On the table: Bonhams Restaurant

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This month Cellar Plan Manager Tom Cave visits the restaurant at renowned auction house Bonhams, where faultless service and classic cuisine impress our discerning diner

The reluctance of old to allow patrons to bring their own wines to a restaurant and pay a respectable “corkage” charge is gradually being chipped away as, perhaps due to the sheer number of good quality eateries in London, the canny restaurateur realises it is in fact a jolly good way to get bums on seats.

Still, there is an etiquette to be respected with corkage. It’s important to ask the house first and more than just polite to buy at least one wine off the restaurant’s own list. And it’s good form to offer the sommelier a glass.

The wine trade has of course been attracted to restaurants who are amenable to offering corkage and one such is the new, and very chic, dining room at the astute auction house of Bonhams where, at the encouragement of the urbane Richard Harvey MW who heads their thriving wine department, I dined mid-February.

The restaurant itself can be accessed via the Bonham’s showrooms or from Brook Street through the evocatively named Haunch of Venison Yard; one can almost see the 18th century bewhiskered butcher sharpening his knives over a deer’s carcass.

I took the precaution of delivering my chosen bottle, discreetly, earlier that day. This allows the wine to settle after travel and for the sommelier to decant and assess, and, should (groan) the bottle be corked, advise you of this sooner so a replacement can be made in good time.

The dining space at Bonhams is up a curl of stairs from what looked a congenial bar, sporting an Enomatic wine dispenser (always a good sign). Minimalist in décor, with some bright art-works on the walls, the environment is crisp and bright but by no means unwelcoming. As it happened, there was a solo diner already there who looked most at ease.

My companion and I elected mutually to take a glass of Hampshire’s Hambledon fizz while we perused the mercifully brief menu which featured a host of tempting dishes. Classic fare is the name of the game here: reassuringly there was fish to start, with red meat and game for mains.

My wine, a red, was sitting purposefully and brightly in a decanter on the side-board. A wine of enough age to have possibly been “OOC” (Out of Condition) but, thankfully, the charming sommelier smiled and it seemed all was well.

Our starters called for white so two decently-sized glasses of Franschoek’s 2014 Chamonix Reserve Chardonnay were bidden.

Our main courses (red meat both) were presented along with the leading star (my companion aside) of the show – and it was a joy, bringing a smile that only aged Claret can convey along with those meaty tones and wholesome textures that can only be fine St Julien.

Some well-selected cheese followed along with irresistible petits fours; the room now having filled but not at any expense to the ambience nor the elegant service of the staff.

And the wine? Well, it was older than my dining companion as was further impressed upon me when the waiter proffered a coat to her on leaving and asked “was it her dad’s”. The gift of a prized Atlanta-based customer it was a 1989 Ch. Léoville-Las Cases. All the better for 25 years careful ageing in our cellars, it drank very well and complimented a splendid evening.

What we drank:

Bonhams is offering Berry Bros. & Rudd customers free corkage at lunch throughout March; to take advantage of this offer, please quote your account number when booking, or show a receipt upon arrival. Please note that this offer is limited to one bottle per table of two, please email reservations@bonhams.com, or call 020 7468 5868 to make your booking.

Bonhams Restaurant, 7 Haunch of Venison Yard, London W1K 5ES

Category: Food & Wine,Miscellaneous

… Plus c’est la même chose

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Responding to Will Lyons’s article, Chairman Simon Berry argues that to discover the future of wine, one need look only to its past

When I took over the editorship of Number Three magazine from my father in the early 1980s, I persuaded him to write a regular column. Entitled, not very imaginatively, “Then & Now”, it gave him the chance to look back at his early years in the wine trade and compare them with current times. He took the brief slightly further than I had intended, starting with the summer of 1921 when he was only six years old, but I didn’t complain. I had always wanted these articles to form the basis of his autobiography, and by starting so early, when the business was still controlled by his father Francis, and Francis’s second cousin Charles Walter, we were off to a head start. Besides, there was nothing he enjoyed more than a good rail against modern times, and by allowing him more of a run up, as it were, his columns became more entertaining. Very often the wine trade only played a cursory role in the column as he took aim at such diverse targets as money (the source of all evil so far as he was concerned), people’s behaviour on trains, or the galloping increase in the universal usage of Christian names.

In the below article, Will Lyons writes with great insight on the future of wine. I therefore find myself fulfilling the role of the older statesman, much as my father did 35 years ago – which seems very wrong to me, somehow. Especially as I’m approaching the subject from a diametrically different direction from his: the modern world doesn’t irritate me or fill me full of doom and gloom. I don’t believe that we’re hurtling towards hell in a hand cart. The older generation has always been convinced that the world stopped improving roughly when they were about 25 years old. They’ve always been wrong before, and I see no reason why they should suddenly be right now.

Besides, I’m a great believer in perspective. One of the great advantages of a 300-year-old company (and counting) is that perspective flows out of the taps, metaphorically speaking. And although Will can look back at almost 20 years in the wine trade and find radical change, I can look back at almost 40 years in the same trade and find remarkable consistency. The more things change, after all, the more they remain the same.

Take the internet, for example. We first had a website in 1994 – before Google, or Amazon, were even dreamt of – and I suspect many would regard the creation of bbr.com as the single biggest change in my years in the company. But in many ways the website merely allowed us to carry on doing what, as a company, we had always done. Part of being a wine merchant is communication: telling our customers about new wines we’ve discovered, recommending particular favourites, and allowing them to make up their own minds which of the many thousands of wines would be perfect for a particular occasion. If anything, the 1990s were a period of consolidation, and the wine trade was heading towards a time of less choice. Wine was too complicated, sang our critics, and the “traditional trade” was perpetuating the mystery rather than shining the bright light of clarity upon the situation.

Wine has always been about variety, so far as I am concerned – that’s the endless fascination and fun of it. I can never answer the inevitable “Desert Island Wine” question (“if you had to choose one wine to drink for the rest of your life…”) for the simple reason that I’d grow bored very quickly, even if that wine was the finest known to mankind. Give me choice and I’m happy. And the internet allowed us to continue to promote choice. The “architecture” of a good site organises the variety, and makes it easier to choose without narrowing the choice itself. We can, as a result, carry on being wine merchants in the purest sense of the term. The media will undoubtedly change, but the message remains the same.

In the same way, the Company’s move towards trading wine – “broking” as it became known – was possibly the innovation that was met with more resistance than any other in my time. (I was the only member of the Board with a computer in 1994, so the creation of our website largely passed under the radar!) The idea of the company trading in wine, as opposed to buying for stock and selling to drink, seemed terrifyingly revolutionary to the Board at the time. Part of me sympathises – I strongly believe that wine is supposed to be drunk, and that “wine investment” should be no more than a diversion, or a means of financing future purchases. However, by the early 1990s, it was becoming clear that the world was changing. The price of mature wine was increasing dramatically, mainly driven by an expanding universe of demand set against a slowly diminishing universe of supply. As a result, the opportunity for investment was greater than it ever had been, and we were left with the dilemma of whether or not we should join the mêlée, or, Canute-like, remain resolutely aloof

The older members of the Board were adamant: this was something we had never done before, and as a result we should not start doing it now. We had survived for almost 300 years without sullying ourselves with this form of trading, after all.

Except we hadn’t. One of our price lists from the 1920s was produced, and there, printed on every fourth page, or thereabouts, was a phrase which won the day for those supporting this “new” activity; “Small quantities of old wines are constantly passing through our hands. Particulars on application”. In other words: we had done it before, and therefore there was no reason why we shouldn’t do it again.

The wine trade, after all, is one of the oldest professions. It also has a long life cycle. The composition of a vineyard is determined from geological activity that has evolved over millennia. One generation will buy a property which will be planted and replanted over hundreds of years. A grandfather might plant vines which will produce their best grapes for his children, and the bottles may only mature in his grandchildrens’ lifetime. Family businesses, too, tend to remember the distant past and consider the distant future. We notice slower evolutions.

Fashion, as a result, plays a different role in our thinking. In my lifetime I have witnessed the emergence of “New World” wine regions – but how many are really new? Australian vineyards were planted by the earliest settlers in the 18th-century; Robert Louis Stevenson was writing about the wines of the Napa Valley in 1880. There are only a handful of estates in Bordeaux that were established before the earliest South African vineyard. If we were to launch a range of wines from Georgia (the former Soviet republic, not the Southern US State) we would probably be considered avant-garde, but evidence shows that the South Caucasus might well have been the first place to have fermented grapes and establish a wine culture. There are new winegrowing regions, of course – New Zealand didn’t even feature in the first edition of Hugh Johnson’s World Atlas of Wine in 1971. Science has enabled many more places on Earth to grow excellent winemaking grapes, and a growing international thirst has demanded it. What is impossible, however, is to trace a neat lineal progression from Europe to the rest of the world – from an Old World to a New.

Speaking of the growing international thirst – surely, many would argue, we are seeing huge changes in potential markets for wine? Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. China is certainly a strong influence in the wine world today, to an extent that was unimaginable when I started in the trade. But consider this: when we opened our office in Hong Kong in 1999, it took 13 hours to travel from Heathrow to Chek Lap Kok. Almost exactly a century before we had opened an office in Inverness. The fastest train between London and Inverness in 1899, via Aberdeen, also took 13 hours. So which outpost was more remote from Headquarters? And haven’t there always been new markets to conquer?

When the Widow Bourne founded our company in 1698, she sold astonishingly expensive tea to extremely wealthy Londoners. All of that tea would have come from China. Today, we sometimes sell astonishingly expensive wine to extremely wealthy citizens of Beijing or Shanghai. The pendulum has swung so far that it is exactly opposite its resting point. One thing is certain: it will continue to swing, in one direction or the other.

Fundamentally, the wine trade, and Berry Bros. & Rudd, revolves around one, unchanging question: is it good to drink? That was the same when this magazine was first conceived, or when the Widow Bourne founded her shop on St James’s Street in the 17th century. And it will be the same, I have no doubt, for generations to come.

This article was originally published in No.3.

Category: Miscellaneous

Plus ça change

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From new technology to the impact of climate change, author, journalist and fine wine specialist Will Lyons takes a view on what lies ahead in the wine world

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there,” reads the famous opening of LP Hartley’s evocative novel The Go-Between, in which the narrator, returning to Norfolk, remembers the events of a hot, languid summer at Brandham Hall half a century earlier.

Driving through the ancient byways of Burgundy or the vineyards of the northern Médoc in Bordeaux I am always reminded of this quote, not because the past feels foreign but because how, in a fast moving world, the viticultural landscape of these two regions hasn’t really changed, one constant in an ever-changing world. And yet, in many ways, my beginnings on the wine route in the autumn of 1997 feel very much like a different country. Or rather today feels like the future.

Back then, with the internet in its infancy, who could have predicted that in 2016 one could walk into a restaurant anywhere in the world and, using a handheld device no bigger than a wallet, scan the label of a wine bottle and, within seconds, be able to see its price, country of origin and vintage complete with tasting notes (not just from professionals and wine critics but from like-minded collectors as well) displayed on its tiny screen? A quick tap and it’s even possible to locate a wine merchant and buy it. How long before another tap will result in it being delivered to your restaurant table via a courier from an Amazon-style warehouse – five years? Perhaps sooner.

The future of wine is like a moving target, constantly shifting its focus as fashions come and go; new winemaking styles gain in popularity, and regions once out of favour gain in popularity. Thirty years ago English wine was a niche curiosity with variable quality, now it is a burgeoning, award-winning industry, its products served at State banquets, collected in New York and enjoyed by Prime Ministers and celebrities.

Meanwhile a slew of gadgets has transformed how we consume, open and store wine. It is now possible, thanks to the Coravin system, to extract a glass of wine from an unopened bottle via a minute surgical needle, thus preserving the rest of its contents in almost-perfect condition. With the iSommelier, you can inject “purified oxygen” through your wine, fast-tracking the time it takes for the wine to evolve from hours to just a few minutes (compared with decanting). For the security conscious, such is the attention to detail on correct storage and transport conditions one can now even track one’s favourite case of Californian Cabernet Sauvignon by GPS. Given the innovative landscape we already live in complete with apps, 24-hour electronic trading platforms and devices which feel like something out of science fiction, what does the future hold?

A good place to start is with the wine-growing regions themselves. Climate change has undoubtedly impacted on viticulture. According to the World Meteorological Organisation, since records began in the mid-1800s 14 of the 15 hottest recorded years have been since the turn of the century with 2014 the warmest year since records began. This has of course pushed the boundary line of where grapes can sufficiently ripen to include southern England. Going forward, the impact it will have on existing regions will affect the alcohol level, phenolic ripeness and acidity levels of the grapes with harvest dates being brought forward and alcohol levels continuing their journey northwards. Among those regions that could be directly affected will be the Languedoc and Roussillon, Southern Rhône and Provence in France while areas of Spain such as Ribera del Guadiana could experience more extreme weather.

As a result, one trend that is emerging – and which will continue to gain traction – is the quest to plant higher. Like the Le Soula vineyards, found in the Côtes Catalanes region west of Perpignan, France, which are already planted at high altitude, winemakers will seek out ever higher-altitude sites. Expect to see more plantings in places such as Chile’s Elqui Valley where the vineyards are found at heights of 2,000 metres above sea-level and Salta in the far north of Argentina home to some of the highest vineyards in the world (some at a dizzying 3,000 metres above sea-level).

Meanwhile, in established regions such as Bordeaux, the change of temperature has had a direct effect on winemaking styles, with higher alcohol levels and more immediate, lush, red fruit. Wineries across the world are exploring ways to offset the impact of climate change, trialling techniques such as putting straw under vines to help keep the soil cool and experimenting with different yeasts which can help keep alcohol levels down.

China will press on with its viticultural journey, planting more vineyards and importing more technical expertise from the Old World, particularly Bordeaux, where Chinese buyers will continue to snap up available properties for their thirsty consumers back home. I also expect to see more quality wine being made in Canada, Mexico, Brazil and Uruguay and the emergence of a ”new” New World of wine-producing countries in the form of Thailand and India.

“Old” New World countries, such as New Zealand, will continue to produce some of the world’s best Pinot Noir while South Africa will go from strength to strength. My tip is that, within my lifetime, the Waipara Valley – a small pocket of gravel and clay with limestone, north of Christchurch – will emerge as the go-to region for fine Pinot Noir, rivalling some of the best examples found in Burgundy.

English sparkling wine will get better and better. Like Champagne in the 1700s which grew on the back of the prosperity of Paris, English sparkling wine will gain market share in the restaurants and bars of the global financial hub of London. With more investment, wineries will be able to barrel-age more wine on its lees and improve quality. I expect there to be four or five big names to emerge to vie with Champagne at the top of the market.

How we buy wine changes from generation to generation; there are already significant differences between the “baby-boomers” and the “Millennials” (born in the early 1980s). The latter, described as “Generation Treaters” by market research company Wine Intelligence, have increased their share of spend on wine in the UK to more than 30 percent. However, the real future lies not with the Millennials but the “iGeneration”, those born in the mid-1990s, who are digitally native and fearless when it comes to wine buying. In the US, they will be the first generation to be raised with a shrinking middle class; they value peer recommendations. Rick Breslin, founder of Hello Vino, a wine recommendation app, says there is a very clear consumer trend towards personalisation, moving away from making wine selections based on endorsements from traditional gatekeepers.

Which brings me back to the role of the wine merchant. For one prediction I am very confident in making is that in two or three decades’ time Berry Bros. & Rudd will still be serving customers from its shop at No.3 St James’s Street, imparting trusted advice amidst a cacophony of opinions and points of view. Whatever the experts and industry observers say, in the future people will still be buying the great wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy – and paying for them too. The best always come with a hefty price tag but grumbling about the price of Claret is nothing new. Writing in 1920 in Notes on a Cellar Book, George Saintsbury complained about the cost of the 1893 vintage; in the archives of this very magazine, there is reference to the high prices, press hype and speculation surrounding the great 1959 vintage. In that sense, everything changes and nothing changes.

The wine collector will always gravitate to the top wines and they will always include the great wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy. Strolling through the vineyards of the northern Médoc or the hill of Corton one is struck by how the past looks very much like today.

This article was originally published in No.3.

Category: Miscellaneous

Brothers with altitude

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Eric Durand. Photograph: Jason Lowe

At Domaine Durand in the Ardèche, siblings Eric and Joël Durand produce estimable Syrah, Marsanne and Roussanne, but it is their outstanding Viognier, farmed at 450 metres, that has put them on the map. Here Eric shares his views on the ascendance of Cornas

Cornas has really come of age because it’s a granite circle facing the south, so there is lots of sun and we are, importantly, protected from the north wind. In many places the rock is near the surface, so there’s little or no soil.

On the slopes there are many cracks in the rock, which is where we can bring a lot of minerality to the wine. For Cornas, for the Syrah, this is very important because the gaps allow the water to get to the roots. Ultimately, this gives us wines with low acidity and very good body that are long in the mouth.

With a fine Cornas you can taste the finesse and freshness during the younger years. Once they have matured we keep always freshness and elegance in our wines – they’re not too heavy. It’s why I think Cornas is such an interesting area; but, at 150 hectares, it is still not well known.

We have eight hectares in Cornas and close to eight in St Joseph. Then there is the Vin de Pays Viognier and St Péray – which will become a greater operation I think in the next year, because a lot of new vines are being planting there, and some négociants are working to raise the image of St Péray too. Its wines have maybe been a little rustic at times, but now there is a minerality coming through St Péray that we don’t we don’t have in St Joseph. Cornas is only red, and St Péray only white, so the two wines work well together.

In St Joseph, the valley is very long, small and narrow. The wines here are not full-bodied like Cornas, because we have a lot of wind coming across from the Rhône River.

I would describe our cellar techniques as “fresh”. I dislike “modern” because it often means technology for the sake of technology. Beginning in 2013 we have kept 30 percent of end-year grapes in the tank, to bring a more “vegetable” aspect to the aging. We have very good maturation in Cornas but sometimes we need more, not acidity, but a green aromatic freshness; it’s only a sensation, a subtlety.

Our barrels are very clean. We are very careful to monitor the microbiology in the barrels as this helps to keep that freshness, keep finesse, elegance and aromatic quality.

Our Rhône 2015 en primeur offer launches on Thursday 9th March; in the meantime explore our range of wines from Domaine Durand on bbr.com.

 

Category: Old World,Rhône Wine