The history of Good Ordinary Claret

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A bottle showing the label of our Good Ordinary Claret

Good Ordinary Claret is our signature red Bordeaux at Berry Bros. & Rudd. We speak to Christopher Berry Green, our former Managing Director and Chairman, to uncover the details of Good Ordinary Claret’s early days in the 1970s.  

Good Ordinary Claret is a wine inextricably woven into the heritage of Berry Bros. & Rudd. The label itself makes this clear from the outset: a monochrome etching of No.3 St James’s Street set against a simple black-and-white background with our name proudly stamped under it.

Not every wine has to be the best example of its type, and Good Ordinary Claret is one such wine. “It was Claret, it was good and it was ordinary,” says Christopher Berry Green, former Chairman at Berry Bros. & Rudd.  

“I remember speaking to a Marketing guru at the time, and he said, ‘You’ll never sell a wine with ‘ordinary’ in the name.’ In fact, we sold more Good Ordinary Claret in its first year than all our other Clarets put together.” 

From London Shop to Chairman  

Christopher, now retired, began working at Berry Bros. & Rudd in 1954. He started his career in the London Shop, where he had a desk for ten years. “You had all sorts of customers coming in back then – from the theatrical world, the medical world, the political world,” he recalls warmly. “I enjoyed our customers, and I took great pride in knowing their names. A few could be a little difficult, but not many.”  

Subsequently, he took on various responsibilities in the decades that followed: arranging samples of new vintages from across Europe (“That’s how I learned how to choose and taste young wine”), managing and decanting the lunch wines for directors and guests, and overseeing the bottling of wine on Berry Bros. & Rudd premises in London and Basingstoke. 

Christopher became Managing Director in 1985, Deputy Chairman in 1992 and Chairman in 2000, eventually retiring in 2004. One of the most important projects he oversaw throughout his long tenure was the development of Good Ordinary Claret – our flagship red Bordeaux – in the 1970s.  

Joining the European Economic Community  

The history of Good Ordinary Claret is rooted in Britain’s relations with Europe; now, as the technicalities of Brexit start to become clearer, it feels like an interesting time to revisit its roots.  

It was 1973, Christopher tells me, and the UK was in the process of joining what was then known as the Common Market or the European Economic Community, a precursor to the European Union. As a result, the wines Berry Bros. & Rudd purchased from Bordeaux – and France in general – had to be subject to the French laws of appellation contrôlée (AC).  

The introduction of these laws to the UK market meant that the cost of French wine sold in the UK shot up significantly. “Something that we could sell before 1973 for eight shillings and sixpence suddenly went up to 12 shillings,” says Christopher, “So, we needed to look for a Bordeaux wine that we could sell under our own label at a lower price.”  

The search began. “We did a lot of tasting; in those days, we always tasted in the country of origin, followed by a final tasting in London or Basingstoke. It was important to taste in two places: the same wine you taste in St Julien on a sunny afternoon will taste quite different in Basingstoke on a foggy November morning.” 

Settling on a name  

“Our regular suppliers produced samples of red Bordeaux AC wine, which we tasted initially in Bordeaux. Samples were then sent to London, we tasted again and made our final choice,” says Christopher, “I remember going to see Anthony Berry, who was Chairman at the time. I said, ‘We’ve got the wine – now what we need is a name.’  

“So, he looked at me and he said – as Tony Berry always did – ‘Have you got any ideas?’ I had a copy of the company’s 1896 pricelist, which was a little three-fold paper pamphlet. Under the Clarets, the three least expensive wines were listed without any denomination or geographical allegiance. They simply read: ‘Ordinary’, ‘Good’ and ‘Better’. So, I said to the Chairman, ‘What about Good Ordinary Claret? After all, what is it? It’s Claret, it’s good and it’s ordinary.’”  

And so, the name of our signature Bordeaux was assembled from the least expensive Clarets listed in the company’s 1896 pricelist. Anthony Berry wasn’t initially convinced by the choice of name, but those doubts must quickly have dissipated as the wine went on to sell more in its first year than the other Clarets combined.  

So, what is it about the name Good Ordinary Claret that is so appealing to Berry Bros. & Rudd’s customers?  

“The name personifies Berry Bros. & Rudd from the perspective of authenticity,” says Christopher. “It’s not pretending to be something it’s not. There’s also that sense of British understatement.”  

It’s perhaps in its understatement that the name communicates confidence: the implication of something very good hiding behind a modest façade.  

Bottling in Bordeaux  

In the early days, Good Ordinary Claret was bottled on Berry Bros. & Rudd premises in Basingstoke. “For hundreds of years, we always shipped our wines in cask and bottled in our own cellars,” explains Christopher. “The late Peter Sichel – part-owner of Château Palmer and the owner of Château Angludet – said that our bottling was better than château bottling, a very high accolade. It may have been said with his tongue in his cheek, but it was true,” he adds with a chuckle.  

But the tradition of bottling on Berry Bros. & Rudd premises ended abruptly in the 1970s. Word came from Bordeaux that wines would no longer be shipped in bulk, and the region’s wines would in future be bottled at the châteaux.  

“I remember going out to Bordeaux in high dudgeon. Peter Sichel kindly arranged a meeting at Angludet to meet eight or nine proprietors of the major châteaux. I made the case that BB&R should be allowed to continue bottling as we had always done, which they agreed had always been to the highest standard.  

“But they were worried about what was happening in other European markets, where there was evidence of wines being ‘stretched’. What this means is that a merchant would buy three hogsheads of Château X, and when they bottled it, they’d have the equivalent of rather more than three hogsheads – they were carrying out some surreptitious blending. As a result, the Bordeaux proprietors decided they would no longer ship their wines in cask, and that was the start of everything being bottled at source.”  

During Christopher’s directorship, Good Ordinary Claret was produced by Borie-Manoux, headed up at the time by Emile Castéja, whom Christopher describes as a close partner both in business and friendship. The wine is now produced by Dourthe, a family-run négociant who own and manage a number of leading châteaux in Bordeaux – such as Château Belgrave – and specialise in high-quality blends from across the region.  

The Good Ordinary Claret label  

The label is crucial in anchoring Good Ordinary Claret to the heart of Berry Bros. & Rudd at No.3 St James’s Street. Was that a deliberate choice in the early days?  

“Back then, the wines we bottled either had a ‘view’ label or a ‘map’ label. For a lot of our wines, particularly Burgundy and Rhône, we developed a map of the region. But for Bordeaux, we always had a traditional Berry Bros. & Rudd view label of St James’s Street and the shop.” 

The view label was considered a stamp of authenticity: a way of communicating that what’s inside the bottle is reliable, good-quality and good value for money. It’s this consistency, Christopher says, which builds trust between our customers and the company in the long term.  

“Good Ordinary Claret, to me, is about quality, reliability and style. It encapsulates who we are as a brand: our reputation for quality, good business management and always putting the customer first.” 

It’s undoubtable that these qualities shine through our signature wine: a pure expression of Christopher’s legacy that continues to be savoured by Berry Bros. & Rudd customers, staff and family-members alike.  

Since 2016, we’ve celebrated our flagship Claret through an annual collaboration with a different artist or designer. Discover the story behind our 2020 collaboration with Poppy Lennox here, or take a look at our previous designs here.

If you’d like to purchase a bottle of Good Ordinary Claret, click here.

Category: Bordeaux Wine,History,Old World

The cocktail hour: The Last Word

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An image of The Last Word cocktail alongside a bottle of our No.3 London Dry Gin
Photo credit: Joe Woodhouse

Refreshing and refined, our No.3 London Dry Gin is excellent in cocktails. This week, we take a closer look at The Last Word, a zesty 1920s cocktail. Pour yourself a glass and step back in time to a Prohibition-era world.

The story of The Last Word is as colourful as its name. The cocktail first appeared in print in Ted Saucier’s bartender’s manual Bottoms Up!, published in 1951. Tracing its origins to the Detroit Athletic Club, Saucier writes: “This cocktail was introduced around here about thirty years ago by Frank Fogarty, who was very well known in vaudeville. He was called the ‘Dublin Minstrel’, and was a very fine monologue artist.”

Its name might come from Frank Fogarty’s vaudeville performances, which always started with a song and ended with a recital. Although today, the Last Word is considered a famous Prohibition-era cocktail, it spent decades in obscurity. It was rediscovered in 2004 by Seattle bartender Murray Stenson, who happened across Saucier’s manual. Its popularity in Seattle soon spread to New York, where it finally found fame. From there, onto Chicago, San Francisco – then London, Amsterdam and beyond. Although the Dublin Minstrel died in 1925, it seems he finally got the last word.

How to make The Last Word

  • 30ml No.3 London Dry Gin
  • 20ml Chartreuse
  • 20ml Maraschino liqueur
  • 20ml lime juice
  • Garnish with a lime twist

Combine the ingredients in a cocktail shaker. If you don’t have a cocktail shaker, you can use a jar with a tight lid. Shake the ingredients with ice, then fine strain the liquid into a chilled glass.

Discover the story behind our No.3 London Dry Gin here.

Category: Cocktails

Brunello di Montalcino 2016 vintage report

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Brunello di Montalcino 2016 vintage report
Photograph: Jason Lowe

The 2016 vintage will be a milestone for Brunello di Montalcino, says our Italy Wine Buyer, Davy Żyw.

This is a hero vintage. Hailed by critics and winemakers as the greatest vintage in recent memory, 2016 will become a keystone year for Brunello di Montalcino. Following the successful, ripe and generally uniform ’15s, the ’16s give us more to look for (and to look forward to) with detail, energy and grip. In this twin release, the ’16s and ’15 Riservas demonstrate the quality and versatility of Sangiovese through two very different expressions; it’s rare for two back-to-back vintages to both be quite this good.

The characteristics of the vintage

It’s difficult not to get excited when winemakers explain the characteristics of ’16 Brunello. The vintage has produced wines that are classical, complex and elegant. While not as immediate as other five-star vintages of recent years, ’16 clearly demonstrates Montalcino’s ability to produce wines of world-class complexity, purity and longevity.

The growing cycle in ’16 was relatively even. Average temperatures during flowering led to excellent vegetative growth. A steady summer prevailed, the all-important night and day temperature fluctuations helping the grapes achieve outstanding maturity and phenolic ripeness. At harvest, the grapes were characterised by complex aromatics, ripe extract and glossy tannins paired with brilliant natural acidity. After five years in the cantina, these characteristics manifest themselves in the wines with finesse, energy and purity. And considerable Tuscan charm.

Distinctive wines

We have a distinctive selection of wines in our ’16 offer, showcasing the diversity of Montalcino’s terroirs and winemaking philosophies. Highlights include the stoic intensity of Castelnuovo del Abate’s infamous Poggio di Sotto; the Burgundian purity of Scopetone, from the region’s most prized vineyard; and the new releases from La Màgia, combining magical terroir expression and agile winemaking under the creative control of Fabian Schwarz.

Normally, the wine trade and media would descend upon Montalcino in February, to taste and discuss the new vintages. Covid has made travel difficult; this year, that had to be done virtually. I was lucky enough to visit in October, just before the second lockdown. Tasting extensively from barrels at La Màgia, it was evident that this is an exciting, bold and genuinely terroir-focused vintage. Although the wines have not been as widely tasted as normal, those that have been reviewed are making headlines. There is a universal expectation that the releases this year will become legendary for the region.

Brunello di Montalcino 2016: a milestone vintage

There is a turning of the tide in southern Tuscany. The old guard and next generation alike are questioning techniques and realising the potential of their terroir. This vintage will be a milestone and career-defining for many producers, even those as historic as our friends at Lisini. Never has the peak in realising potential in a region climaxed in such a timely fashion with the best vintage in living memory. Brunello di Montalcino 2016 is a heroic year that we’ll be talking about – and drinking – for decades to come.

View our Brunello di Montalcino 2016 offer.

Category: Italian Wine

Fattoria La Màgia: meet Fabian Schwarz

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la magia

Montalcino-born Fabian Schwarz of Fattoria La Màgia has seen profound change in the region. Here, we speak to Fabian about family history, pursuing quality and the story behind his flagship cru, Ciliegio.

“I don’t believe in God, why should I believe in [Rudolf] Steiner?” ponders Fabian Schwarz, second-generation owner-winemaker at Fattoria La Màgia in Montalcino. Though an ardent practitioner of organic viticulture, Fabian stops short of Steiner’s biodynamics. “Think of a nice little English garden where old people speak to the plants,” he offers. “The garden isn’t nice because the people speak to the plants; it’s nice because they give the plants attention. That’s the big difference.”

La Màgia is no English garden, but Fabian’s vines receive his undivided attention. “Most of the job is done in the vineyard,” he says. “At least 50% of it is done by the terroir; it’s not down to you. But obviously, you have to choose only the right grapes, and you have to pay attention not to make mistakes.”

The pursuit of quality

Fabian was born in Montalcino and studied at the winemaking school of San Michele all’Adige in Trentino. In 2005, he started working at the family property; when his father retired in ’11, he took over the whole estate. “The commercial side is the most difficult part,” he admits, “but I like it. It’s important to work with people that share our idea of wine.”

What is his idea of wine? “If you have the chance to be in Montalcino and to make Brunello,” he says, “you have to try to produce one which is really at the top. You have to work only with quality. You can’t have something in the middle.”

The Schwarz family at La Màgia

The Schwarz family’s roots are in Alto Adige in northern Italy. In the late 1970s, Fabian’s father got wind of an interesting piece of land available further south, in the wine region of Montalcino. “My father was 28 when he first saw La Màgia,” recalls Fabian. “He didn’t have a ‘real’ job and he thought that the wine business could be a nice way of life. He convinced my grandparents to buy it.”

The family moved to Montalcino in ’79. Back then, Brunello di Montalcino did not enjoy the reputation it does today; land there was (relatively) affordable. “Land in Chianti and Montalcino was around the same price,” says Fabian. “To buy the winery at that time was probably the equivalent of €2 million in today’s money. To buy it now, you’d have to add one zero more to the price.”

Change in Montalcino

Things have changed dramatically in Montalcino since the ’70s. “There were 150 grape producers but only 20 or 30 of them were making wine,” Fabian explains. “Most estates were just producing grapes and selling them to the cantina sociale [local co-operative] or to other wineries. Today there are 280 producers, and 250 make their own wine.”

With the proliferation of estate-bottled wine, quality shot up. Outsiders like Fabian’s father, and the Italian American Mariani brothers – founders of Castello Banfi – brought with them investment, commercial acumen and increased access to international markets. “This was a very important marketing period for Brunello di Montalcino,” says Fabian, “the money that came in allowed people to invest in quality.”

Ciliegio

Fabian took over the property during the last financial crisis. “It was difficult to sell wine at the time,” he recalls. “A lot of wineries here lowered their prices, particularly to get into the US market.” New to the role but with the commitment to top quality firmly in mind, Fabian didn’t follow suit. “I thought about it,” he says, “and I decided to do the complete opposite.”

Instead of trading down, Fabian opted to launch single-vineyard Ciliegio, now La Màgia’s flagship cru. “The vineyard was planted in ’74 by the original owner,” he explains, “it’s between two cherry trees [ciliegio is Italian for cherry tree] and it’s where we produce our best grapes.” The wine is produced in tiny quantities and each bottle is numbered.

“This is the kind of wine that I like,” Fabian says, “it’s the best expression of the vintage that I can do from that part of the vineyard, without any limits in quantity. If in my opinion only one barrel is good enough, we make only 500 bottles. But normally, that’s not a problem at all.”

Experimentation at La Màgia

Italian wine laws dictate in large part what Fabian can and cannot do. But he is open-minded and inquisitive, something of an experimenter. In the vineyard, he has tried new vine training methods and used plants to aid in soil health. In the cantina, he has run trials on oak – of various shapes, sizes and origins – for over a decade.

“If you don’t experiment and try these things out for yourself,” he says, “you’ll never find what you want. There’s always something new to discover.”

La Màgia’s wines will be part of our Brunello di Montalcino 2016 offer.

Category: Italian Wine