments, his face lights up.

When asked how he managed to stay successfully operating for over twenty years, he replies “well we wanted to, aside from anything else. I would say when you have a skill or a talent or training – it’s your metier, you earn your living from it. You don’t just bring in equity finance after 3 years and roll it out.” In the era of the popup and the microtrend, Lam is a reminder of the timeless and universal attributes of the restaurateur – to nourish, and quite literally – from the French, and the Latin before that – to restore. His customers, staff and clients will no doubt benefit from these qualities for years to come.

First published on

Châteauneuf-du-Pape's rock n' roll excess

When I listen to electro I crave Riesling. The precise polished perfection of the sound somehow recalls the technicolour citrus acidity of the wine. Châteauneuf-du-Pape however suggests the gothic aesthetic, excess and volume of hard rock and early metal – Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Uriah Heep. Châteauneuf has never been a retiring wallflower, but over the past couple of decades its rock n’ roll attitude has stepped up a gear; it is now one of the most alcoholically potent of all dry red wines. How did it get to this point – and with the alcohol cranked all the way up to 11, where does it go from here?

More Than A Feeling

For such a bold style, the wines are built around a surprisingly impressionable grape. Grenache, sometimes referred to as ‘the Pinot of the South’, produces very different wines depending on where it’s grown, how it’s made and who has a hand in making it. One thing is for certain – it will never give low alcohol wines: in Châteauneuf, Grenache needs to reach around 14.5% potential alcohol before it’s fully ripe. But it often doesn’t stop there; of the 200+ red Châteauneufs I tasted last year from the 2015 vintage, over half were 15% ABV or above. One came in at a thunderous 16.5%.

Fabrice Brunel of Domaine Les Cailloux acknowledges “it’s true, the average degree of alcohol has increased in the last 15 years”. He believes global warming is a factor. Warmer temperatures and less rain are leading to a higher concentration of sugars in the grapes. Picking them earlier might sound like a sensible solution, but the grapes still need to reach aromatic maturity, and this hasn’t advanced at the same rate. He also points out that “the vines are quite old in Châteauneuf (around 60 on average I think) so the production is low and the berries very concentrated… that leads to high degrees.” Old vines are usually cherished for the quality of their fruit, but in this sense, they are a mixed blessing. Florent Lançon of Domaine de la Solitude points out two additional factors – clonal selection and fertilisers are also to blame for high sugar levels, and in turn high alcohols.

But the increase in alcohol isn’t just to do with climate and viticulture, it’s also been unwittingly encouraged by critics who favour this style. One producer cited Robert Parker as a “driving factor”; another mentioned the “race for the biggest wine for the biggest score” which pushes winemakers and consultants to pick later and later to please the palates of particular journalists.

You Can't Always Get What You Want

Alcohol levels may be high, but this isn’t a problem for everyone. Véronique Maret from Domaine de la Charbonnière sums up the sentiments of almost all the winemakers I spoke to in saying “it’s all a question of balance.” That’s to say, if you don’t perceive the alcohol and the wines taste balanced then this is what really matters. She points out that the alcohol level shouldn’t be seen as an indication of quality; in fact, for previous generations the higher the alcohol level, the better the wine.

Californian winemaker Rajat Parr, who led the In Pursuit of Balance movement, agrees that balance can be achieved at relatively high alcohol levels. But when it comes to high alcohol Châteauneuf, he admits “it doesn’t fit in my eating and drinking profile”. Drinkability and context matter, and as Châteauneuf alcohol levels rise, it becomes harder to match them with a broad range of foods. They can also render you inconveniently sloshed at the end of a meal. I’ve heard winemakers counter that we should simply drink slower, or less; but in practice it’s not easy to alter the way you enjoy a meal just to cater for one style of wine.

You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet

I have encountered wonderful, balanced Châteauneufs at 15.5%: it can be achieved. But I’ve tasted some Special Cuvées and pure Grenache wines that taste almost like caricatures of Châteauneuf – the contemporary persona of Ozzy Osbourne compared to vintage Black Sabbath. But there are several approaches that winemakers are taking to reduce alcohol levels – and some of these have the added benefit of adding complexity, interest and individuality to the finished wines.

If Grenache is Châteauneuf’s front man, then it’s the rest of the band who hold the key to reining in his most excessive behaviour. Guillaume Gonnet makes wines under his own label ‘Guillaume Gonnet, Vigneron’ and for his family winery Domaine Font de Michelle. With 13 varieties to use, he says “it comes down to blending… you need to pick the Grenache when it’s ripe, not overripe, but when it has reached its peak. Then you can blend it with a Syrah and Mourvèdre at 13% (yes they can be beautiful at 13%) and the average comes down... I think it is entirely possible to make really great Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine with an alcoholic percentage of 14.5% (still pretty high!). When you push the alcoholic maturity too much, you miss out on complexity, elegance, the terroir effect; all the things that make wine interesting, and that’s a shame.”

Both he and Véronique Maret have been co-planting their vineyards with other varieties to help rebalance the Grenache: Gonnet is focussing on Cinsault, Counoise and Vaccarèse; Maret on Cinsault, Counoise, Mourvèdre, Clairette and Bourboulenc. For Maret, it’s “to increase the complexity of our wines but also to prepare of the future.” Another way to reduce alcohol levels is to include a proportion of stems in the ferments – used well, this can also bring further texture and complexity to the finished wine.

For such a classic style of wine, Châteauneuf can sometimes lack a little self-confidence; it’s at its best when it ignores the capricious tastes of critics and the homogenising hand of the consultant to concentrate on wines that winemakers want to drink themselves, with their families, at the dinner table. Châteauneuf, rather like Lemmy from Motörhead, can take more alcohol than most and still perform. Like these classic rock and metal acts, we love these wines for their power, volume and sheer grandiosity – but we don’t want to see them go off the rails completely.

First published on

New Zealand's hothouse Syrah


In 1984, a man called Dr Alan Limmer was doing some work at a government viticultural research station on North Island, New Zealand. One day he heard it was about to be closed down due to lack of funds and the vineyards bulldozed. He raced over there to see what he could salvage. He rescued nine Syrah vines from the bonfire – the only ones in the country at that time. They still had plastic name tags around them like babies’ ankles. He took them home and planted them in his own estate, Stonecroft, in Hawke’s Bay. These original vines are still there today, bearing fruit and providing cuttings. No-one knows for sure how Syrah came to be established in its heartland of the Rhône – but we can be reasonably sure it didn’t turn up in a cloud of dust in the back of someone’s ute.

The New Zealand wine industry may be young, but it has quickly become something of a talent hothouse for French grape varieties; first Sauvignon Blanc, then Pinot Noir. Syrah has taken a little longer to find itself, but it appears to have finally found its voice.

When it comes to red wine in New Zealand, Pinot Noir dominates the scene with 70% of plantings. After this comes Merlot at 16%, but plantings are shrinking as the results are rarely distinctive. Syrah comes in third at just 6% of plantings, and this figure is rapidly increasing as its potential becomes clear. It has spread from its Hawke’s Bay homeland to all the principal New Zealand wine regions and it’s already showing identifiable regional and even sub-regional styles; Hawke’s Bay, Waiheke Island, Martinborough and Marlborough are the regions to know.

Hawke’s Bay

Three quarters of Syrah plantings are found in Hawke’s Bay. This is the fruit basket of New Zealand, warm and sunny, with most of the vineyards found on the flats that spread inland from the sea. The meandering paths of four rivers have laid down diverse soils. One sector of deep gravelly stones has a particularly inglorious CV; previous occupations have been a rubbish tip and a drag strip – it was too infertile even for grazing sheep. This was until someone thought of growing vines on it – and since then it has revealed itself as one of New Zealand’s most promising terroirs. This sub-region is known as Gimblett Gravels.

Trinity Hill is one of its stand-out Syrah producers. It was established by Robyn and Robert Wilson, owners of the Bleeding Heart restaurant in London, and their friend John Hancock, an Australian winemaker. He worked a vintage with Rhône legend Gérard Jaboulet in 1996, and brought back a cutting from one of Jaboulet’s best Hermitage vineyards. Their top Syrah, Homage, is a tribute to Jaboulet who died the following year. Although the region is responsible for some well-regarded Bordeaux blends and Chardonnays, Hancock believes that “we can own that spicy, peppery style of Syrah, and that’s probably what’s going to make Hawke’s Bay’s name internationally”.

Warren Gibson is head winemaker at Trinity Hill, and also makes wine with his wife Lorraine Leheny under their own Bilancia label. That addictive peppery Syrah signature is emphasised in many of New Zealand’s best Syrahs, and none more so than with Bilancia’s La Collina Syrah 2013. Hawke’s Bay is the opposite of the Rhône in that the vines are largely grown on the flat rather than the hillsides; this steep vineyard is one of the rare exceptions to the rule. It’s an experiment that has paid dividends. It was made without destemming (using a proportion of stems in the ferments is common practice with New Zealand Syrah), which has added to an exuberant fragrance that would give some Côte-Rôties a run for their money.

A newer sub-region that borders Gimblett Gravels is Bridge Pa. The deep gravels here are overlaid with greywacke, wind-borne silt and volcanic ash which gives the Syrahs here their own distinctive character; still peppery, but more floral, slightly lighter, with more red fruit flavours, notably raspberry. Te Mata Estate’s Bullnose Syrah is a vibrant example. We’ll surely see more sub-regions developing their own unique voice as the region develops – the consistently excellent Elephant Hill is building a case for bright, silky Syrahs of Te Awanga, a stone’s throw from the sea.

Waiheke Island

With 60 hectares under vine, the second largest region for Syrah in New Zealand is Auckland & Northlands, in particular the small island of Waiheke, 10km to the east of Auckland itself. It’s a beautifully picturesque spot, green and hilly with peaceful sandy bays. There are 29 small wineries on the island; Man O’ War Vineyards is the biggest by far. “We don’t feel like we need to be part of the Pinot Noir conversation,” says winemaker and chief executive Duncan MacTavish, “Syrah has been going from strength to strength. We can’t make enough.”

A vertical tasting of their Dreadnought Syrah shows that the 2012 vintage was a turning point. They stopped acidifying, started using a proportion of stems and lengthened the wine’s time in 500l barrel from 12 to 24 months. The jump in quality could also partly be down to vine age. As vines mature, MacTavish is noticing “we’re moving into subtleties, not just blasts of fruit”. This bodes well for the future, and not just for Waiheke.

Waiheke isn’t quite as sunny as Hawke’s Bay, and it’s relatively humid; there’s less of a difference between night and day temperatures too. This climatic difference, coupled with heavy clay and volcanic soils, leads to a different style of Syrah. It’s bigger and bolder, with polished dark fruits, somewhere between Syrah and Shiraz. Passage Rock and Hay Paddock are other names to watch.


The tiny town of Martinborough is found close to the southern tip of the North Island, 65km east of New Zealand’s diminutive capital city Wellington. It’s home to 1,600 inhabitants who live in a collection of pretty one and two storey wooden houses centred around a central square laid out like the Union Jack. The town is hemmed in by some of New Zealand’s best Pinot Noir vineyards; no producer yet hangs their hat on Syrah, but there are some highly promising examples now cropping up.

One of the most distinctive is made by Kusuda Wines. During his time as a law student in his native Japan, Hiroyuki Kusuda took some time out to backpack around Europe, developing a love of wine along the way. He finished his law studies back home and got a job, but his interest in wine grew until he couldn’t ignore it any longer; wine fought the law and the wine won. In 1997 he learnt German and left to study oenology and viticulture in Geisenheim University. His thesis on New Zealand Chardonnay eventually led him to Martinborough, where he eventually returned to rent, then eventually buy, some vineyards. He makes Pinot Noir, Syrah and Riesling. His production methods for Syrah are “much like Pinot, but with more air”, and it shows. It’s an unshowy, neat style of Syrah, with a sunny vibrancy and intense freshness.

There are only 10 hectares of Syrah in Martinborough, and Kusuda doesn’t expect this to increase since the area is wedded to Pinot Noir in the minds of both producers and consumers. But there are several other examples worth tracking down: Martinborough Vineyard makes a juicy, pretty Syrah cofermented with 4% Viognier; Dry River’s Lovat Vineyard Amaranth is a fuller-bodied, more textural style with expressive aromatics; and Ata Rangi has just started bottling a pure Syrah called Juliet from the 2013 vintage. On tasting it from barrel, winemaker Helen Masters saw “for the first time what I always thought Martinborough Syrah should be”. It’s a beautiful wine that demonstrates that Martinborough has the potential for world-class Syrah.


Marlborough has 19,047 hectares of Sauvignon Blanc. When the renowned soil scientist Claude Bourguignon visited Fromm Winery, he told them they should actually be growing Syrah. To their credit, they ignored their neighbours and heeded his advice; their Fromm Vineyard Syrah is a beacon of Syrah in a sea of Sav. Their 1999 is glorious and still going strong.

As the valley floors of Marlborough become fully planted, it’s the land at the fringes that’s in the sights of many wineries. Happily, the hills to the south of the Wairau Valley with their clay-rich soils are proving to be good sites for red varieties. The Clayvin vineyard is only the second hillside vineyard to be planted in Marlborough, but the wines grown here from both Fromm and Giesen show great promise.

There are now 10 hectares of Syrah in the region, the same as Martinborough. Both regions are relatively cool for successfully ripening this variety, but the style is different. Martinborough tends towards a floral yet savoury medium-bodied expression; Marlborough tends towards a slightly lighter, more peppery example. With the Marlborough name so strongly connected with Sauvignon, it’s unlikely that Marlborough will ever be a major hotbed of Syrah. Anna Flowerday of Te Whare Ra explains “the potential is pretty huge, but at a premium price… it’s always going to be the small independent wineries.”

The future’s bright

New Zealand has developed a unique national style of Syrah that makes total sense within its broader wine lexicon and cuisine. If Australian Shiraz has traditionally emphasised the variety’s black fruit flavours, weight and depth, then New Zealand Syrah underlines its red fruit register, acidity and fragrance. What makes it truly exciting is the way that it’s already expressing subtle but marked stylistic variances across different regions and vintages.

Thanks to their upfront aromatics and bite, New Zealand Syrahs are rarely low on impact. What they occasionally lack is weight and length of fruit on the palate, and their tannic frame can sometimes be fairly slight. I’m confident that this will naturally (if slowly) be addressed as vines mature. Occasionally winemakers are overly keen with new barrels and overgenerous with the Viognier used in blends, but these issues are quicker and easier to rectify.

Many of the wines aren’t just good, they have the breezy character and flawless looks of the Hollywood child star. I’m looking forward to seeing how these wines develop on a producer level; the lines and scars, the characterful asymmetries the unapologetic quirks. One of my favourite vintages in the Rhône is 1983 – those first Stonecroft vines weren’t even planted then. New Zealand Syrah has come a long way in a short time, and its adoptive country is proving to be a natural and exciting new home.

Some top New Zealand Syrahs to explore

Waiheke Island

Man O’ War Dreadnought 2012, 2014
Man O’ War Kulta 2012
Passage Rock Reserve Syrah 2013

Hawke’s Bay

Trinity Hill Gimblett Gravels Syrah 2010, 2014
Trinity Hills Homage 2015
Bilancia Syrah 2014
Bilancia La Collina Syrah 2013
Craggy Range Gimblett Gravels Syrah 2014
Craggy Range Le Sol 2011, 2014
Elephant Hill Reserve Syrah 2012, 2014
Elephant Hill Gimblett Gravels Syrah 2013
Elephant Hill Ariviata 2009
Vidal Reserve Syrah 2014
Vidal Legacy Syrah 2010, 2014
Te Mata Bullnose Syrah 2015
John Forrest Collection Gimblett Gravels 2013
Cypress White Label Syrah 2015
Paritua Syrah 2014
Ash Ridge Premium Estate Syrah 2015
Element Syrah 2015


Kusuda Syrah 2013, 2014
Martinborough Vineyard Syrah Viognier 2014
Ata Rangi Juliet Syrah 2013
Dry River Lovat Vineyard Amaranth Syrah 2013


Fromm La Strada Syrah 2014
Fromm Fromm Vineyard Syrah 2010, 2014, 2015
Te Whare Ra Syrah Singe Vineyard Syrah 2015
Wairau River Reserve Syrah 2014
Giesen Clayvin Syrah 2012, 2013

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Coming of age

Orange wine. Grower Champagne. Biodynamics. Trends come and go in wine like anything else. Some are clearly gimmicks (blue wine, anyone?) Others, like Natural wine, feel more significant. One global trend in red wines has taken hold over the past ten years with all the inevitability of a rebellious teenager. Power and concentration are out; freshness and drinkability are in. On the face of it our change of taste is simply a kneejerk reaction to the macho wines of the 1990s and 2000s, but it’s caused by a combination of different factors. And in turning our backs on these more robust styles we might be inadvertently spurning one of wines defining characteristics: it’s ability to age.

Wines such as Bordeaux and Port that have traditionally been built to last are losing favour; those that are approachable young like Jura and Beaujolais are in the ascendant. These latter styles sometimes age well, but this is often incidental rather than their raison d’être. And to really reap the benefits of what time can bring to a wine, it needs to be made with ageing in mind.

With the growth of Uber, Netflix and even wine apps such as Drop, much has been made of the ‘on-demand economy’. What we want, we want now. Since most wine is shipped shortly after bottling, that’s when it usually gets drunk, so it needs to be delicious on release. Waiting for a decade or two before your wine is drinkable feels like the behaviour of a bygone era.

This focus on early drinking wines isn’t just about impatient Millennials. It reflects the subtle change in consumer attitudes to wine over the past twenty years. There has been a gradual shift in emphasis from collecting wine to drinking it. Collections demand concentrated and structured wines – wines with longevity. Wine lists in bars and restaurants don’t – they need wines that meet the needs of the diner; charm, refreshment, drinkability. The powerful critics of the 90s and 2000s with their trophies and icon wines feel increasingly irrelevant.

The dynamic nature of the restaurant scene might also be driving this trend. According to Harden’s Restaurant Guide, London saw more new openings in 2016 than any other year since its records began in 1991. Finding restaurants or wine bars with cellars for ageing wines is increasingly rare, and not just in the UK. As inner city rents spiral, its simply not a cost-effective use of space. The same is true for high street wine merchants. And for private homes. I’m not sure exactly who is ageing wine in the UK these days.

People are drinking less aged wine because there is less of it around. Fewer drinkers will have the opportunity to taste mature wines, so they won’t develop a taste for them. The trend toward drinking young rather than aged wines is deep-seated, and likely to endure.

As a drinker, it’s refreshing to see more of these vibrant, youthful styles emerging from the shadow of so many monolithic Cabernet Sauvignons. As they become more popular with drinkers, many winemakers will be liberated to make better wines. Ageability has long been a critical measure of quality in wine; less emphasis on this will free producers to make lighter, more drinkable styles that might better suit their terroir or personal ethos.

But if this trend means fewer aged wines on the market, then for most wine lovers it can’t be an entirely positive development. Some of the most unique and unforgettable wine experiences come from the complexities and flavour profiles that can only be derived from mature wines. They can’t be rushed or faked. Any wine scene that has fewer of these wines to explore is impoverished – like a library or music collection that only houses new releases.

Some producers of ageworthy wines such as Château Latour in Bordeaux and Bodegas López de Heredia in Rioja only release their wines when they’re ready to drink. Châteauneuf estate Clos des Papes holds back parcels of mature wines specifically for the restaurant trade. I hope this becomes more common, and for supplying retailers too. It’s vital for the vibrancy and variety of local wine scenes, but just as important for producers, to help ensure that the styles of wines they produce remain visible, relevant and viable. New developments, trends and even technology are what keep the wine scene exciting. But we need to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

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My first week in New Zealand

Sunday 29th January

Geisen Clayvin Syrah 2012

New Zealand is a friendly place. Before I’d even landed in Auckland, a guy in the passport queue had taken my details and promised to send me a list of his favourite Syrahs. And within ten minutes of finding a wine bar the owner had poured me a generous taster of the Giesen Clayvin Vineyard Syrah 2012, one of the best reds from Marlborough. It’s my first visit to NZ and it has a disarmingly friendly and uncomplicated vibe.

Call me a curmudgeon, but these are two characteristics I’ve never valued in wine – the wines that I’ve grown to love aren’t friendly, they’re awkward bastards that don’t care what I think – they don’t go out of their way to please. “Oh, you don’t like me?” they say with a passive-aggressive Gallic shrug; “then drink something else ffs.” Wines like Barolo, Sherry, Savennières. ‘Uncomplicated’ is great when it comes to train ticket machines and online tax forms, but when it comes to things like plots and wines, I’ll take complicated any day.

Perhaps this is why I haven’t yet got into New Zealand wines. Will I learn to love the friendly and easy-going? Or will I find some difficult bastards to revel in?

Monday 30th January

Waiheke Island

Wine has taken me to some remote places, and Waiheke Island off the coast of Auckland is certainly one of them – remote and beautiful. It's small – just an hour’s drive across – and inhabited almost exclusively by tourists and winemakers. Duncan McTavish, CEO and winemaker at Man O’ War Vineyards, picked me up in his battered pickup to go and taste his Syrahs.

They’re the biggest producer on the island and they make some serious wines. We started with the 2009 Dreadnought Syrah, his first vintage, and went through to the 2014. The turning point was the 2012; they started including a proportion of stems, stopped acidifying and extended the time in barrel (500l French, 25% new). The 2012 and 2014 are both excellent, robust styles with structure and fragrance. They also make the vibrant Bellerophon, which includes 3% Viognier, and the single vineyard Kulta Syrah. Both are worth a look, especially the Kulta in a couple of years when it’s had time to develop. Duncan is clearly having a whale of a time, which isn’t surprising as he’s basically making wine in paradise.

Man O’ War is a hard act to follow, but I dropped in at Villa Maria on the way to the airport. Their new visitor centre is impressive and the wines are as consistent as ever. They’re experimenting with some new varieties; their restrained, firm Single Vineyard Ihumatao Verdelho 2014 has real presence and their new flagship Cabernet Sauvignon, Ngakirikiri 2013 from Gimblett Gravels in Hawke's Bay, is phenomenally good (but not cheap). I flew into Wellington straight after the tasting and readied myself for three days of pure Pinot…

Tuesday 31st January

Craggy Range

Gazing at its natural beauty, it’s easy to forget just how new things are in New Zealand. The islands have only been populated for 700 years. There was nobody there before, not even the Maoris. And the modern wine industry has only been going for 40 years. At the first day of the conference, I bumped into some winemakers who were responsible for planting the vines and fashioning these first tentative wines. It’s like chatting to Dom Pérignon, but this being New Zealand, everyone’s so relaxed you could easily forget just what they've achieved.

The conference got off to a striking start with a traditional Maori welcome and some exceptional presentations from the likes of Professor Dame Anne Salmond, New Zealander of the Year 2013, who gave us an unforgettable lesson in New Zealand history and culture. In the afternoon I concentrated on tasting wines from Marlborough and Nelson. Things are changing quickly here. If you think Marlborough Pinots are all light-bodied wines with simple, sweet red fruits, then check out the latest from Clos Marguerite, Seresin, Giesen and – my discovery of the day – micro-negociant Corofin. Marlborough is transforming itself into New Zealand’s Côte de Beaune.

Wednesday 1st February

Pinot NZ 2017 Conference

If you ask a top international panel to choose two non-NZ wines to illustrate greatness in Pinot Noir, how many Burgundies do you think will be selected? Just one, it turns out – and that was made by an Australian. The panel consisted of Jancis Robinson MW, Ken Ohashi MW, Mike Bennie and Marcel Giesen, and delivered plenty of food for thought.

Blind tastings are always humbling and instructive, and this one served as a reminder of the potential for quality outside of Pinot’s French heartland. Highlights for me were Domaine de la Côte 'Bloom’s Field' 2014, Santa Rita Hills, California; Dr Mayer Pinot Noir 2014, Yarra Valley, Australia; Meyer-Näkel ‘G’ Spätburgunder 2014, Ahr, Germany; and Aussie Mark Haisma Morey Saint Denis 1er Cru Les Chaffots 2013, Burgundy, France. Giesen rounded off the session by comparing New Zealand winemakers to the students of grand master painters who are now beginning to find their own voice and expression, particularly as vines reach maturity.

New Zealand wine journalist and sonic artist Jo Burzynska was up next to demonstrate how the same wine can taste different when listening to different types of music. I think many of us instinctively feel that music can subtly alter our enjoyment wine (and food for that matter) but it was fun to try it out live, working through a glass of Pinot firstly with silence, then dubstep, then baroque, then hard rock, and finally ambient. Turns out that ambient music is a Pinot’s best friend – it was a piece that she’d composed herself in fact. And now I know why they don’t serve Pinot Noir at dubstep raves…

Thursday 2nd February

Stephen Wong MW

The final day of the conference started with a half-a-dozen highly diverse and captivating talks. Michael Brajkovich MW of Kumeu River Wines spoke about indigenous yeasts; Janis Robinson MW updated us on microbial terroir; Stephen Wong MW talked about the language of wine lists; Andrea Frost suggested ways that our communication about wine could progress; and Elaine Chukan Brown explained that we should do our best in our work for our descendants, some of whom we’ll never meet.

Dom Maxwell, winemaker at Greystone Wines in North Canterbury, was the first to speak and told us about his unique approach to fermentation. The use of indigenous yeasts that live in the local environment, rather than shop-bought yeasts, is a growing trend around the world. Converts believe it can better express their terroir, or that indigenous yeast is even a part of terroir. Greystone is taking it one step further however: to avoid the influence of yeasts that live in their winery building, they are fermenting their wines in the vineyard itself instead of the winery. It’s quite possibly unique in the world of wine, and they believe their wines are better for it, with lower alcohols and more precise reflections of site and vintage.

A tasting of Central Otago Pinot Noirs that afternoon showed a range of different styles. Trends toward whole bunch fermentation and away from new oak are both positive developments. That ‘fruit bomb’ style that has been a calling card for some Central Otago Pinots seems to be on the wane, and more savoury, medium-bodied styles are on the rise. If that sounds encouraging, seek out wines from Akitu, Surveyor Thomson, Prophet’s Rock and particularly Rippon, whose 2006 Sagesse Pinot Noir was one of the most impressive wines at the entire conference.

Friday 3rd February

Marlborough Sounds

With the conference over, it was time to fly to Napier for the Classic Reds Symposium. Getting there was part of the fun: a chartered Air New Zealand jet flew us over Nelson, Marlborough, Wairarapa and Hawke’s Bay at 5,000 feet so we could get a better understanding of the vineyards. All this with a commentary by ‘Captain’ Bob Campbell MW, a world authority on New Zealand wines, and wines matching the vineyards we were flying over. I was even lucky enough not to be sitting next to one of the travellers who turned an unhealthy shade of green. Bit too much Pinot the night before!

We landed 86 years to the day that an earthquake measuring 7.8 devastated the town of Napier, killing 256 inhabitants – New Zealand’s deadliest natural disaster. It lasted two and a half minutes, during which the land was raised by two metres, and some 40km² of sea bed was pushed skywards, becoming dry land. Imagine witnessing that. New Zealand still feels very much ‘Earth in progress’.

Saturday 4th February

Syrah tasting

Today centred around the tasting I’d been waiting for: 16 Syrahs, 12 from New Zealand, 4 from other cool climate regions, all tasted blind. Most New Zealand Syrah is grown in Hawke’s Bay and Waiheke Island (both on the North Island) with a splash found in most other regions, even Central Otago. A chirruping fantail bird hopped among the rafters above us in the Trinity Hill barrel room where we sat as if to remind us which country was hosting us.

The New Zealand wines were from Marlborough, Hawke’s Bay and Waiheke, and there was certainly a stylistic variation between the three: Marlborough delivers a lighter-bodied, aromatic and peppery expression; Waiheke wines tend to be fuller and denser with darker fruits. Hawke’s Bay sits between the two and has a greater breadth of styles.

The two Rhône ringers were both from Chapoutier; Saint-Joseph Les Granits 2013 and Ermitage Les Greffieux 2013. Neither were showing terribly well, the Granits in particular, which is a shame as normally this is an excellent wine. The Greffieux was unmistakably Rhône in the line-up; it had intense weight and texture of tannin, and also flirted with faults – two things that contrasted it against the New Zealand wines. Some stand-out New Zealand Syrahs were John Forrest Collection Gimblett Gravels 2013, Bilancia La Collina 2013, Trinity Hill Homage 2013, Craggy Range Le Sol 2013, Man O’ War Dreadnought 2014 and Passage Rock Reserve 2013.

From here I'll be travelling around Hawke's Bay, to Martinborough and Marlborough to see what their Syrahs are like in a bit more detail - I’ll be back in a couple of weeks for a full report on

Decanter Regional Profile: Hermitage

Hermitage hillside

It's hard to beat Syrah from the greatest sites in the Rhône, but I've tasted a few from New Zealand recently that have been really impressive. I'm on my way over there tomorrow for a couple of weeks for a closer look - my first visit, so I'm hugely excited. I'll be tweeting as usual from @mattwallswine

In the meantime, here's a recent article I wrote for Decanter magazine - a regional profile on Hermitage.

Decanter Hermitage Jan 2017 edition

How the other half drinks

Is there a quicker way to get to know someone than by flicking through their music collection or browsing their bookshelves? Both feel like a little glimpse into their soul. For wine lovers, rifling through someone's cellar can be equally enlightening. I’ve spoken to some of the best wine writers in the UK; they advise us on what to buy, but what do they spend their own money on? Where do they put it all? And what will they be digging out on Christmas Day? Tim Atkin MW, Oz Clarke, Richard Hemming MW, Victoria Moore, Olly Smith and John Stimpfig all agreed to give me a virtual peek into their cellars.

Whether it’s art, wine or Pez dispensers, most collections start out with an innocent purchase. You develop an interest, individual items build up, and before you know it you need somewhere to house it all. It’s not surprising that Victoria Moore and Richard Hemming, the youngest of our group and both living in London, have the least space to dedicate to wine; both rely on a wine fridge. Moore’s has been full since she bought it. “I don’t really have a wine collection. I have nowhere to put the bottles once they arrive in my flat,” she says, “which is a HUGE disincentive when it comes to buying wine. I’ve madeirised too many bottles to feel good about having nice wine sitting here.” Wine writers are bound by practical considerations just as much as anyone else.

Richard Hemming’s Eurocave houses “pretty much 30 single bottles of wines from all over - Barolo, Côte-Rôtie, Port, Bordeaux, Napa Cab, Riesling from Mosel, Australia, Hermitage Blanc, Manchuela, English fizz, Swartland, Croatia, Santa Barbara Pinot Noir, Bulgaria, Croatia, Naoussa, Itata, Châteauneuf-du-Pape” and “a bottle of Sake that I don't know what to do with.” I’m sure every wine collection has such a bottle: one that you don’t want to get rid of, but whose drinking occasion never seems to arise.

Of the 1,000 or so bottles that Oz Clarke can squeeze into the old coal cellar under his stairs, at least 800 of these are also single bottles, from as far afield as Canada, Georgia and Jordan. “I don’t normally want 12 bottles of anything nowadays – too much wine, too little time!” he explains. There is one region that features particularly strongly however. “Bordeaux – partly because I like Bordeaux, it’s where I started out… And I write a book [on the region], so each year I have to buy a certain amount so I can check out how the vintages are developing.” He tips 2014 as a recent vintage that will age well thanks to its acidity and hint of underripeness.

Tim Atkin’s collection is larger still, with over 1,500 bottles kept in a Spiral Cellar at his home and a further 60 cases of fine wine in a professional storage facility. “There’s a lot of Burgundy (red and white), Barolo, German Riesling, Rioja and South African reds and whites,” he says, “but I have very broad tastes. So there’s a bit of (almost) everything in my cellar. The only thing I don’t buy are “natural” wines, although there are some Georgian Qvevri wines down there.”

An equally large but rather more esoteric cellar is owned by Olly Smith. “I have a wall of Tokaji, lashings of Greek wine, and 80% of my fizz stash is now English bubbly”, he says, not to mention “a secret Cognac hole which glows the colour of glory when it winks at me”.

John Stimpfig’s collection is rather more classic – Rhône, Loire, Burgundy, Champagne, Rioja, Italy, Australia amongst other things. “However, one of the most interesting things about it is where it is stored. I live in West Oxfordshire and don’t have a cellar. Fortunately though I have friends in the next-door village who bought the house which belonged to Edmund Penning-Rowsell which has a magnificent double cellar. And that’s where I keep most of my wine. On the door, you can still see the original labels of great Bordeaux bottles which Eddie opened and kept from the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s. Most of my wine is also red Bordeaux but not quite in the same league as EPR’s!”

One benefit of keeping a cellar is being able to mature wine in the right conditions until it’s ready to drink. Another feature of Oz Clarke’s collection is the amount of mature Australian wine it contains. “Stuff going back to the 70s,” he says, “and all in fantastic nick. The stuff from the 70s is in better nick than most of the stuff from the 90s because it wasn’t made in an overripe, high pH, residual sugar style – the style that has been the curse of fine, warm climate reds from the last 20 years and that – thank god – seems to be fading at last.” Wines like this are very difficult to find, so keeping your own cellar can be the source of rare insight into regions and styles you enjoy.

Some wine collections are built with investment and resale in mind, but that’s not the spirit of these cellars. Only one of our candid collectors even mentioned selling wine, and that was Atkin: “It’s very rare that I sell wine. And when I do, I tend to regret it, like the case of 1990 Chave I sold to buy a second-hand car.” Personally speaking, I’ve only one bottle on the market: a jeroboam of Bollinger RD 1995, which I’m hoping to sell to fund my 40th birthday party. If I can’t shift it, it will effectively become my 40th birthday party. Either way, I’m pleased it’s wine that I collect; try basing a party around a philatelist’s favourite stamp.

As for buying wine, four of our journalists are members of The Wine Society. And everyone I spoke to buys from at least a couple of different independents. Berry Bros. & Rudd got four mentions; Flint Wines got three; O.W. Loeb, two; and the following were all mentioned once: Armit, Butler's Wine Cellar, Charles Taylor Wines, Corney & Barrow, Genesis, Goedhuis, Handford Wines, Howard Ripley, Justerini & Brooks, Lea & Sandeman, Roberson, Symposium Wine, WineTrust100 and Yapp. As for brokers, Bordeaux Index and Farr Vintners were both mentioned twice. Two large chains were popular: half of our six journalists bought from Majestic and two of them from Oddbins. Supermarkets aren’t ignored either; both Aldi and Waitrose were named twice, with single mentions for Asda, the Co-Op, Lidl, Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury’s. Canny Mr Smith also buys from auction, where he recently bagged a bargain magnum of Cos d’Estournel 1982 to go with his Christmas turkey.

And what will everyone else be drinking on Christmas Day? Yet again, practical matters tend to trump personal taste. Moore is ordering in “lots of cheapish French reds which my parents love to drink… and my brother has asked me to pick a white wine that goes well with soda.” She’s sneaking in some St Cosme Côtes-du-Rhône Blanc and a bottle of St Emilion for herself though. Hemming sums it up: “Family drinking calls for value. And volume.”

Clarke will be drinking English fizz, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, “some decent Australian and Chilean and a bottle of 1982 just for the sheer joy of it” all washed down with a cleansing Asti Spumante. Stimpfig’s list is Christmas classics all the way: “I’ve got my eyes on some Gonzalez Byass Fino, vintage Taittinger for fizz, Chablis (domaine TBC) and a couple of smart Italians from Tenuta San Leonardo (2004) and Castello del Terriccio from 2001. Oh, and let’s not forget the tawny (Graham’s 20-Year-Old) and some Suduiraut 2003.”

Atkin is looking forward to choosing closer to the time. “Part of the pleasure of entertaining (not just at Christmas) is to go down into the cellar and ferret out a few bottles. It’s not quite a lucky dip, but there’s all sorts of stuff down there that I’ve forgotten about. It’s part serendipity and part impulse.” No two wine collections are the same: each is very personal. When somebody raids their cellar to share a bottle with you, you can be sure it’s not an entirely random selection. To a collector, every bottle has its own back story, and they are choosing to end that bottle’s story with you. The funny thing about a wine collection is that the real pleasure comes not in building it up, but getting together with family and friends, and, bottle by bottle, gradually depleting it.

Image © Shutterstock

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