Every year for the last 20 years, I have, on 1 January, catalogued my cellar. Throughout the year, I cross out wines as they are opened, keeping a little tasting book, and I add new wines to the list as they arrive. At the end of each year I then re-do the list.
With time on my hands during lockdown, I had a chance to cross-check everything, bottle by bottle. It transpired that some had mysteriously gone missing, while others had appeared as if from nowhere. As of 1 May I have 2,988 bottles, of which 90% is European. Of this, around 70% is French, and of that, 40% is Bordeaux. I’m very conscious that I’ve got far too much claret (even after selling £10,000 worth of wine in January, nearly half of which was claret). There are about 770 bottles of Bordeaux and if I had 100 I’d be happy. But it just keeps building up.
Still, I’m pleased to report that the cellar is currently depleting at the rate of two bottles a day. In lockdown, I have a glass of Fino or Manzanilla and another glass of something at lunchtime and then we open a serious bottle of white and a serious bottle of red for the evening (my wife Bella, who hasn’t had a drink all day, starts at six with a glass of one of her ‘house whites’). Around 7pm we’ll have a couple of glasses of white, and then three or four of red. By the end of the night, the red bottle is always empty but there will be a bit left in the white. So we take it easy – this is over the course of the whole evening, after all (I remember once telling a conference in Seattle that I drink a bottle and a half a day. There was an audible intake of breath).
Each and every bottle I’m opening at the moment comes with a memory. Even before knowing how long lockdown would last, I decided to go off-piste for evening reds, opening bottles that had been long forgotten. First up were the last of three 2001s from the Douro: the Prats-Symington Chryseia – only the second vintage; Dirk von Niepoort’s Redoma (still full of briary energy); and Quinta do Vale Meão, my favourite of the three.
Each and every bottle I’m opening at the moment comes with a memory
Then it was time for a tribute. I was sad to learn that Carlos Falcó, Marqués de Griñón, founder of Grandes Pagos de España, the single estate vineyards that brought justified attention to wines from all over Spain, had died from coronavirus aged 83. I decided in his honour to open a 2000 Syrah from his Dominio de Valdepusa estate near Toledo. My Spanish wine rack reminded me of several old vintages of Rioja Gran Reserva from Marqués de Cáceres, so on alternate evenings I opened the 1998 and 1991 (all these wines were decanted, by the way). Classic Rioja in all its mature glory.
Next came Hungary, from Domaine Mondivin in Villany, co-founded by Belgian wine merchant Eric Sauter, my colleague at the Académie Internationale du Vin. Villány-Cabernet Franc (it now has its own appellation) is the most highly-regarded red wine in Hungary. I went first for the 2000, a superbly elegant expression of the grape with not a hint of exaggeration. Then the 1996, the Domaine’s third vintage but from 35-year-old vines, still youthful and claret-like.
Of course France can’t be ignored and my last bottle of Dominique Lafon’s Volnay-Santenots du Milieu 1999 was sumptuous. Château Angludet 1996 punched as usual above its weight as a Margaux Cru Bourgeois, while the Cote-Rotie Seigneur de Maugiron 1999 Delas confirmed the greatness of both wine and vintage.
Then I moved to Tuscany for more 1999s – two wines from Fèlsina Berardenga, Giuseppe Mazzocolin’s Chianti Classico estate overlooking Siena. His single vineyard Rancio Riserva was superbly expressive, while his flagship Fontarello was still earthily intense, both with a few years in front of them. Then south to Montalcino for three 1999 Brunellos: Tenuta Emilio Nardi, one of the most northern vineyards in the DOCG, La Gerla, and Casanova di Neri.
A break for Champagne (my cellar averages 10˚C over the year, which proves an excellent temperature for allowing Champagnes like Cuvée William Deutz 1999 to fully mature). Then I nipped to the southern hemisphere: South Africa for Rustenberg’s founder Peter Barlow Cabernet Sauvignon 1999, and a leap to Tasmania for Pipers Brook Opimian 1997; then Pipers’ owner Andrew Pirie’s Bordeaux blend, which at 12% abv was firmly in the claret style. Bella loved it. Even better in the same style was Cullen Diana Madeline 2001 from Margaret River. We had met Vanya Cullen’s strikingly elegant mother at the estate a few months before she died and this vintage was the first of many to carry her name.
In lockdown, we’re all reconstructing our values, realising what we want out of life, and what we don’t
Finally, it was time for the Americas, starting with my close friend Jose-Manuel Ortega-Fournier’s Alfa Crux 2004, a superb Malbec from his ground-breaking winery, now sadly sold, high up in Mendoza’s Uco Valley. Vinedo Chadwick 2005 raised Cabernet Sauvignon, planted by Eduardo Chadwick on his late father’s polo field, to new heights, while Seña 1996, Cabernet with 9% Carménère, only the second vintage made by Eduardo and Robert Mondavi, blossomed with warmth and depth over two hours in the decanter. And lastly, Saint-Supéry’s Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 1989 proved that you can wait for Napa Cabs as long as you like and they won’t disappoint.
In lockdown, without even trying, we’re all reconstructing our values, realising what we want out of life, and what we don’t. Bella and I are very lucky – we have a lovely house and garden, and a wonderful vineyard, and we get on very well. I’ve lived my life and now I’m doing what I’ve always done, but in slow motion. It is very sad that our children and grandchildren are in London, but we hope they will all be here before too long. Apart from that, lockdown doesn’t bother me at all. It may even give me more time to work on reducing that Bordeaux collection. As my late friend Michael Broadbent said, “One always comes back to claret.”