In this series, Mark Pardoe MW provides insight into how Bordeaux’s key communes fared in 2020. Here, our Wine Director looks at St Julien, based on a conversation with Jean-Michel Laporte of Ch. Talbot.
At a glance: St Julien in 2020
Hectares under vine: 910
Average yield: 34hl/ha in 2020 (46hl/h in ’19); down 26%
To better understand St Julien in 2020, I spoke with Jean-Michel Laporte of Ch. Talbot. The start of the year was difficult here due to the very wet conditions, causing the new leaves to yellow. Although the weather around the flowering of the Cabernet Sauvignon seemed ideal, the vines responded with very vigorous growth to compensate; this came at the expense of the flowering. Hopes had been high for a very successful flowering, though Jean-Michel considers that this year’s lower yields can be assigned in part to this period. After the flowering, the size of the crop was estimated at 38hl/ha. The final result was just under 36hl/ha, meaning that the drought and hot September had little effect on the final yield.
There were very high temperatures at the end of June, end of July and the beginning of September. However, each event lasted only a day or two; there were fewer occasions of intense, prolonged heat than in ’18. Given the trends within global warming, Talbot tries not to de-leaf too much. Any de-leafing is on the northern and eastern aspects, but the grape bunches are left in shade to the south and west.
Storms and rainfall
July was exceptionally dry. But Talbot’s clay under the gravels prevented any serious effects from drought stress. The two major storms on 21st and 23rd August removed any such danger. St Julien received more than 80 millimetres of rain during August, second only to Pauillac in volume.
The end of the season was perfect: the September rains allowed a leisurely conclusion to the Cabernet Sauvignon harvest, without even the need to harvest on weekends. Given the low yields, Talbot looked to increase its proportion of grand vin from the crop. Jean-Michel decided to delay harvest of certain plots to push for maximum ripeness. In fact, despite being two weeks ahead of the usual cycle with flowering, the harvest started only one week ahead. Waiting created a longer hang-time for the Cabernet grapes, and the opportunity for maximum phenolic maturity.
The corollary to this level of maturity is a higher pH than normal, although the level of total acidity is correct. Under these conditions, attack from Brettanomyces (a naturally occurring yeast in the vineyard) is more likely; St Julien is especially prone, says Jean-Michel. As long as a close eye is kept on the wine during its evolution, there is no problem here – but his team will be especially alert this year.
The best terroirs
By way of evidence of Talbot’s terroir and its ability to manage these vintage conditions, Jean-Michel draws a comparison with Ch. Sénéjac, which he also manages. Sénéjac lies in the south of the Medoc, close to the city of Bordeaux. On sandier soils and without the clay of Talbot, the drought there created very concentrated grapes, producing wines with 13.8% alcohol, compared to Talbot’s 13.3%. In Jean-Michel’s opinion, ’20 will be a great year for the great terroirs, but the less-favoured will be more difficult in terms of balance.
Jean-Michel considers ’20 to be a classic Cabernet Sauvignon vintage, on a par with ’19. The renowned oenologist Eric Boissenot actually considers ’20 to be superior on occasion. Indeed, there is a record level of 76% Cabernet Sauvignon in this year’s blend, with tannins that are very concentrated without being overly powerful.
Watching over nine million bottles, Chris Layland is the gatekeeper of the world’s most enviable wine collection. Here, Sophie Thorpe talks to him about his team, the most remarkable bottles in his care, and keeping life at 12°C
You’ll find our warehouses on an edge-of-town industrial estate in Basingstoke. Next to Topps Tiles, Greggs and KwikFit, these unassuming low-rise buildings wouldn’t merit a second glance should you drive past. But step inside the doors and it’s a different matter.
For anyone with even a passing interest in wine, the sight of vertiginous stacks of cases containing nine million bottles of the world’s finest wine is dizzying. A large portion of this £800 million treasure trove of wine isn’t owned by Berry Bros. & Rudd at all. Instead, it belongs to our customers, and is stored until it’s ready to drink, or sell.
But bottles don’t merely lie here gathering dust – the warehouse team handles around 5,000 orders each week, picking and packing everything from Good Ordinary Claret to 1945 Ch. Lafite Rothschild. Not to mention the arrival of new wines, too.
The man in charge
One man runs the show: our Head of Warehouse Operations, Chris Layland. A gregarious character, Chris has headed up our warehousing for more than 12 years, drawn by what he deems a “sexy” product. It was, he explains, a welcome change from a stint at a newspaper company (“Today’s newspaper is tomorrow’s chip paper,” Chris laments), as well as time at Bacardi and Martini.
Much has changed since Chris took the helm – under his eye, there’s been a huge expansion in warehouse space. One catalyst was the hugely successful 2005 Bordeaux vintage; it attracted unprecedented interest from the Chinese market, and a huge amount of stock was purchased. The physical wine began arriving just as Chris took up his position in 2008.
A couple of years later, BBX – our fine wine exchange – was created; the wholesale business was thriving; our new No.3 Gin had launched, and a contract to supply Virgin Atlantic Airways meant more space was needed. We opened our second warehouse, with the third following soon after in 2012.
In that time, our warehouse team increased from 12 to 42 – it’s a crew that Chris is rightly proud of. “The reason I come into work is the people. One person can’t do everything, and we’ve got a really good team,” Chris explains. His rapport with his colleagues is clearly apparent as he wanders through the warehouse; there’s a healthy dose of banter, his chortle filling the cavernous space. But there’s respect too.
Mistakes can cost thousands of pounds, and so it’s essential that Chris’s eye misses nothing. Each bottle that enters our warehouse will pass through six pairs of hands before it re-emerges – six opportunities for something to go wrong.
Chris is rightfully proud of the team’s skill in handling such precious stock. To ensure every bottle maintains its value, whether for resale or consumption, each warehouse is kept at a steady temperature of 12°C, controlled to within a degree, while humidity is a constant 65%. Movement is minimal. The number of people in the warehouse is strictly controlled; security is incredibly tight.
But it’s the team’s attention to detail that really counts. Many of the crew have their Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) Level 2 qualification, so they have a good grounding in the product they’re handling.
For any wine-lover, a look around our warehouses is an awe-inspiring experience – with a roll-call of the most illustrious vintages and finest wine producers around the world. The oldest bottle in Basingstoke is an 1845 Bual Madeira from Cossart Gordon, but it’s far from the most valuable. One of the most treasured bottles is a 1918 Ch. Mouton Rothschild: sliding it gently from its place in the rack, Chris cradles the wine – harvested in the midst of the First World War, and one of the most commonly faked bottles.
“Look at all the little imperfections,” he practically coos with admiration at the handblown glass. “You can’t fake that. Over 100 years old… and look at that level!” For contrast, he digs out a trio of bottles from a case that was – until recently – stored elsewhere.
“Rubbish,” he says, shaking his head at the varying levels of each one, “Such a shame.” Stock like this, that doesn’t meet the Berry Bros. & Rudd standard, is earmarked, to make sure that it can’t be sold on BBX, as we can’t guarantee it.
Returning the bottles to their rightful home, Chris pauses, then grins. “Do you want to see the beasts?” We wind up and down a series of aisles, strolling past cases of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Petrus, Henschke, Harlan and more, until we arrive at our destination. Shifting a box to one side, Chris eases open another.
“If you want to have a party…” he steps to one side, revealing the biggest bottle of wine I’ve ever seen – a goliath, that’s 27 litres, of 2008 Torbreck’s Descendant. “Because of the size, these are all handblown. If they get it wrong, the glass will be too thin and weak in places; we’ve had that issue with a couple of them,” Chris says.
As we wander round, looking at some of the remarkable bottles that he watches over, I comment that one could easily spend hours just looking at things. “Yeah, you could,” Chris winks at me, “… but it’d be even better with a corkscrew.”
In this series, Mark Pardoe MW provides insight into how Bordeaux’s key communes fared in 2020. Here, our Wine Director looks at St Estèphe, based on a conversation with Lorraine Watrin of Ch. Montrose.
At a glance: St Estèphe in 2020
Hectares under vine: 1,250
Average yield: 41hl/ha in 2020 (50hl/ha in ’19); down 18%
For a snapshot of St Estèphe in 2020, I caught up with Lorraine Watrin of Ch. Montrose. She was keen to highlight the fine weather from mid-March. Many of us will recall that this coincided with the start of the first UK lockdown. This sequence of bright, sunny days accelerated the cycle towards early flowering, three weeks in advance.
But a wet May, including 90 millimetres of rain on 11th May, and a cold start to June, slowed the vines, losing about two weeks of that advance. The flowering began shortly afterwards, and Lorraine contends (as does Jean-Michel Laporte at Ch. Talbot) that this rainfall compromised the flowering a little, despite the benign conditions during the actual process.
Further reduction in yield came from the mildew, which was universal in 2020 after the rains. It was unusual compared to ’18, affecting the bunches rather than the leaves, reducing the crop by as much as 10%. The grape set was also reduced. Normally the set will produce six bunches per vine; in ’20, vines were only setting four or five bunches, possibly due to the flower initiation pattern set in ’19.
From mid-June, there was no more rain. There were two periods of very hot weather, at the end of July and the start of August. Temperatures were around 35°C, peaking at 37°C. Had the rain not arrived when it did, Montrose would have contemplated a vintage similar in style to ’18. However, Lorraine draws a subtle difference between “drought stress” and “drought constraint”, with the implication of the latter being that the development of the grapes was slowed, but never compromised by the conditions.
Rain before harvest
On 12th August, 60 millimetres of rain fell, boosting the development of the grapes, and changing the style of the vintage altogether. A further 10 millimetres fell at the end of August. Without the rain, the ’18 vintage at Montrose produced wines with an alcohol level of 14.8%; ’20 is 13.4%.
With the vines refreshed, they were ready to make the most of very warm temperatures from 4th to 17th September, peaking at 34°C. A further 50 millimetres of rain fell between 18th and 26th September, which was ideal to complete the maturation of the Cabernet Sauvignon.
The Merlot harvest began on 12th September at Montrose. At neighbour Ch. Tronquoy-Lalande (under the same ownership), with more clay and Merlot in the vineyard, they had to begin earlier; the hot weather was dehydrating the Merlot too much. Montrose was not affected in the same way. Its soils appear to have been better equipped to retain the water that arrived in August.
The Cabernet Sauvignon harvest began on 21st September, finishing within a week, on the 29th. Berries were normal-sized, unaffected by the drought, but with small bunches from the flowering. The pH, at 3.8, is slightly higher than last year. Alcohol is 13.5% for the grand vin.
Since ’10, the strategy at Montrose has been to retain more freshness from the fermentation, which is temperature-controlled at 24-26°C. The team builds structure through the use of press wine, which today stands at 20% of the production. The thinking is that it is easier to build structure by adding press wine almost like a seasoning, rather than from the fermentation of the free-run juice. As Lorraine points out, if there is over-extraction at that stage, there is no going back. In ’20, press wine accounts for 14% of the blend of the grand vin.
Lorraine feels that ’20 is a balanced vintage, but not a classic one. It is very fruity, but with finely structured tannins – between ’16 and ’19 in style. The freshness comes from the purity and expressive style of the fruit, like ’16. Production here ended up at 29 hl/ha, down 35% on ’19, predominantly due to the lower number of bunches set after flowering. It is very likely that the smaller crop in fact helped the vines get through the period of drought.
To say that Rob Whitehead, our Spirits Buyer, has amassed a fair few bottles over the years would be an understatement. In this article originally published in No.3 magazine, he ponders the appeal of collecting whisky.
I have never considered myself a whisky collector. I have been the Spirits Buyer for Berry Bros. & Rudd for over a decade. As my wife can attest, my home (and my parents’ homes, and even a kindly friend’s garage) is stuffed to the gunwales with bottles. But I never really meant to amass such a multitude.
To me, that is one of, if not the fundamental hallmark of a collection. It must have been assembled with some degree of intent. As with much in life, this intent can be anywhere on a meandering spectrum, from a plan covering all the minutiae of what, how and when to the flimsiest of mental wisps. But, in any regard, a collection must have been collected. Otherwise, it is a stock, or a stash, or a cache, or a hoard.
THE SERIOUS COLLECTOR
George Grant, sixth-generation owner of Glenfarclas distillery, most certainly does consider himself a whisky collector. He has one self-imposed caveat. “I collect whiskies from 1976: some to keep, and some to drink,” he says. “Scottish, Japanese… I love Bourbon.” It is probably not too immodest of me to reveal that 1976 is his birth year, the reference point for his collection. He, like many collectors, has been given various items. And he has “played swaps” with other 1976-born whisky lovers if they both have mutually desired duplicates.
The greatest boon for his collection has been the explosive growth of the online whisky auction market. Fifteen years ago, there was no such thing: today, there’s an almost constant stream of successful sales. These have allowed him to access rare bottlings and international releases that otherwise would be impossible to find.
DISTILLED FOR DRINKING
It is rare to find a person who has never collected anything. Childhood is often high-season for collecting, particularly those halcyon days between five to 15. One has some variable degree of self-determination but relatively little in the way of onerous responsibilities. I could draw a conclusion that something about collecting is childish, but I have rather taken the view that to collect requires some sacrifice to be made. One’s lunch money, perhaps. Or a string of afternoons scouring sources of loot. Or, at the most obsessive extreme, one’s health or relationships.
Annabel Thomas, founder of Nc’Nean distillery in Drimnin on the wild west coast of Scotland might be the only person I’ve spoken to recently around this topic who didn’t actively collect anything in her youth. Nor does she now.
Thomas built her distillery with a desire to sustainably produce beautiful whisky for people to drink. While she recognises the attractiveness of her small-batch production to collectors, she has always said she’d much prefer every bottle she produces to be opened, enjoyed and then summarily recycled. And if she did collect? “I’m a goal-oriented person,” Thomas says. She would, she imagines, almost immediately sell it or give it away. The thrill, for many collectors, is mainly in the chase…
COLLECTING A SET
One not uncommon strategy is to try and obtain one bottle from every active distillery within your chosen category. In Scotland this would be a sizeable undertaking, with over 130 at the time of writing. And more being added each year. But it is not unachievable given the requisite sacrifice of time and money. Extending this to other territories (Ireland, Japan) or to include the numerous closed distilleries scattered around Scotland is a frequent collection extension explored by whisky lovers.
Another way is to have every vintage-dated release of a particular bottling. The annually released Macallan 18-year-old Sherry cask bottling, or the extensive Glenfarclas family cask range being fine examples of this type. The risk to this kind of collection is that the goalposts are frequently moved. Every time the foundation stone for a distillery is laid, a new bottling needs to be acquired. When inaugural bottlings are released, the producer has to make a plethora of decisions – not least of which is the price to charge for this hitherto unknown product.
THE STARTING PRICE
Over the last decade, we have seen a polarisation between two camps of distillers, often with barely veiled scorn directed towards the other. Some new releases are priced very highly – seemingly aimed squarely at collectors. Others are priced to allow accessible drinking without too great a financial outlay.
At the Spirit of Yorkshire distillery (perhaps unsurprisingly given the no-nonsense attitudes of the people of my wonderful home county), almost all releases of whisky so far have been unallocated, freely available, and priced around £50-£95 per bottle. “It’s a hard thing to get right,” says Director of Whisky, Joe Clark. “The majority of whisky lovers can buy one of our bottles, either for everyday enjoyment, or one of our special releases as a treat. But the idea of trying to charge our customers 300 quid for three-year-old whisky just didn’t sit right with us. Our First Release, of which there were 6,000 bottles, went out at £55. We wanted our customers to open, enjoy and celebrate Yorkshire’s first whisky with us.”
Oftentimes, inaugural bottlings are rare by practical necessity, there simply not having been many years of stock in the warehouse to choose from. Fervent, global demand for these vanguard releases can see what precious-little stock there is practically vaporise from shelves and website listings instantly. This leaves the secondary auction market as the only source available to collectors who missed out in the frenzy.
THE ROLE OF BALLOTS
One relatively common course of action taken by new producers is to offer such limited releases by ballot. I am extremely proud to have been involved with the Daftmill distillery in Fife, led with quiet assurance by Francis Cuthbert and his brother Ian, who have felt that the least inequitable way to release their whiskies has been (with one or two experimental exceptions) entirely by ballot.
Another gratifyingly wholesome path taken by some distillers is to harness the power of the collectible nature of such bottlings to give something back to their local or global community. Nc’Nean partnered with WhiskyAuctioneer.com for a charitable auction of the first 10 bottles of their first-ever bottling. It raised over £90,000 for five chosen charities, with a world record inaugural bottle price of £41,004 paid for bottle number one. Such a price seems inconceivable without the sure knowledge that whisky collectors around the world would have dearly loved to secure it as a treasured jewel in their collection.
THE INTERNET’S IMPACT
Before the widespread use of the internet, collecting was much more challenging due to the paucity of information about who was releasing what, and where, and when. Prior to Milroy’s of Soho opening in the 1960s the range of whiskies available at any one given place was often extremely limited. Our own price list of 1909 shows around a dozen Scotch whiskies available, alongside a handful of Irish and American options. As the final third of the 20th century progressed, ranges grew. The committed whisky lover, if they were happy to cultivate relationships with multiple merchants, could gather bottles (and knowledge) the old-fashioned way.
The Scotch Malt Whisky Society was born in 1983 and Whisky Magazine began publication in 1998. Both, in their way, foreshadowed the explosion of whisky clubs, forums, websites and networks that now allow collection inventory management, discourse, information exchange, social experiences and even trading. Whiskybase.com encompasses many of these spheres and has become a bottler of whisky in its own right.
The globally respected tasting thoughts of Dave Broom, Charles Maclean and, notably, Serge Valentin of whiskyfun.com would never have been able to be so encountered, appreciated, and disseminated without the accessibility afforded by modern telecommunications. A micro-bottling by a little-known distillery, only released in one minor global territory can be discovered, discussed, argued over (usually good naturedly) and traded (directly or via an online auctioneer) within days of its release. Inevitably, prices for bottlings deemed the most enticing can sky-rocket quickly; at the same time, availability can evaporate just as swiftly in this reactive global marketplace.
It is perhaps this explosion of availability that has allowed collecting to become more practical in many fields. An ember of interest in any given sphere can be kept alight and nurtured via innumerable specialist forums – many of which require only free subscription. Barriers to entry are perhaps lower than ever. To accrue a reasonable level of relatively specialist knowledge requires only time, and Google.
TO DRINK OR SELL?
Of course, once collected, there is the question of what to do with that collection. George Grant’s “most upsetting bottle of whisky” was a brand-new bottling of legendary Bourbon Pappy Van Winkle. When it was released a few years ago, it was around $1,500 dollars – but only if you were lucky enough to win one of the retailer lotteries. George’s luck was in, as he found a bottle available from iconic Illinois merchant Binnys. He had it sent over to his Speyside home.
Astonishingly, he’d unpacked the bottle and been holding it for “less than a minute” when his phone rang. It was an offer from a US whiskey collector who had ‘heard’ he had a bottle of this Van Winkle. He immediately offered George $10.5k. “He ruined the bottle of whisky for me,” Grant says. “All of a sudden, if it tasted like crap, I’d ‘lost’ 10-and-a-half-thousand dollars. Not the 1,500 I was willing to.” To George, this is a perfect example of one person’s valuation of a bottle being so different from another. A value driven by the respective level of desire to add to a collection.
A PLEASURE SHARED
Regarding my beloved spirits – well, I believe the drinks I work with should only really exist to provide interest, pleasure and nourishment. How any given person derives those three things is not for anyone else to prescribe. If I had to choose, I’d rather have tasted every distillery’s produce at least once, rather than own a sealed bottle of each one that had never been broached, but my viewpoint is far from standard in this arena. I have friends whose proudest possessions are in sealed boxes. For them, pleasure is derived from the knowledge that their collection is in mint condition.
Others revel in the kudos of their collection – having the things that others want can be a potent driving force. Then there are those for whom the raison d’etre for their collection is to act as a repository of memories. So, perhaps I am a whisky collector after all. Each spring, as I dutifully dust the squadron of bottles in my living room, each one does evoke sentiment – where I found them, who I have drunk them with.
Even more powerful, at least these days, is planning who I am going to share them with one day. My wonderful wife once asked me, eyeing the hoards of bottles and assessing the decades of time that had gone into each: “What are you going to do with one thousand years of whisky?” The answer is very simple – I’m going to drink it.
Three to collect
2009 Glenfarclas bottled for Berry Bros. & Rudd, Single Malt Whisky (60%)
Enticingly rich in colour, this whisky offers notes of caramelised honey, sandalwood and even incense – signalling its decade in an ex-Sherry cask. The honey broadens on the palate into flapjack, peanut brittle, molasses and antique wood. £145.00, bbr.com
With the first spirit running off the stills in 2017, it was a joy to welcome Nc’Nean to Berry Bros. & Rudd in 2020. This whisky is a clarion call to other producers. It is made from organic barley, the distillery runs on sensibly harvested biomass from the forest next door. The bottle itself is made of 100% recycled glass – a first for a Scotch. £50.00, bbr.com
Spirit of Yorkshire Distillery, Filey Bay, Flagship, Yorkshire, Single Malt Whisky, England (46%)
This farm-to-bottle distillery was opened in 2016 by the Thompson family (barley farmers, beer brewers, and proud supporters of the dogmatic belief that to do things well, one must simply do things properly). I’ve got an open bottle of every release in my collection. Following their slow journey regularly is fascinating. £55.00, bbr.com