There is a line in the hymn Amazing Grace to the effect that “I was blind, but now can see”. This rather neatly sums up the way I felt after a wine tasting a few years ago that opened my eyes to what wine was really all about. It was, literally, an epiphany. It took place in the Sussex Cellar of Berry Bros & Rudd, deep under St James’s Street in London’s West End.
This is a firm that has been supplying the finest clarets, hocks and burgundies to the gentry since 1698, and everything about it is inextricably fused with the rich history of Britain and Europe.
I was there for a corporate event and, to put the scale of my conversion into context, I have to reveal that, although I am a wine enthusiast, my wine selections tended to be entirely price-based – under £8 for a supermarket choice, and a bit of a grimace if I paid more than £20 to £30 in a restaurant. I have also been to plenty of tastings over the course of my career, but this was the first time the penny really dropped and I realised what people meant when they talked about the importance of the “terroir” – French for the land – and the complex environmental, production and storage factors that shape a classic vintage.
It was clear that Berry Bros & Rudd was no ordinary wine merchant when I arrived at its inconspicuous entrance, which backs on to Pickering Place, the smallest public square in London. It was positively Dickensian and, in fact, used to be a cockfighting and bear-baiting venue. We were led into cellars on which the firm has lavished millions – and it showed, with its glazed tiles and passage after passage of wine. The Sussex Cellar is named after the Duke of Sussex, just one of many aristocratic, and indeed royal, patrons who enjoyed an equally aristocratic tipple. The other cellars are called the Pickering, after one of the earliest antecedents of the firm, William Pickering; and the Napoleon, named after Napoleon III, who plotted his return to France in it while in exile in England between 1838 and 1848.
The wines we were offered that evening by our knowledgeable young fogey of a host were unlike anything I have ever tasted, from a 2004 Pol Roger Champagne to a deep and lush 1998 Rioja Gran Reserva at an eye-watering £115 a bottle. So it was with great delight that I was offered two bottles for this BQ Scotland article, both from the fascinating depths of the St James’s Street treasure trove.
The first was the firm’s own Champagne from the Grand Cru village of Mailly, a blend of 75% Pinot Noir and 25% Chardonnay. There is an old saying in the wine trade that a glance at the label is worth 20 years’ experience, but it really did taste of brioche and the flowers of the Montagne de Reims.
Our second bottle was a 2011 Berry Bros & Rudd Pauillac by Chateau Lynch-Bages. This comes from the Medoc peninsula, the 100 kilometres between the ocean and the Gironde estuary that is home to names such as Margaux and Mouton Rothschild.
My default position with wine is white, with an unerring inclination towards Chablis. I have been wary of reds, finding them heavy for my tastes. The Pauillac, in contrast, was smooth, intense and silky and, again, the label was spot on about blackcurrants and damsons – though I have to say the last damson I tasted was in jam.
Both wines disappeared in short order with a meal in the company of my wife and another couple, all of whom shared the revelatory aspects of the evening. As one of them said: “We really don’t even know what we don’t know”. The single complaint was that there were only two bottles.
Will it change the way I drink wine? I’m not sure. The fact that for 50 years I have been something of a philistine is not going to change overnight. I will still enjoy my chilled Chablis of a summer evening. But, given my price criteria, perhaps there is a case to be made for less but better. And if I come across anything as good as these two corkers, I will not hesitate to splash out.
Alan Gordon is a partner in the Glasgow North office of DM Hall Chartered Surveyors. Thank you to Berry Bros & Rudd for supplying the Grand Cru Champagne by Mailly (£24.25) and the 2011 Pauillac by Chateau Lynch Bages (£19.95).