Leisure: Cellars’ Markets

  • David Lyon

The mill-shaped sign hanging out front of the shop and the massive scales inside are holdovers from Berry Bros. & Rudd’s early days, when, at the close of the 17th century, the Widow Bourne opened the Coffee Mill on St. James’s Street. Her grandsons, William Pickering Jr. and John Pickering, eventually inherited the store, located opposite St. James’s Palace, and transformed it into one of London’s top purveyors of fine wines.

King George III and other members of the British royal family were among the Coffee Mill’s wine customers—a clientele that led to a new use for the store’s giant coffee scales: In 1765, William Pickering and John Clark, whom William took on as a partner after his brother’s death, began weighing famous visitors to their shop, a tradition that continues today. The weights of Lord Byron, William Pitt, the Aga Khan, and Winston Churchill are among those that appear in Berry Bros. & Rudd’s ledgers.

Modern-day customers of Berrys—as the business is commonly known—are sometimes invited to the parlor in the back of the shop. Paneled in oak and furnished with leather chairs and couches, the room resembles a snug gentlemen’s club, similar to the ones in the neighborhood. Sales and marketing director Simon Staples meets with customers here over coffee, sherry, or whisky. "We try to strike a protective atmosphere," says Staples, a burly man of early middle age who is fond of wearing dark suits and an oversize sports watch that hints of his younger days as a jungle and desert adventurer.

The transactions that take place in Berrys’ parlor epitomize the way many Londoners purchase fine wine: in consultation with their merchants. Today, in addition to centuries-old shops such as Berrys and Justerini & Brooks, located just a few blocks up St. James’s Street, the city’s premium wine merchants include newer establishments like Handford Wines in South Kensington and Lea & Sandeman in Chelsea. London gentlemen traditionally have trusted these merchants as they have their doctors and brokers—and with good reason: The acquisitions that have occurred at London’s top shops over the years have helped shape the world’s wine industry. The Brits’ thirst for particular wines and their wherewithal to quench that thirst have enabled entire categories—claret, sherry, port—to emerge and thrive. "Over the centuries, the U.K. was always central to the wine world because we had the money to pay for it," says Staples.

Today, as in years past, British acquisitions frequently involve wines from southwest France. Experts including Staples, one of Berrys’ chief Bordeaux buyers, think 2009 may be the vintage of a lifetime, and swiftly rising prices reflect that optimism. He notes that Berrys, the top dealer worldwide in en primeur Bordeaux, already had sold £110 million (about $180 million) worth of Bordeaux futures as of March. A third of the sales by value went through Berrys’ Hong Kong office (it also has an office in Japan), underscoring the business’ global reach but also highlighting the growing significance of the Asian wine market. "The U.K. is still the center of the fine-wine trading world," Staples says. "Whether that changes to Asia in the next years, I don’t really know."

England’s influence already has diminished compared to the indomitable sway it once held, when the country’s love affair with claret literally changed the landscape of Bordeaux. The region came under English rule in 1152, after Eléanor of Aquitaine married the future Henry II of Eng­land. A century later, when taxes on Bordeaux imports were all but abolished, British nobility were slaking their thirst with the region’s wines.

Most medieval Bordeaux reds had been "black wine," made from Malbec grapes grown far inland at Cahors. But English drinkers preferred a lighter wine produced near the mouth of the Garonne and Dourdogne rivers in such now-familiar districts as Médoc, Graves, and Saint-Émilion. They called the coastal wine "claret" for its lighter color and transparency, and their preference stuck. By 1300, the modern Bordeaux wine district took firm shape, with the riverbanks filled with claret vineyards. The English have been drinking the wine ever since.

However, when France reclaimed Aquitaine in 1453, at the conclusion of the Hundred Years’ War, Bordeaux prices in London doubled because of tariffs imposed by the British government. Spanish sack, a sweet forerunner of sherry, immediately became the preferred alternative to claret. Over the next century, sack’s popularity continued to grow, as evidenced by Falstaff’s proclamation in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part II: "If I had a thousand sons, the first humane principle I would teach them should be to foreswear thin potations and to addict themselves to sack."

When Napoleon left southern Spain in shambles in the early 19th century, Anglo-Irish entrepreneurs bought the old bodegas and built new ones. The ensuing glut of sherry resulting from political turmoil in Spain led to the inadvertent creation of the solera system of aging that gives modern sherry its characteristic nutty, oxidized character.

England’s Queen Victoria, who ascended to the throne in 1837, had a penchant for sherry, making it the most fashionable drink in the kingdom. But her son Edward VII detested the wine and sent the contents of his mum’s royal sherry cellars to the auction block following her death in 1901. Berrys acquired the lot and by doing so helped to reinvigorate what had been a flagging category.

The coffee mill adopted the Berry moniker in 1810, when George Berry, a grandson of John Clarke, was running the store. It became known as Berry Bros. after his two sons took over the business. The first Rudd, Hugh, joined the firm in 1920. The main operations for Berry Bros. & Rudd now are located in Basing­stoke, about halfway between London and Southampton, and include two temperature-controlled warehouses where the company holds customers’ wine collections. But the St. James’s Street storefront remains the modest face of this wine-trading juggernaut.

Berrys did not display bottles at the shop until 2001, after market research found that, though the business had occupied the space for more than three centuries, most passers-by thought it was a law firm. Now about 2,000 ready-to-drink choices fill the racks in the display rooms in the front of the shop. Clarets run the gamut from the aptly named Berrys’ Good Ordinary Claret, priced at about $13, to a 1995 Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste (a fifth-growth Pauillac) that costs about $175. Many shops in London offer broader selections, but few have Berrys’ depth.

Berrys also has a deep inventory of port that includes 1970 Graham (about $223 per .70-liter bottle). Port has a special place in London tippling, as British wine merchants invented the category in the late 17th century, after England again went to war with France, and Parliament banned French imports. Portugal, an ally and trading partner of England’s since the late 14th century, became the alternative wine supplier, but the soft Portuguese reds often spoiled in the barrel. English merchants explored the Douro Valley until they found tannic reds that would withstand shipping. Then they fortified them with brandy for good measure. Scottish and English entrepreneurs named Dow, Taylor, Warre, Sandeman, Graham, and Cockburn built wineries on the Douro banks across from the city of Oporto (the source of the name port) and perfected the blending and aging techniques that gave the world port wine. Great Britain still buys 16 percent of the port exported from Portugal.

While Berrys continues to cater to England’s taste for port—and helped revive the country’s sherry habit—Lea & Sandeman has helped turn British palates on to Tuscany. Founded by Patrick Sandeman and Charles Lea in 1988 along the stylish section of Chelsea’s Fulham Road known as the Beach, the shop is a modest glass box with simple wooden shelves reaching to the ceiling. But it holds a number of inconspicuous treasures.

Sandy-haired and affable (British wine writers invariably describe him as "debonair"), Sandeman recounts how the shop made its bones with English drinkers by discovering some of the most innovative wineries of Tuscany, a region British drinkers had long ignored. "We started looking for people with dirty fingernails who really make the wine," Sandeman says. "We became the first foreign buyers of Castello del Terriccio," maker of Lupicaia, a Cabernet-Merlot–Petit Verdot blend that rivals the first growths of Pauillac.

Lea & Sandeman also has introduced its customers to Bodega Chacra from Argen­tina. The young Patagonian winery makes stunning Pinot Noirs from recently rediscovered vines planted on its own rootstock in 1932 and 1955. The wines receive a touch of Allier French oak aging, but not too much. Few Brits, Sandeman notes, enjoy what he calls carpenter wines. "Oak should be like a miniskirt," says Sandeman. "Just enough to keep it interesting."

Just as hemlines rise and fall, so does interest in particular wines. During the three decades that he has worked as a sommelier, Gino Nardella has seen many varietals go out of fashion among the British and others come into vogue. "In the 1970s, I could have silenced the whole restaurant by suggesting a guest try a Cabernet Sau­vignon from Coonawarra," says Nar­della, the chief sommelier at the Stafford London Kempinski hotel and one of a handful of master sommeliers working in the United Kingdom. "Now it’s quite all right."

Even Berry Bros. & Rudd yields seniority to the Stafford’s wine cellars. Dug about 1675, the underground warren holds 12,000 bottles, and as Nardella’s comment suggests, not all of them are from France. In a country that still holds a torch for the lost land of Aquitaine, demand remains for claret and for both red and white Burgundy, but as exemplified by the sales at Lea & Sandeman, British tastes have broadened. The Stafford, says Nardella, led the way in finding prestige wines from California, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa more than 30 years ago.

Nevertheless, Nardella notes that the hotel, which is opposite Berrys, still fits well among the gentlemen’s clubs in the neighborhood. "Traditionally, the wealthy drank claret, Burgundy, and Riesling," he says. "We carry on that tradition. The Stafford has always been known as a place to enjoy fine wine and a good fire."

In the cellars under the Stafford, the ceilings are surprisingly high, allowing the ramrod-erect Nardella to stroll down the narrow corridors without ducking. He points out racks where casks were once stacked and where an old-fashioned bottling apparatus collects dust. Bottles are nestled in racks that rise from the floor to the ceiling, but few of the bottles are dusty. "We don’t run a museum," Nardella says. "I am often asked, ‘Where are the very, very old wines?’ I say, ‘They have all been enjoyed.’ "

Those wines might be gone from the Stafford’s cellar, but Londoners seeking a bottle or a case of an old vintage for their own collections know they can count on a shop such as Berrys, whose inventory includes 1942 Château d’Yquem (about $2,385 per .75-liter bottle), to find it for them. "Many people are proud to tell their friends, ‘This is my wine merchant,’ " says Berrys’ Staples. "We try to look after them."

The Stafford London Kempinski, +44.207.493.0111, www.kempinski.com

Berry Bros. & Rudd
3 St. James’s Street, Mayfair. Where do Londoners go when they want to stock their cellars or just select a great wine without any guesswork? Berry Bros. & Rudd, the world’s largest merchant of fine wine and, at 313 years old, the most senior shop in London, is among the favorites. Berrys has display rooms in the wings, but the overall atmosphere feels like that of a private club. The business is akin to an investment counseling service, with serious oenophiles coming here for advice about purchasing some of the world’s finest wines by the case. Those wines include first-growth Bordeaux, of which Berrys controls large allocations. “Our retail sales are only about five percent of our business,” says Berrys sales and marketing director Simon Staples. “The rest comes when you get to know customers. They come in, they sit down, we talk about things over a meal.” Berrys’ web site includes an online exchange for selling and buying wines that clients store at the company’s warehouse.
+44.20.7393.6042, www.bbr.com
 
Justerini & Brooks
61 St. James’s Street, Westminster. Founded in 1749, this wine and spirits firm may be most familiar to American drinkers as the creator of J&B blended whisky. Justerini & Brooks serves more as a wine consultant than as a traditional retailer. It has no retail shop, but it does sell wine online, and its office is open to customers who want advice on purchasing or collecting wine or want to place orders. The business controls large allocations of fine Bordeaux, as well as exclusives on several leading Burgundy crus and Grosse Gewächs—the best of the dry German Rieslings. The company’s extensive services include cellaring of wine collections.
+44.20.7484.6400, www.justerinis.com

Lea & Sandeman
170 Fulham Road, Chelsea. This company is headquartered in the fashionable section of Chelsea known as the Beach and operates three other shops scattered around London. Lea & Sandeman has exclusives on wines from many of the most innovative Tuscan estates and an impressive array of grower Champagnes that outshine the grand marques.
+44.20.7244.0522, www.leaandsandeman.co.uk

Harrods
87–135 Brompton Road, Knightsbridge. London’s better department stores have impressive wine sections, but while Selfridges, for example, keeps a well-thumbed copy of Parker’s Wine Buyer’s Guide prominently displayed next to $800 bottles of Vega Sicilia, Harrods dispatches a fleet of knowledgeable salespeople to its floor. A recent expansion created, among other additions, a new tasting room and another room devoted entirely to Champagne. The wine shop has London’s best selection of splits, and the properly aged Burgundies, Barolos, Barbarescos, and Bordeaux are striking enough for customers to overlook the premium that accompanies the Harrods imprimatur.
+44.20.7893.8777, www.harrods.com

Handford Wines
105 Old Brompton Road, South Kensington. Minor gentry, businesspeople, and ambassadorial staff rely on the recommendations of this neighborhood shop’s staff. On one recent afternoon, a customer requested a house white and red. After manager Jack Chaddock asked about the gentleman’s preferences, he suggested a middle-of-the-road Claret (2002 Château Rauzan-Ségla) as the red and a Chassagne Montrachet (2007 Sauzet) as the white. The customer declined a tasting and ordered three cases of each.
+44.20.7589.6113, www.handford.net

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