I remain intrigued by the question of who knows what and who doesn’t in the UK wine trade. Tasting, talking, drinking and working with the former camp has taught me most of what I know.
I spent 2003 & 2004 working on the other side of St James’s Street: the side where the traffic now goes up. At the time J&B probably had the best list of Burgundy in the UK (and may still have), was the only UK merchant with any serious commitment to the wines of Piedmont, listed and understood German wines like no one else and, of course, was one of the UK’s serious players in Bordeaux. This was pre-speculation and pre-Far East market madness and times were civilised: we sold very good wine to a very wealthy and/or very discerning and/or aristocratic customer base.
Driving this – and buying is always the driver – was Hew Blair. In terms of onions and knowing them, a man right at the top. We didn’t see eye to eye on everything, and I have never told him (though have told plenty others) quite how much I learned from him. Not in a times-table type of way, but in terms of the fundamentals: what’s good and what’s not; trusting your judgement; following quality. We tasted 2003 Bordeaux from barrel together, and I can still remember his judgement of 2003 Mouton: a massive block of fruit, and a massive block of tannin; if they come together it will be exceptional. Ignore Mr Parker here: they did, and it is.
This maybe sums it up: a bottle of 1985 Volnay, grower forgotten, bought from what would best be described as bin-end stock: long forgotten. It turned out to be rather good and, when I related this to our Buying Director, he described the vineyard, its aspect, elevation, etc and – this is what really sticks – the tree that grows toward the top of it. A rare class.
I think that sets the scene, and I thank Mr Blair for his answers.
What was the first wine/bottle that got you into the whole wine thing?
My father’s ex-army batman followed him into “civvy street” post WW2 and in the mid-1960s not only continued to looked after my father’s wardrobe, but also his cellar. The aromas of fine claret are still as fresh to me now as in the days when “Mr Thorne“ decanted the wines pre dinner in the butler’s pantry. I was drawn in particular to Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou 1953 which on occasion I was permitted to taste and have had a soft spot for Ducru ever since .
What was the first wine/bottle that took you closer to your maker?
Tasting the first vintage (2002) of La Romanee, Domaine Comte Liger-Belair from barrel in spring 2003 was a life changing experience in more ways than one. Not only was the wine one of the most ethereal Pinot Noirs I had ever tasted, but it proved that the calculated backing we had given to the young Louis-Michel Liger-Belair had proved to be sound. Given that this first choice was from barrel my other closer to my maker, but this time bottle, has to be Chateau Lafleur 1982. Tasted in Cornwall when buying one of the greatest collections of mature claret ever uncovered. The owner, a somewhat eccentric Baronet served it on two occasions during lunching negotiations to buy the entire cellar which proved to be successful.
What was the best wine/bottle you have had this year? – OK, the past twelve months.
In celebrating 40 year at Justerinis I hosted a dinner for my favourite wine trade friends at 61 St James’s Street in February 2015 . It was a most spoiling occasion with great wines being served, but greatest of all was a magnum of Quinta do Noval 1931 . Whether it was Nacional was impossible to conclude from the bottle, label or cork, but the quality outshone all the wines that went before it and it was surely Nacional …
Hew: thank you again.