Have you picked out your Christmas dinner wines yet? Do you know how best to serve them? Renowned taster, Decanter consultant editor and all-round bon viveur Steven Spurrier opens the doors to his country retreat, his 4,000-bottle cellar, and gives GUY WOODWARD a few pointers on how to play the host.
For all the detailed analysis, for all the involved tasting notes, the consumption of wine is and always has been a leisure activity. Sorry, a pleasure activity.
We all enjoy drinking wine. And there’s no better time to uncork a few long-anticipated bottles than Christmas. But do you ever feel a bit of pressure from family and friends as you uncork that special bottle? Do you find yourself detached from the hubbub of a party, sat to one side with your nose in a glass, in analytical, rather than celebratory mode?
Imagine, then, the approach of one of the world’s pre-eminent critics, tasters and writers, with 40 years in the wine trade and a reputation as one of the most authoritative palates around.
Steven Spurrier, Decanter’s consultant editor, has over 4,000 bottles in his cellar, a share of a Bordeaux château, and spends most of his time tasting wines in London, and jet-setting around the globe, being paid handsomely to taste wines for various businesses, as well as visiting renowned producers the world over, all keen for his verdict.
To those in the wine trade, Spurrier’s typical pose is in the soulless environs of the tasting room, glass in one hand, tasting notes in the other.
So to see him reclining in his conservatory with Bella, his wife of 37 years, at his family’s country home in Dorset, is to see the naturally sociable side of the man. Completely at ease, he is engaging, affable and utterly charming. And I’m a man.
Spurrier is a social animal, and loves playing the host. Confronted by a writer, photographer and art director, he insists we stay for lunch, which then becomes dinner. And the wines soon start flowing.
‘I generally like to relax back into the country on a Friday with a good Côtes du Rhône,’ says Spurrier. ‘On the Saturday night we might have something quite fine like the second wine of a classed growth Médoc or a premier cru Burgundy. Then on Sunday evening we normally watch the television and have pasta, so it would be an Italian red.’
This is a man who enjoys planning his wine consumption (in mid-October, he’d already selected his wines for Christmas Day). So is there ever a day when he doesn’t drink wine? ‘Never,’ he says. ‘I drink a bottle and a quarter every day. Two glasses for lunch, five in the evening.’
Despite Spurrier’s reputation for championing emerging wine regions (he made his name as a young merchant when organising the famed Paris tasting of 1976, in which Californian wines outshone the established stars of Bordeaux), his cellar is 99% Old World.
‘Wine is such a part of my life that what I buy for this cellar is as much a reflection of my own tastes as the house (built around 1840), the furniture and the pictures. It’s all very conservative. In our London flat there is no furniture more than 50 years old, whereas here hardly anything is less than 150 years old.
‘I love New World wines, and I’m passionate about seeing how each country chooses its varieties. But if I’ve had a lot of New World wines in London, when I’m down here, it’s a different mindset. We’re in a 170-year-old house, and the wines suit this existence.
‘Look at the price of some New World wines. I’d prefer to have three bottles of 1998 Médoc cru bourgeois – or perhaps two Rauzan-Ségla or Léoville Barton at £25 – than one bottle of 2001 Argentinian Malbec from Domingo Wotsit at 15 % alcohol and £50.’
Essentially, though, Spurrier argues that New World wines don’t go well with food, something which is crucial to his enjoyment of good living. As well as being mainly Old World, most of the wines Spurrier drinks for pleasure are red: ‘I love white wine, but for me it is an apéritif, not a main course wine. So even with fish, I generally drink red. Except at lunch. Then again, white often goes much better with cheese.’
As he starts conjuring up images of food and wine, Spurrier relaxes further into his role as host. So what does the man with a 3,000-bottle cellar pull off the shelves at Christmas? And what is his general approach to the day?
‘We’re generally about 12–14,’ he says. ‘We always have vintage Champagne and open the presents before lunch. We serve smoked salmon on toast in the drawing room, standing up.’ Last year it was 1990 Pol Roger, this year it’s Gosset Grande Reserve.
‘By Christmas, the cellar is about 8?C,’ he continues, ‘so I put the Champagne in the fridge for half an hour. I don’t use an ice bucket – it’s drunk quickly enough not to worry. But in normal circumstances, with the cellar at 12?C, I’d put it in the fridge for an hour, then put it in a big ice bucket with lots of water.
The temperature in Spurrier’s cellar goes from 6?C in winter to a maximum of 17?C in the summer. The variation doesn’t bother him. ‘I much prefer having a cellar where the temperature moves slowly rather than having air-conditioning which brings it down to 12?C and it stays at 12?C the whole time. Some American cellars are air-conditioned to the nth degree and the temperature never changes. I think this stuns the wine, whereas my wines live with the conditions.’ He claims never to have had a wine spoiled by storage.
Given a fairly low cellar temperature at this time of year, how does Spurrier prepare his main course wine? ‘I’ll take it out in the morning, probably a very good cru bourgeois, premier cru red Burgundy or a top red Rhône,’ he says, looking at his printed cellar-list.
‘I’ve got 15 bottles of Tourelles de Longueville (the second wine of Château Pichon-Longueville) 1990, so I’d bring up lots of them, so we don’t run out.’ Does he taste the wine first? ‘Yes, I taste all the wines, because I’ve been caught out too often by opening six bottles of wine, not tasting them all, only to find, when people are being topped up that the fourth one’s corked.
‘If wines need decanting, I would probably double decant. I don’t like serving wines in decanters, because it gets confusing. And I think having the bottle is fun. I wouldn’t decant Burgundy, but I would double decant Bordeaux.
‘It would always be Bordeaux or [red] Burgundy for Christmas lunch. The Burgundy would be something like [consults list again] Mercurey Clos du Barraults Michel Juillot 1990. Or Beaune-Bressandes Louis Jadot 1996. I have a tendency to go for Burgundy – I have done in recent years as it’s more celebratory, more emotional. More fun, in a way. And it goes with turkey.’
Ah yes, the food. ‘Bella’s domain,’ he nods. ‘I used to be a keen cook but I’m not inventive. I have to buy the ingredients and follow a recipe – it doesn’t come naturally. Bella can open the cupboard, see we’ve got that, that and that, and think, “Okay, let’s have this.”’
So what will Bella be cooking up this year? ‘Turkey with everything,’ she says. ‘Sausage, bacon, cranberry sauce, bread sauce, two types of stuffing. It goes in the coolest oven of the Aga overnight and it steams from the inside, and then you crisp it up in the morning and finish it off for lunch.’
And will Steven feel the need to say a few words about his wine choice? ‘On Christmas day, I might tap on the glass and say: ‘By the way, the wine we’re having is x, but at a dinner party I certainly would not. It’s not meant to be the centre of attention. The wine gets passed round, or the bottle is left by the decanter, and quite often people will comment of their own free will.
‘I never intend for the wine to play any part other than enhancing the evening. I don’t want people to have to think about the wine. You just want them to say, “Gosh this is good, what is it?”.’
After lunch, it’ll be a bottle of Sauternes or port. ‘We don’t do after-dinner drinks. I do actually like Cognac and Armagnac, but wine tends to suit our ambience. The only trouble is, vintage port makes me snore.’
One gets the impression that there is a fair quantity of wine consumed on such occasions. ‘I generally go by the rule that for a party of six, you need six bottles plus one. So for a party of 12, we’ll have three bottles of Champagne, three bottles of white, six bottles of red and a bottle or two of Sauternes or port. Nothing makes me happier than coming downstairs on a Monday morning and seeing 15 empty bottles waiting to be recycled.’
It is with this liberal approach in mind that Spurrier selects wines when hosting friends for an informal meal: ‘I open a lot of second wines in the £12–17 bracket because our friends consume a hell of a lot – even more than I do. I don’t want to cheapskate them, but for the kind of cheerful evening we’re having, the quality of wine is absolutely fabulous. If I opened a Léoville Barton, it would slow the conversation down, we’d have to make a fuss of the wine, and I’m very much against that in a social occasion.’
Spurrier generally has a maximum spend of £30 a bottle. Not because he’s mean, he adds, but between £15 and £30 is, ‘the price at which I’m comfortable drinking and which, to my palate, offers the best drinking value’. As one would expect, though, he lets his wines mature. His cellar contains Pape Clément 1986, Chambertin Clos de Bèze Rousseau 1978 and Beaucastel 1990, all of which are worth more than the £30-a-bottle limit in today’s market.
‘I can afford grand cru white Burgundy (he recently bought a case of Corton-Charlemagne Bonneau de Martray 2000) but I’m much happier drinking a good premier cru Chassagne, Puligny or Meursault at £25 a bottle than a grand cru at £60 a bottle. I just don’t think they’re worth twice the price.
‘When you go up the scale, from Bourgogne Blanc to the villages to premiers crus and then the grands crus, of course they taste twice as good. But in the atmosphere we drink in here, which is cheerful, en famille, I don’t need a twice-as-good wine.’
But surely sometimes he must want to detach himself and concentrate on a wine he’s been looking forward to drinking, savour it and make a note of it?
‘I make a note of wines I have here in any quantity to keep track of how the wine is going. But I certainly don’t note down every wine I drink. Just those which I’ll be coming back to.
‘I’m not good with computers, so I keep it all by hand in a notepad. So for the 1990 Lady Langoa (Langoa Barton’s second wine), tasted three years ago, I put, “Still good colour, fragrant bouquet, lots of fruit, maximum five years”.’
The only time Spurrier sits in front of a computer to notate his wines is when he types them up as they come into the cellar. ‘Then I won’t touch them for a few years.’
So how does he know when to open them? ‘It’s all up here,’ he says, pointing to his head. ‘I know, for instance, that 2002 white Burgundy will be drinking in 2004–2008. Red Burgundy will be 2006–12, or 2015 for the grands crus.
Spurrier spends around £7,000 a year on his cellar, of which he sells £3,000-worth. Recently, he’s gone overboard on the 1999 Brunello di Montalcinos, buying 10–12 cases, and also snapping up 8–10 cases of the crus Beaujolais 2003.
‘The last year I bought Beaujolais crus was 1996, otherwise it is just the odd bottle. But the 2003s are excellent. I’m also becoming passionate about Italian wines and I plan to buy more from Spain.
‘I guess there is nothing in the cellar under £10 retail, and apart from the very rare bottle of first growth claret, the most expensive wine I have is the half case of Vosne-Romanée premier cru DRC 1999. In the 1960s, we drank first growths on a regular basis. Then they cost next to nothing.’
The Vosne-Romanée is the wine that, ‘emotionally’, Spurrier is most looking forward to opening. But it won’t be for a few years yet. ‘Perhaps I’ll have the first bottle when I hit 65.’ he says.
Written by Guy Woodward