A life in the trade

02 February 2018

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QUITE coincidentally, I am celebrating 60 years in the wine trade, and I am often asked how I arrived there. The answer is: “By chance.” Having studied modern languages at school, my careers master suggested that I should work either on a palm-oil plantation in the Congo, with Unilever, or in Chile, with the Bank of London.

I had interviews with both these companies, and was rejected by both: I had been born 36 hours too young for National Service, and neither company could accept anyone who had not done their bit. As a result, I finished up as an office boy in a Liverpool wine company.

At that time there was a small number of branded wines that dominated the market, such as Emva Cyprus Sherry, and Lutomer Riesling. Few have survived, although two notable exceptions are Mouton Cadet and Blue Nun. It seems remarkable now that, at one time, it may have appeared fashionable to have straw Chianti or empty Mateus bottles as bases for lamps. Of course, there was a limited market for classic clarets and Burgundies, as well as Champagne, although all these were not widely in evidence on Merseyside.

I am fortunate to have spent my career over the very period when the wine trade finally blossomed. I was able to travel widely during this time, and taste the better wines of Australia and California on the spot; and I can claim to have accompanied the gestation period of fine wine in New Zealand. For me, South America and South Africa came rather later, for different reasons.

There were a few wine merchants in Britain, such as John Avery, of Averys of Bristol, who were aware of the potential of New World wines, but many have put the crucial date when their qualities came to be globally recognised as 24 May 1976.

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On this date, a young English wine merchant, Steven Spurrier, who owned a wine shop in Paris, Les Caves de la Madeleine, and his American assistant, Patricia Gallagher, organised a tasting in which ten great wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy were pitted against ten of the leading wines from the Napa Valley, in California. This came to be known as “The Judgement of Paris”. Its reputation relied on the fact that the judges, including some of France’s leading wine experts, having tasted the wines blind, decided that, overall, the Californian wines were better than the French: the top red and the top white wines came from the far side of the Atlantic.

From that moment, European wines have not reigned supreme as of right. Now, we can expect great wines from all over the world. I consider myself lucky to have lived, and drunk, over this period. Each day gives me the opportunity to discover something new and, perhaps, exciting.

Here are three wines from South America which I hope you might enjoy. From Argentina, crammed full of flavour, is the white Tilimuqui Fairtrade Organic Torrontés 2016 (Waitrose, £9.49), and the solid red Tupungato Cabernet Malbec 2015 (Marks & Spencer, £7.13, in a case of six); and, from the other side of the Andes, another full-bodied red: the Chilean Santa Rita Medalla Real Carmenère Colchagua Valley (Majestic £7.99, as part of a mix-six order.) As they say, “Enjoy!”

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