Meeting Bibi Graetz

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This month, we announced our exclusive partnership with Bibi Graetz. During his latest visit to No.3 St James’s Street, we caught up with Bibi on his latest experiments, the power of terroir, and his legacy of turning Tuscany on its head. 

Bibi Graetz is far from your standard Tuscan winemaker. Since founding his eponymous winery in 2000, he’s chosen to defy the trends of the region: you won’t find a Chianti or a Super Tuscan here. Rather, he has become a champion of Tuscany’s old vines, native grapes, and lesser-known terroirs.   

Bibi was one of the first in the region to focus on fresher, elegant styles of Tuscan wine. These styles are now as intrinsic to the Bibi Graetz name as the labels that emblazon each of his bottles. Colourful, vibrant and playful, they mirror Bibi himself, who is almost as well-known today for his eccentric, creative personality as he is for his wines. 

An unusual history  

It’s often the case that an artist, in following creative pursuits, defies what’s expected of them by their peers. As with everything else, Bibi turned this trope on its head.  

“My family is a family of artists,” he says. “My grandfather was an artist, my father’s an artist.” Bibi’s beginnings did lie in art; he studied at Florence’s Accademia d’Arte. “But I never became a professional. In all my life, I’ve been painting, and I never sold one piece.” He smiles while remembering. “I was jealous, and kept them to myself.” 

Instead, he found winemaking a more amenable way to share his artistic talent with the world. . “I’m a winemaker, but I’ve never opened a book of oenology,” he continues. “I do wines like a painting.” He, with his team, spends months at the blending table each year, meticulously mixing and layering his wines, like he would a painting. “It’s very precise work, very focused on quality.”  

How did a budding artist come to realise his future lay in wine? “I never thought of being a winemaker, until the day I decided. If you would have asked me a few days before that, I would have thought that you were crazy. But then, I went to visit a winery.” 

It was Bibi’s first glimpse of what happens ‘behind the scenes’. His childhood home near Florence had had its own vineyard, but his experience with it had been limited to “playing around” on a tractor, while his mother managed things. The winery visit opened his eyes. “I totally lost it. I fell completely in love with it. In just one day, I decided I would become a winemaker.”  

Leaving Chianti behind 

Bibi started his search for suitable vineyards in 2000. “I fell in love with the idea of making wine from old vines right at the beginning,” he says. “It’s one of the key things in my work.”  This love, at the time, was unique – Tuscany was still gripped with a “Super Tuscan fever”.  

“Everybody was talking about new clones, about Cabernet, Merlot, high-density vineyards,” he says. “I didn’t know what the hell clones were, and there were no high-density old vines. But by chance, I fell in love with it.”  

The old vines Bibi acquired weren’t the popular Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, but old Tuscan varieties, which dominate production at his winery to this day. He lists them as we speak: Sangiovese, which Bibi calls the “King of Tuscany”, Canaiolo, Colorino, Ansonica. Almost as if by fate, the areas in which these flourished were the sites that Bibi was keenest to spend his time in. 

“My fear, when I started doing wine, was that I would be stuck in Florence, when I was in love with the sea and in love with the mountains,” he says. His discovery of old Ansonica vines in Giglio, a tiny island off the Tuscan coast, placed Bibi firmly by the sea and rectified one half of this problem. He located the solution to the other half in Fiesole, closer to home – quite by chance. 

“We bought this land behind Fiesole, for the new winery, and discovered this new terroir afterwards. Behind it, we found this hill that goes up, with all these paths, and grass, and cows – it gave me a feeling of the Alps.” His eyes brighten as he talks; it’s clear that this place holds a very special place in his heart. “There’s an incredible terroir there: really fresh, always windy. You feel like you’re in the mountains. Well, there’s no snow.” But he’s got a solution in mind for that, too. “Maybe one day I’ll do a Champagne in Norway.”  

The Bibi Graetz style  

The winds, altitude and coastal influences provided Bibi with cooler vines, helping him craft something quite different: “acidic, and transparent, but with such an incredible energy and freshness.”  Yet this style, now a hallmark of his brand, came about by accident.  

“In 2009, we had a very weak vintage in Tuscany,” he reminisces. “And I realised I’d made this different style of wine – it was really fresh, very Burgundian in style. People loved it.” Now, he considers this fresh character one of the “four elements” of his winemaking, alongside old vines, his unique sites, and – linking back to his roots – his art.  

“When I started to do my wine, I actually felt that I should paint my labels by myself.” Each of his bottles’ colourful labels is a Graetz original – he’s encouraged the rest of his artistic family to get involved, too. “Sometimes my children also paint the labels. It’s an ‘all in-house’ kind of thing.”   

A playful future for Bibi Graetz

The latest of these labels can be seen on Bibi’s Casamatta wines, newly redesigned this year. These are wines that, in Bibi’s opinion, perfectly encapsulate the terroirs of Giglio and Fiesole. Yet it’s when we discuss his latest project that he really lights up with excitement.  

In 2020, Bibi turned his back on his blending table for a new experiment. “I called it ‘Balocchi’,” he explains. “Balocchi means toys, the toys of Bibi Graetz!” He began to play with the grapes he had to hand, rather than consigning them all to his famous blends. 

“Testamatta and Colore [Bibi’s flagship wines] have many vineyards, many different plots, that we keep separate. And every time with these, you feel like – ‘wow, I would like to make this wine by itself. It’s so good!’” His first single-varietal wine was the Balocchi Cannaiolo, followed swiftly by a  Sangiovese, then a Colorino. Now, he’s pushed boundaries again, releasing his first ever wine from one of Bordeaux’s famous varieties: the Balocchi Cabernet Franc. 

He loops back to Fiesole. “In this vineyard, we found just a few rows of Cabernet Franc, a few rows of Cabernet Sauvignon, a few rows of Merlot – but really, two rows each, you’re talking about a tiny, tiny, tiny production.”  

It won’t be his last venture into new varieties: a Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are soon to follow, he says. It’s clear that he has no intentions of resting on his laurels just yet. Whatever comes next, it’s certain, will be as playful and unique as the rest of his wines – all of which, Bibi describes happily, as “very, very fun.”

Bibi Graetz’s wines are available to buy now on bbr.com. If you want to find out more about our Italian wine offering, browse our past articles here.

Category: Italian Wine

The faces of BBX: Ben Chan

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You might think that BBX is all about hard data, facts and figures. But behind our industry-leading fine wine exchange, there’s a team of passionate wine experts. Each is dedicated to helping people manage their cellars and, ultimately, drink better. Here, we meet Ben Chan, Senior BBX Wine Specialist. 

Ben joined our BBX team last year, bringing with him many years of varied experience in wine. He started out in retail while studying oenology before moving into winemaking and harvest work – across his native Australia as well as Austria and Chablis, France.

Most of my winemaking experience was at Philip Shaw Wines in the cool-climate region of Orange, New South Wales. Philip was a great mentor, and we made elegant wines from international grape varieties.

Whilst I enjoy most wine styles, I think white wines can really express themselves. I saw this firsthand at Skillogalee in the Clare Valley, Château de Béru in Chablis and Salomon Undhof in Kremstal, Austria. I find Grüner Veltliner particularly interesting as it can be made in various styles, from light and fresh to powerful and hedonistic.”

After relocating to the UK, Ben worked as a sommelier at Michelin-starred restaurant Hakkasan in Mayfair.

My time working the floor at Hakkasan gave me a crash course in the world of fine wine. I quickly learnt that while I knew how to make wine, there were so many global producers that I needed to know. I was lucky to be able to taste many of the classics.”

Ben then moved into wine education as a leader examiner at the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET). He is also a wine judge at the Decanter World Wine Awards and the International Wine Challenge. If that weren’t quite enough, he is currently working on his research paper for the final stage of the Master of Wine (MW) qualification. But education doesn’t stop in the classroom or the exam hall: Ben fondly recalls visiting some of the world’s great winemakers.

Promontory in the Napa Valley was one winery visit that has left a lasting impression on me. The vineyard is high up in a secluded forest, and the cellar could be considered a work of art. The Harlan family’s dedication and precision were clear to see – and showed in the wines. It is truly a special place.

Then there’s Gaja in Piedmont. I visited in spring and the vineyard was full of life. It was great to see them using cover crops and beneficial insects and birds instead of chemicals. This is better for both the vineyard workers and the planet. And their Barbaresco is sensational.

And I won’t forget Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos in the Douro Valley. After a long day of visits and MW-student masterclasses, it doesn’t get much better than sipping on white Port and tonic at sunset.”

Ben and the rest of our team draw upon their knowledge and experience to assist our customers with managing their cellars and BBX listings. If you have any questions or would like a valuation of your cellar, please don’t hesitate to email us at bbx@bbr.com. 

Category: Miscellaneous

Our menus through time

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Berry Bros. & Rudd has hosted guests at No.3 St James’s Street for centuries. With a sample of menus from the 1930s, here we examine the food and the wines in our menus through time.

If you have ever visited the guest lavatories at No.3 St James’s Street, you might have spotted the unique wallpaper. Printed with some of our menus from the 1930s, it’s a wonderful read. With examples from our archives in Basingstoke, I compared these old menus with today’s offerings. What changes have we seen in the food and drink we serve? What can we learn from how we used to do things? And what, if anything, does this tell us about the time now immortalised on those walls?

Apéritif

We start, as any fine dining event should, with the apéritif. Derived from the Latin “aperire” (to open), the apéritif stimulates your appetite without dulling your palate. In the modern era, it also slows proceedings, removing the urgency to eat – a by-product of our instant and on-demand society.

Our 1930s menus offer Amontillado Sherry, Calmet Blanc (presumably referencing Domaine Calmet in Gaillac, South-West France) and still, as opposed to sparkling, white Champagne. Sparkling Champagne does make an appearance – its acidity and bubbles awaken the palate and olfactory system. It is still a regular on our dining menus but often gives way to English sparkling wine. It is the revitalising acidity and citrus notes of English sparkling wine which make it an equally popular, pre-prandial snifter.

Starter

Offered from the 1930s are such delights as boiled turbot, fried sole and pâté. Not much here looks unusual. Then comes the turtle soup – just what it says on the tin and, apparently, available in tinned form. This thick soup was made with turtle meat and is still a delicacy in some cultures. Here in the UK, its popularity peaked in the mid-1700s after being introduced by British sailors returning from the Caribbean. The chelonian hordes were kept alive on board and eaten as an alternative to fish. Any which made it back to Britain were in supremely low numbers so naturally, their popularity (and price) increased.

As the soup trade almost hunted turtles to extinction, “mock turtle” soup then became very popular in the Victorian period. The turtle was replaced with other gelatinous meats such as calf’s head and feet. In the spirit of sustainability and using the whole animal, perhaps the mock incarnation of this soup could make a comeback to the dining tables of No.3.

Today, our starters cover all tastes and desires – from warming, comfort-food classics like crunchy mac and cheese with porcini cream, to more complex offerings like seared pavé of brill with Devon crab tortellini. One thing our dishes have in common today is they are seasonal. Working with ingredients produced close to home reduces food miles and, in turn, offers a more authentic dining experience. I can’t remember there being a major turtle population in the Thames so to paraphrase Basil Fawlty, “Turtle’s off”.

The wallpaper of old menus at No.3 St James’s Street.

Main course

Delving into our main dishes of the past offers an array of meats from closer to our London home than turtle. Sirloin of beef with French beans and potatoes, for one. With lightly marbled, succulent flesh, sirloin is a traditional Sunday roast cut and delightfully rich in flavour. Our chef in the 1930s knew the sirloin was the star here, choosing to pair it with delicious but simple vegetables.

Our variety of side dishes today is much more complex. Gone are simple presentations of Brussels sprouts and boiled potatoes. In come Rossini potatoes and chervil root. The saddle of lamb with peas and new potatoes in the early 20th century becomes a roast saddle and osso buco of lamb with ewes’ curd, greens and radish in a menu from 2021.

Whether you believe in the science (or art) of food and wine pairing or not, it is something we’ve always paid attention to. Our historic menus are replete with incredible-sounding vintages from between the wars, now most likely considered special for their rarity rather than actual quality. A 1934 Pouilly-sur-Loire must have made a marvellous companion to a boiled fillet of sole with mushroom sauce. The 1917 “Château Brown Cantenac” [Château Cantenac Brown], a light and elegant Bordeaux red was, I’m sure, perfectly suited to the lighter game meat of roast partridge with peas and roast potatoes.

Cheese and pudding

Like the Champagne apéritif, the cheese and sweet courses have also stood the test of time. Our historic menus list cheeseboards served with pâté de foie-gras and, rather interestingly, Stilton cheese alone. This seemed very popular and suggests French cheeses were not yet so “en vogue”.

Blue cheeses are a particular delight when enjoyed with Cognac or sweet wine, both appearing on these old menus. Historical diners at No.3 would have been treated to such special bottlings as 1848 Grande Champagne des Héritiers. This Cognac’s layered complexity and sugared-nut notes would have been heavenly with the flavours and texture of a stout, savoury Stilton. Or, enjoyed as a digestif (from the Latin “digerere” meaning “to separate”) once dining had concluded.

A note here on matching Cognacs with cheese. The light, fruity and slightly floral notes of a young Cognac will pair with a fresh, creamy and slightly fruity cheese. Meanwhile the deeper, rancio flavours of an aged Cognac are best suited with the sweeter, nutty and savoury notes of an aged Gouda or slightly smoky Lincolnshire Poacher.

Muscat Précieux appeared as a regular partner to these later courses. “Précieux” is, presumably, a reference to the great sweet Muscats of southern France, though we can’t find reference to this term elsewhere. The sweet, floral, grapey notes of Muscat have made it a popular pudding wine, particularly those from the Australian town of Rutherglen in Victoria.

Those of us with a sweet tooth may be saddened to discover that our 1930s menus only refer to the sweet course as “Dessert”. No details are given as to flavour, format or filling. Our selection of puddings today covers simple classics like blackberry and apple crumble with cinnamon custard to more adventurous fare like raspberry and white chocolate delice with peaches and Melba sauce – named for Dame Nellie Melba, herself a regular visitor to No.3.

Coffee and…

As dinner guests begin to tire and digestive lethargy kicks in, coffee is served. Our patrons from days gone by wouldn’t look askance at this but we might be surprised to see cigars concluding the dining and cigarettes concluding the wine list. Today, we prefer our coffee with chocolates. We also offer tea.

While coffee with a cigarette and turtle soup have fallen from favour, not much has drastically changed in the dining spaces of Berry Bros. & Rudd. Bordeaux and Burgundy still grace our wine lists but now they jostle for position with Californian Pinot Noirs and Alsatian Rieslings. Which wines and food the next century will bring to the menus of our event spaces, I can’t say but I know it will be delightful and they will be eminently well-matched. 

To find out more about our range of events, including lunches and dinners, at Berry Bros. & Rudd, click here.

Category: Food & Wine,History,Miscellaneous

A beautifully complex Guyana rum

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This spring, we’re turning the spotlight onto a handful of our Own Selection bottles that are perfect for seasonal sipping. In this short audio clip, George Turner – Manager of our Spirits Shop – tells us more about one of his favourite spirits: the 2009 Guyana Rum.

2009 El Dorado, Berry Bros. & Rudd Exclusive Cask, 13-Year-Old Guyana Rum

“I’ve always had a fondness for rum, ever since I was young and my grandfather used to whip up wild tales of pirates – often centred around a bottle of rum. So this was nostalgia in a glass, with lashings of sweet sticky banana, chocolate-covered dates, dark honeyed sugar, orange peel and candied ginger. An exquisite rum.”

The 2009 Guyana Rum is available to buy here

While you’re here: we’re always looking for new ways to improve our audio, so we’d love to hear your thoughts in this very quick survey

Category: Miscellaneous