We drink a lot of wine when in London. There is just so much available at so many price points that buying wine is easy. Every meal we have at the serviced apartment we stay at is accompanied by wine that we have bought. Every meal at a fancy restaurant is accompanied by wine. Champagne drinking starts on board the flight from India and ends with a final glass on the return flight. We like wine.
Most times we bought wine that cost about £ 10. If we were slashing out we would go to a maximum of £ 30. The wines were so good. Just so much better than any Indian wine.
London has some serious wine merchants. In the days gone by you had two chains of stores that really made wine so accessible – Odd Bins and Nicolas. Tragically over the years both chains have shut. Then we shopped for wines either at a slightly upmarket retailer Jeroboams or bought wine reviewed by the London Times or equivalent London newspaper from a supermarket. One of our all-time favourites was a Red made by Michel Chapoutier and sold by Waitrose – this was a real bargain [or so we thought].
Then about 4 years ago came the upstart Hedonism, about which I have written earlier. We started to frequent the store and got some good wine.
A couple of years ago we stumbled into the magnificent Berry Brothers & Rudd a 317 year old wine merchant in St James. Why we had not been there before will remain life's mysteries. This was a real eye opener for us. Just to give you a perspective and the fascinating history, in 1698 the store opened as a tea, spice and snuff merchant, as these three would have been a very very precious commodities then. The store was conveniently located just outside the St James Palace where King Henry VIII lived. You must know about King Henry VIII – the King that separated the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, he of the six wives who are best remembered by “divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived”.
The store had a huge pair of scales, which still stand proudly in the centre of the store, to weigh the bags of tea and spice. The store launched the world’s first loyalty card. Anybody who had the loyalty card could get himself weighed on the scales free of cost! This was a huge attraction as, if you wanted to get yourself weighed in those days you had to go to an Apothecary – or pharmacist and get this done at a cost. The store still has leather bound registers from those days – with special pages earmarked for regular customers – giving details of the weight of people. Some notations are amusing, I had a heavy meal and I wore my heaviest boots, to justify or explain the weight gain! How little things have changed over the years.
Then, there was a fire in the St James Palace and the wine stock was burned. So an opportunity to stock wine in the cellars below the store was identified and since then Berry Brothers & Rudd became wine and spirits merchants. They were the owners of the Cutty Sark whiskey for many years which they sold in 2010. Their revenues today are in excess of £145 Million.
They now stock more than 9 million bottles in humidity and temperature controlled cellars in Basingstoke in Hampshire. One fascinating service they offer is known as “Cellar Plan’. You can buy your wine which you believe will be ready for drinking in say 5 years and they will store it for you. Of course this is a hugely risky affair for you as owner of the wine as well as something you need to have staggering knowledge of. To be able to predict that a certain wine will be ready for drinking some years in the future, is to me, a skill that is unimaginable.
Today the miles of cellars under the store have been converted to state of the art conference rooms, dining rooms and function rooms. The shop on top continues to function and is absolutely wonderful. The company is still family owned by the same two families the Berry’s and the Rudd’s. The most popular wine they sell at £9.90 is the absolutely glorious Good Ordinary Claret. The wines are so good, and such good value for money that we have started buying all our wine from the shop. Once you are registered with them, record is kept of every bottle you buy. So you have a record and can make notes and remember which wine you bought and liked or disliked. The staff are friendly and totally without any sort of attitude. They give you as much care and attention if you are buying the £9.90 the Good Ordinary Claret or something that costs hundreds or thousands of Pounds.
Berry Brothers & Rudd run almost 300 courses every year. These all have to do with wine, obviously, from pairing wine with food, to courses on specific wines to wine appreciation. HRH booked us into an all-day Wine School course. This included lunch. So off we went on rainy Saturday morning. We had to taste and learn about 12 wines followed by a glass of Champagne and then have a wine pairing with the meal. We were both looking forward to this. There were 30 of us on this course. The course was being conducted by Rebecca Lamont head of the Wine School. We had place cards and were soon seated, and ready to go.
On the table in front of us were 12 glasses of wine, 1 glass of water, 1 bottle of water, a spittoon and some notes. We could drink the wine but were asked to sniff, swirl, sip and chew before spitting it out. We were told to drink a lot of water, I drank 3 bottles. The differences in wine were dramatic. Obviously the wines were chosen as being the most representative of the type, and each type had a wine from the Old World and the other from the New World. This was really interesting.
We learnt a lot. For example you may have had a wine that said on the label that it was say 40% Oaked. Now what did that really mean? Very simply it was much like making an Orange Squash. The bottle was simply comprised of 40% of one wine that was matured in Oak barrels and the balance 60% of the bottle consisted of wine that had not! Or that in the UK tax of £2.08 is paid one every bottle of wine. So if you are buying a bottle in retail that costs say £4.00 you can imagine how really poor the wine inside would be. Or that a higher alcohol content in the wine results in an heavier mouth feel.
Some of the tastings were quite revealing. Remember that we were blind tastings; I preferred a £13 wine to a £78 wine of the same kind. The whole tasting was fascinating. Then we had to break for lunch. A glass of Champagne was served. It was very refreshing after all the wines we had tasted. I must confess that out of the 12 glasses we tasted I must have drunk possibly 5 teaspoons. The rest was spat out or simply left in the glass. But sniffing all those glasses left one a little lightheaded and the sipping and chewing all of them made you feel like you had drunk a lot!
Lunch was a sit down affair with a printed menu and 6 wines to be tasted blind. These 6 were from what we had tasted earlier. We were to decide which of them worked best with the food we were being served. This was even more fascinating. The wines that tasted inferior in the cold classroom suddenly tasted brilliant when paired with food. We also learnt that heavily Tannic wines – the Shiraz or Syrrah - are dulled by meat protein. This was amply demonstrated when eating the Venison with the Shiraz. Mind you, in India you get a lot of Shiraz which we dislike. In retrospective, my guess is the reason for disliking Shiraz in India is because we are given Shiraz to drink before the meal. If we were given Shiraz with a meat based meal I am certain it would be far more drinkable. When the meal ended, the Chef Stewart Turner came out to rapturous applause. His food was really good.
Gin Cured Salmon
Blackberry & Apple with Custard
At the end of the day, I was struck by three factors. First, the sale of professionalism with which this course was run is quite unlike what we are used to. Just to put things in perspective, we were given in total 12 + 6 glasses of wine. So that is 18 wines multiplied by 30 people. Just to run this one class Berry Brothers & Rudd had to provide 360 wine glasses, all spotless and polished and all exactly the same. Second was the quality of the class material itself. The level of competence and skill of our teacher Rebecca Lamont was excellent. She was really good. Coupled with this knowledge was the manner in which the class was constructed. Wine is such a huge subject, but the ability to distill all this subject matter into easily understandable simple concepts for novices like us was something that comes with intelligence. The last was the quality of the food served. I was simply gobsmacked. This was high end food served to 30 of us, all served hot, or cold, when required, and beautifully presented. I am sure you will see this in the photographs.