The Barbican's artistic director Graham Sheffield has a passion for wine

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  • Tuesday 2 November 2010

The outgoing artistic director of the Barbican tells Margaret Rand he loves his Bordeaux but has no desire to collect more ‘fashion accessories’

Graham Sheffield

By the time you read this, Graham Sheffield will have moved to Hong Kong. Not to escape the repercussions of this article, but to take up the role of CEO of the West Kowloon District Authority. His brief? To plan a vast cultural centre. As yet there is no master plan, no designs, not even a hole in the ground. Everything awaits his arrival.

Cultural centres are familiar to Sheffield. The job he’s leaving is artistic director of London music and arts centre the Barbican, where he’s been for 15 years; before that he was music director at the South Bank Centre. Encouraged by Hong Kong’s zero import duty, he’s taking some wine with him, and installing a Eurocave in his new flat. But a glance round his cellar reveals wines that are for drinking rather than investing; mainly Bordeaux – Chasse Spleen, Léoville-Barton, Pedesclaux, Pichon-Lalande – Jaboulet Hermitage and Beaucastel from the Rhône as well as Rieussec and Giraud Sauternes, a few German Rieslings from the 1980s and Dom Pérignon Champagne. ‘I stopped buying Bordeaux in 2005,’ he says. ‘I thought, “Sod it, I’m not paying that”.’

Sheffield read classics at Edinburgh University but then switched to music. ‘I thought of becoming a professional pianist, but my technique was not really up to it, nor my nerve. Then I wanted to be an opera director, and did a stage management course, but was offered a job at the BBC producing music programmes.’ For one, called Tasting Notes, he hooked up with Robin Yapp of Wiltshire merchant Yapp Bros, whose 10th anniversary list (in 1979) had sparked the idea, and commissioned songs on the subject of wine from composers such as Harrison Birtwistle and Colin Matthews; Tasting Notes won a Sony Award.

‘I didn’t have a clue what I was doing at the BBC when I went there, and when I went to the South Bank I’d never run a concert hall before. It was basically all self-taught. Now there are courses in arts administration. But whether you’re working on the subsidised side or the commercial side or between the two, you can’t teach it. You can just teach about the world in which it happens.’ The rest, like wine, is a voyage of discovery.

Sheffield’s love of wine was developed in his father’s cellar. ‘When he retired in the early 1970s he laid down some 1970 claret from [ex-London merchant] Dolamore – six cases of Léoville-Las-Cases, St-Pierre (Sevaistre, as it was then), Ormes de Pez, La Rose Pauillac… He paid nothing, and we didn’t finish the last bottles until a few years ago.’

Before that Sheffield had started buying on his own: ‘When I bought my first flat, there was a rack under the stairs, and I began to experiment at the cheaper end of wine. I got more interested and started going to tastings, and then my parents moved to Suffolk and I started going to [local merchant]Adnams and tried this and that, and began teaching myself. When we moved to this house there was a cellar, so I put some racks up. The first vintage I put in here was 1982; we had no children then. I’ve since become less interested in that side because so many wines have become fashion accessories. I’m more inclined to search out different things.’

The benefit of having bought cleverly for many years is that you can discover gems in the cellar. Not long ago he decided he had enough vintages of Beaucastel to stage a vertical tasting (with a few gaps filled in by a friend). He put it on in aid of a charitable foundation he set up for young girls in Bangalore who have been put out of their homes by their families.

Now, though, it’s all about exploration for Sheffield, who is a Chevalier de Tastevin de Bourgogne (he describes the initiation ceremony as ‘somewhere between Freemasonry and Meistersinger’). He buys wine from Rhône, southwest France, Burgundy – ‘but not the top wines’ – and Spain. He investigates Argentinian Malbec (we agree the cheaper ones are generally better) and Torrontes at London’s Gaucho restaurants; Chilean Carmenere and some Australian wines. From Italy he likes the central region (‘they’re even making interesting whites now – there’s an oak-aged Viognier I love’), Piedmont and Alto Adige. ‘Basically I have an Old World palate. I don’t like heavily oaked, very alcoholic wines.’

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