Disappointingly, protocol prevents any media interviews in the House of Lords. But The Rt Hon Baroness Neuberger not only agrees to meet me at the Lords, she also invites me for a quick cuppa. Walking through the corridors of power, my eyes are on stalks as we pass several famous politicos. There are even more in the noisy tea room, including to my left and right, Lords Steel and Myners. I feel like a star-struck schoolboy.
The experience is also a bit of a first for the Liberal Democrat peer. ‘I’ve never been interviewed about wine before,’ she tells me later in a nearby (not so grand) Westminster coffee shop. ‘But I’ve been rather looking forward to it. Wine is one of my greatest pleasures in life and something I love to talk about.’
The cerebral, engaging Julia, Baroness Neuberger, is good at talking about most things, including such weighty matters as education, philanthropy, religion, health and ethics. A prolific writer, broadcaster and thinker, she was Britain’s second-ever female rabbi and the first to have her own synagogue. Not surprisingly, she has received a string of titles, honours and appointments. In 1997 she was made CEO of healthcare charity The King’s Fund, and in 2004 became a Dame of the British Empire.
The following year she became a life peer and in 2007, Gordon Brown made her the Government’s champion for volunteering. So where did her interest in wine first come from? ‘My grandfather was a merchant in southern Germany, before the family emigrated to the UK,’ she says. ‘So I think it was in the blood. My father liked the sweeter-style German wines. But my mother preferred tea or whisky.’ It was at Newnham College, Cambridge that she first began to drink wine more regularly.
‘Most of it was very cheap and not very nice. But I do remember drinking Yquem and some really good Tokaji. Dessert wines, especially German, have remained an abiding passion. But they have to be good or they’re not really worth bothering with.’
Her favourite wine-producing countries are France, Italy, Germany and Hungary. But she’s also potty about Lebanon’s Chateau Musar, following it since the 1980s. And she also likes some New Zealand Pinot Noirs and Australian labels such as Tahbilk. ‘I’m pretty conservative and not especially adventurous,’ she admits. ‘I’m certainly not a follower of fashion.’
Most of her 30-case ‘cellar’ is French, comprising Champagne, claret, Rhône and white Burgundy, with a smattering of Alsace. Interestingly, she doesn’t keep any kosher wine – ‘mostly it’s not very good’. Baroness Neuberger knows her Bordeaux and has been fortunate enough to have been treated to some amazing dinners and tastings featuring various first growths and super seconds. Firm favourites include Léoville-Las-Cases and wines from the Moueix stable. ‘But sadly, I’m not in that league. I just can’t afford the big names.’
For special occasions she has Léoville-Barton, Lynch-Bages, Grand-Puy-Lacoste and Gruaud-Larose. But more often than not she’ll open her beloved Château Cissac, which she has in various vintages going back to the 1990. ‘And on the Right Bank, I like Canon Fronsac – just delicious, and very good value.’ Though she enjoys red Burgundy, she drinks more white. ‘I have a weakness for mature Chassagne-Montrachet especially,’ she says. ‘I drink it only occasionally, but it’s a wine that really sings.’ Favourite domaines are Fontaine-Gagnard in Chassagne, Leflaive in Puligny and Matrot in Meursault.
But she tends to buy most of her white Burgundy from the Mâconnais and Côte Chalonnaise. ‘You get good value and an echo of the grander wines from the Côte d’Or,’ she adds. For Champagne, she prefers Gosset or a small grower such as Henri Chauvet or Albert Beerens – ‘not the likes of Krug or Cristal. Honestly, I’ve never really noticed the difference. Except for the price.
‘My husband likes wine, but I love it,’ she says. So I’ve always done the wine buying while he does most of the cooking.’ Almost all her wines come from contacts at merchants Bibendum and Private Cellar. ‘I’ve known them both for years and they know my palate and my pocket,’ she adds. ‘I still enjoy buying wine enormously, but I’ve noticed we don’t drink as much as we used to. Nowadays, if we open a bottle we don’t always finish it. Unless, of course, it’s Grand-Puy-Lacoste.’
Written by John Stimpfig