If you’re looking for a reliably delicious Claret to enjoy around the Christmas table, our Own Selection Pauillac is perfect for the task. Olly Hallworth from our Buying team has a particular soft spot for it too. Here, he tells us more about one of his favourite Christmas wines.
One of my favourite things about Christmas is sharing a few bottles of something special with loved ones. Most years, my dad and I seem to find ourselves down in the cellar sorting through some of the older bottles and opening anything we fancy. “Well, it is Christmas after all,” we say, and that seems to justify opening just about any bottle in the house.
I am a huge fan of wine from all corners of the world, but there’s something about Christmas that makes me turn back to the classics. Our normal Christmas tipple will often take us through some of the most iconic regions of France, with the main attraction centred around a bottle of Christmas Claret. Other regions we sip through on the big day include Champagne, Burgundy and – if we’re feeling extra flashy – a bottle of Sauternes to finish. The only non-French bottle usually comes in the form of an old, cobwebbed bottle of Port from the cellar. Delicious!
I have an unswaying devotion to serving a showpiece Claret on Christmas Day. When there is such an abundance of fine wine from around the world to choose from, I’m often asked why I stick to France and, in particular, Bordeaux. My answer is simple. It’s the same reason I visit Borough Market every Christmas, why I buy my festive cheese from Paxton & Whitfield and why, without fail, I watch The Holiday at least three times during the Christmas period. These have all been cemented in my family’s traditions over the years. Without them, Christmas would simply not be Christmas in my household – just as it wouldn’t feel right without a bottle of Bordeaux.
With this in mind, what could be more fitting than enjoying a bottle from one of the Médoc’s most established names at your Christmas dinner table?
Where is it from?
Just north of Bordeaux lies the town of Pauillac. To the unassuming traveller, this quaint little town might not symbolise much. But for the well-versed few, Pauillac is one of the iconic postcodes in the fine wine world.
It’s difficult to mention the exceptional wines of Bordeaux without mentioning Pauillac. Hosting three of the five First Growths, and just under a third of all Grands Crus Classés of the 1855 classification, it’s always been a leading light in the world of fine wine.
This year, we have continued our long-standing partnership with Château Lynch Bages in Pauillac. It has officially been a part of the Cazes family since 1939. The property has always had a strong following; today, thanks to the hard work and innovation of the owners, it’s one of the most respected estates in the Médoc and a reference point for Pauillac.
Perfect for the season
There is a lot to like about this 2020 Own Selection cuvée. The nose is very pretty and perfumed, with a brooding mixture of cassis, blackcurrant, and wild cherries. The palate is incredibly generous, layered with unctuous dark berries, cedar and vanilla, thanks to some time spent in oak. The fruit here is mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, but with an important supporting role played by Merlot, delivering a wonderful plumpness to the palate. It’s elegant, rich and approachable even now. It’s certainly one of my go-to reds for autumn and winter – the perfect wine to curl up with in front of a crackling fire.
It’s also incredibly versatile. It’s very well structured with smooth tannins and plenty of fruit there too. Broadly speaking, it will work with most festive centrepieces. I’m personally looking forward to enjoying this with a stuffed saddle of venison or game.
As we celebrate our 325th anniversary this year, we’ve been looking at what has changed in those three centuries. Examining various parts of our business, we explore how things are different now and what we might see in the future.In the final part of this series, Edwin Dublin, Manager of our London Shop takes us behind the scenes of Christmas at Berry Bros. & Rudd.
I have worked at Berry Bros. & Rudd for over 18 years, latterly as Manager of our London Shop. It is a fascinating privilege to be part of and observe how Christmas in the shop has changed over the years but somehow remained the same. No matter how frenetic it gets, we strive to provide the best service possible to those who come through our doors.
Each year, our regular customers come to make their annual, special purchases for Christmas – whether for themselves or as gifts for colleagues, friends or family to enjoy over the festive season, or to lay down for future Christmases. We also have many customers, some even from overseas, who make a pilgrimage here only once a year for their Christmas bottles, knowing we will guide them to just the right thing. Seeing these familiar faces acts as a festive bookmark for me – “Ah, Mr X is here, Christmas has now begun”.
Christmas is all about traditions and we have plenty in our London Shop. Colleagues from across the company have, for many years, descended to help us restock shelves, prepare collection orders and advise customers. In more recent years, they have also served mince pies made by our in-house chefs with The King’s Ginger. We will be serving these again this year and hope you will join us.
Christmas is a very busy time and I have memories of customers queueing out of the door in previous years. Our Christmas tree adds yet more Dickensian magic to the shop, often with bags of The King’s Ginger bottles underneath, ready-wrapped to speed up time at the tills.
In our smaller, former shop space around the corner at No.3 St James’s Street, with fewer bottles on display, shop staff could be seen speeding up and down the stairs (careful on that narrow staircase!) and through the cellars in search of bottles for customers. Thankfully, they didn’t have to run the whole two acres of our cellars. There was perhaps enough time to sneak in a Quality Street or similar confectionery for sustenance as they passed the Cellar Office. While we have more space in our shop at 63 Pall Mall, our forays to the cellars are still made today.
Amid this bustle, the London Shop team has long gathered after hours for a little downtime. The penultimate Saturday before Christmas is Secret Santa time. We share thoughts from the day’s business, often paired with bottles from our own collective cellars. We’ll gather again on Christmas Eve, or the last trading day before Christmas, for a final glass of something before we head our separate ways for the holiday.
Over 325 years, Berry Bros. & Rudd has traded through some tumultuous times, but we have never let this dim the magic of Christmas. Helping our customers source the right bottles for themselves, family or friends is something I’m sure we’ll continue to do for a long time to come.
Rebecca Lamont has long had a penchant for the beautifully rich, silky wines of Ribera del Duero, a region located just south-west of Rioja in Northern Spain. It’s far lesser known than its famous neighbour, yet it produces powerful, long-lived wines of equally astonishing quality. Here, Rebecca tells us more about why these wines should be on your table this Christmas.
How fast can you say the words Ribera del Duero? Go on, have a go. My friend Amelia can say these words quicker than a stork can snatch your sandwich. Her father Amalio founded the Cillar de Silos winery in Ribera del Duero. Today, Amelia is at the helm along with her brothers Roberto and Oscar. When we attended Oscar’s wedding, all his wines were on tap including the 2019 Torresilo. It went deliciously with everything: local suckling lamb, spicy beef, an enormous paella with jumbo gambas and Galician octopus. Perfect for joyous celebrations.
The idea of celebrating with Ribera del Duero runs deep in my heart. The signature red wine made is just right. It is elegant, rich, smooth and age-worthy, made from Tempranillo juice that’s then matured in French toasty oak barrels. It’s also a style of wine that’s incredibly food friendly. These wines are structured like Bordeaux, but a touch richer; perfumed like Burgundy, but a touch more brooding; smooth like Rioja, but a touch sultrier. There is something to please everyone.
Come Christmas Day, we will be on a Caribbean beach drinking Foursquare Spiced Rum. So, to please our clan, we’re celebrating Christmas a week early. On our equivalent of Christmas Eve, we’ll be tucking into a clove-and-clementine-studded gammon. I just know this silky, juicy Ribera del Duero from Bodegas y Viñedos Alnardo will be absolutely perfect. The dense fruit will act as a sauce and will effortlessly cope with the spice. It also offers fantastic value, especially from a winemaker as lauded as Peter Sisseck.
For the main event – Christmas Day itself – I’m after a particularly praiseworthy vinous pleasure. And I’m asking myself, will I finally open my cherished bottle of 1981 Vega Sicilia? It’s the best wine I have ever tasted. When I took my first sip back in 2001, I was flabbergasted that a wine could taste like this: smooth, rich, deep, luxuriating in a weave of spices; spiralling patterns of tobacco, cedar, toast, and sonorous dark fruit. Extremely nuanced, it was my first real wine love. My Mum bought me this bottle for the following Christmas – it’s very special and I don’t want to let it go. I still haven’t opened it.
Have you also got a bottle tucked away with a special sentiment attached? Mine is now 42 years old and it will be a miracle with our roast turkey – but I may chicken out and say let’s save it so I can keep the memory going. In that event, I’ll have this 2019 bottle from Bodegas Alión instead – a dark, silky stallion that’ll bring appreciative oohs and aahs alongside the fun and the goodies, I’ll bet.
So, within the context of our premium region, there is much to adore and understand. I suggest you put Ribera del Duero on your travel wish list in 2024. We stayed in Amelia’s local town, Lerma, in the former 17th-century ducal home, now Parador De Lerma Burgos, complete with a stork in the tower. It was amazing. It has a magnificent position at the head of the square, which is vast for the size of the town. Seek out Asador Casa Antón, tucked away at the other end of the square. It’s one of those unique family restaurants going back generations – the sort that you dream of, with the best local specialities.
We had travelled to Lerma from Llanes, in the northerly green part of Spain. We left early and drove up through the whopping Picos Europa Mountains, reaching 850 metres altitude. Suddenly, it’s like stepping into a new world the other side: bright blue skies, honey brown earth, arid scrublands of wild thyme, chamomile, lavender and fennel, their perfume wafting amid the dust whipped up by car tires. No wonder the grapes are ripe with aromatic complexity. The grapes are getting the chance to cool down at night under the starry evenings, even in August. Spot the signature zarceras – traditional stone wind vents poking out from the ground – dotted all about the landscape. They’re especially present at Cillar de Silos, resembling giant beehives that belie underground cave networks where wine was often fermented. Yes, adventure and investigation beckons.
And when I next see you and you tell me which wine you chose for Christmas – the first thing we are going to find out is who can say Ribera del Duero faster, without sounding like we enjoyed a glass too many.
Earlier this year, we visited Islay in the Inner Hebrides. Here, the spirits are peat-smoked, taking on deliciously pungent flavours that are proving increasingly popular among whisky-drinkers. Islay’s star is firmly on the rise – but what do the locals think about it all?
Reaching the remote shores of Islay, for many whisky-lovers, is a pilgrimage. Peat smoke, moss, seaweed, iodine and brine; for those with a taste for it, nothing beats Islay’s distinctively pungent whiskies.
We take off from Glasgow in a plane so small it feels like a bus with wings. With a view straight down the aisle into the cockpit, we watch as the captain pulls a couple of levers from the ceiling – and just like that, we’re up into the air. Despite its romance, there is something disconcerting about being able to see the captain’s every move, or feeling every tremor of wind. I try not to think about it, turning my gaze to the spectacular views outside the window.
The skies are soft and pink with dusk, and Islay’s dark, craggy shores are sketched out against the deep blues of the Sea of the Hebrides. Someone points out Ardbeg distillery, a cluster of white-washed buildings with pagoda chimneys, perched on the wild, windswept coast. A young moon hangs in the sky, and Venus shines diamond-like beside it. Tomorrow, our adventure on Islay properly begins.
Business is booming
The rhythm of Islay takes a slower pace. We begin our day at the Carraig Fhada lighthouse just outside Port Ellen – the second biggest town on Islay after Bowmore. The chimneys of Diageo’s Global Supply are smoking across the water; a few years ago, the multinational company announced that it would be reopening Port Ellen distillery.
One of Islay’s best-known names, Port Ellen closed its doors in 1983 when the whisky market crashed. It’s scheduled to reopen in 2024, alongside three other distilleries: Port Charlotte, Portintruan and Laggan Bay. In just over a year, that will bring the total number of distilleries on Islay to 13.
Business is booming. The whisky industry is the largest employer on the island, simultaneously fuelling the growth of the tourism and hospitality industries. In the summer, the island’s population of 3,200 will swell with 80,000 visitors. Islay is particularly busy during Fèis Ìle, the annual whisky festival held in the last week of May.
But right now, in late February, the island is at peace. The locals are readying themselves for the start of a new season.
From blends to single malts
It’s 9am and we’re at Bowmore, Islay’s oldest distillery. David Turner, the distillery manager, welcomes us with a dram of an exclusive 1996 Bowmore ex-Sherry cask. It’s a fine way to start the morning, and more bracing than a coffee.
He gazes out of the window to the sea. “April to October, that used to be the tourist season here. Now it’s more like mid-February to December,” he says. “I’ve been here since the 1990s. When I started, there was just one person working full-time in the distillery. Now, we have a team of 13.”
David, like many of the other people we will speak to, is from Port Ellen. “Islay born and bred,” he says proudly. How has the island changed over his lifetime?
“Oh, it’s totally different. There are opportunities now. Whisky has made it possible for young people to stay on the island. In the past, the whisky industry was old men making whisky for old men. Now, it’s wide open. You get young people coming here, just as many women as men, from all around the world. It’s completely changed.”
David explains that 30 years ago, Bowmore was making whisky mostly destined for blends. But the emergence of the single malt category saved Islay. It gave the distilleries a sense of identity, and located them within the wider context of Islay’s peated expressions. This is what gave people a reason to visit them, fuelling the exponential rise of tourism.
For David, it’s a welcome development. “The future looks good,” he nods, still looking out to sea. “Aye, the future looks good.”
Earth and smoke
A huge part of Islay’s success is the distinctive character of its whiskies: pungent, flavourful and peat-smoked. Peat is soil made up of fossilised plant matter – an early stage of coalification. On Islay, this is mostly heather, moss and seaweed that has decomposed for thousands of years.
The peat is cut from around two metres deep, where it is more moist and flavourful. The deeper you go, the harder and denser it gets, and the more it burns like coal – making it a traditional alternative to firewood on the island. But distillers are after smoke, not heat. A cool fire with moist peat is ideal, and releases the most flavour.
Slabs of peat are loaded into a furnace, to which wood and paper are added to get a fire started. The smoke rises up a chimney, filling a large kiln-room laid out with malted, slightly damp, barley. The smoke coats the barley, imbuing it with that all-important profile that has become so synonymous with Islay.
It’s easy to think of Islay as uniform in its smoke, but across the island, there are subtle yet important distinctions. Along the south coast, Laphroaig, Ardbeg and Lagavulin present their smoke up-front. These are punchy drams: one sip, and the smoke hits you instantly, thick and oily. Further north, the peat influence emerges more softly: a hint of caramel, a touch of spice, then that beguiling wisp of smoke.
Here, in the north-west of the island, Bruichladdich produce a range of different whiskies varying in peat intensity, one of which isn’t peated at all.
“I think there’s sometimes this misconception that Islay whisky is all smoke and nothing else,” says Frazer Matthews, Bruichladdich’s Brand Ambassador, as he guides us around the Victorian distillery. “But the range of flavours on Islay is massive.”
A core part of Bruichladdich’s philosophy is focused on the grain itself – which is where the question of Islay-grown barley comes into focus. Bruichladdich work with 20 farmers around the island, who provide them with home-grown barley and allow them to speak proudly of supporting local agriculture, which, alongside hospitality, is the other major employer on Islay.
Home is where the heart is
Just up the road from Bruichladdich, we head next to Kilchoman for lunch. Founded by Anthony and Kathy Wills in 2005, Kilchoman was the first new distillery to be built on Islay in over a century. Unlike many of its neighbours, Kilchoman remains independent, championing a farm-to-bottle philosophy. The couple are very much involved in the day-to-day running of the distillery, alongside their three sons and a wider team.
We’re guided around the distillery by Kirsteen Turner; after living in South Africa for 30 years, she returned to her home island last year. The allure of Islay was too strong to resist. She tells me she would have returned earlier if it hadn’t been for the pandemic. “Home is where the heart is,” she says with a smile.
Robin Bignal, Kilchoman’s Production Manager, comes out to meet us. He explains that the Kilchoman philosophy is all about doing everything on site: growing the barley, malting, peating, bottling. Islay is on the goose migration path, so the barley is planted once the geese have departed in spring, left to ripen through the summer and harvested in autumn.
These are the grains that go into Kilchoman’s 100% Islay bottling – the embodiment of the Wills philosophy. The jewel in their crown, they’re keen for us to taste it before we leave. It’s just the thing to warm us up, before we continue our whisky journey on the other side of the island.
The whisky loch
Despite Islay’s huge success, a few of the people I speak to express a sense of caution. It’s clear that memories of the whisky crash of the 1980s – “the whisky loch” – are still very much alive.
A move away from peated whiskies resulted in the closures of Ardbeg, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain and Port Ellen distilleries, and the loss was keenly felt. Resulting in unemployment across the island, it’s little wonder that some are cautious about the seemingly unstoppable boom that’s taken Islay by storm.
Infrastructure is a topic that comes up again and again. “The transport’s just not equipped for this constant demand,” says Robin. “The ferries are really struggling at the moment. There’s a lot of pressure on companies to get produce on and off the island, just to meet demand, yet things keep booming. And you’re just wondering… when it’s all going to crash?”
The Islay wave
It’s a 40-minute drive across the island to Laphroaig – our final distillery visit. Outside the window, the sea sparkles in the late afternoon sun, as we sit down for a dram with Barry Macaffer, Laphroaig’s Distillery Manager. Barry’s connection to Laphroaig spans generations: his grandfather was born on the very site where the distillery now sits, and various members of his family have also worked here.
“I’m grateful that the generations that came before me preserved the distilleries and protected the island’s traditions, because we wouldn’t be where we are now without them,” he reflects. “Now, we must do the same for future generations.”
As Islay continues to grow and attract more visitors, the challenge, Barry says, is to meet the demand while “keeping it Islay”. The conversation turns to the topic of the “Islay wave”. If you ever drive around Islay, you’ll notice people waving at you in the car as they pass – an automatic hand raised in greeting. We even had a few waves from pedestrians as we drove by.
“It comes from the days when everyone knew each other,” says Barry, with noticeable pride. “The car you were passing was guaranteed to be driven by someone you knew. Nowadays, it’s a local custom, an old habit. But that’s the Islay way.”
If you saw a stranger lost in the street, you’d invite them in for a glass of whisky. “What would my mother say if I let you leave without a dram?!”
A tale of community
Today, the story of Islay is one of huge successes. But beneath the surface, it’s a tale of community: local people brought together by the craft of whisky-making.
Even to an outsider, the deep connections across the island are obvious. On the face of it, you might think the nine distilleries on Islay are natural competitors – but when you speak to the people who work there, they tell you about an aunt who works at X distillery, a partner who works at Y. They speak of collective memories and generational knowledge, pulling on threads across time.
The ongoing whisky boom is driving growth and employment, creating new opportunities and giving young people a reason to build careers on the island – and that is undoubtedly something worth celebrating. Can Islay continue to flourish while holding onto its unique character?
“We must protect what makes Islay Islay,” says Barry, as we finish our drams. “Little things like the Islay wave – we must never lose that. Oh, and adding whisky to your porridge.”
This article was originally written for the 2023 commemorative edition of our No.3 magazine, exploring the theme of “generations”. It has been edited for the blog. You can read the article in full in our digital magazine here