The late Princess of Wales’ brother inherited his father’s depleted cellar. He plans to return it to its glory days, writes Margaret Rand
Trying to interview Earl Spencer was not easy. We asked for two hours but were given one, including photography time. We were not to ask about his late sister, the Princess of Wales, nor about any living member of the royal family, and were to confirm that the piece would not appear anywhere other than in Decanter, and would tie in with the launch of Earl Spencer’s paperback edition of Prince Rupert: the Last Cavalier (out on 29 May in all good bookshops).
All fair enough, I suppose, but not especially endearing. It all left me totally unprepared to meet somebody quite so nice. Earl Spencer is hard-working, responsible, devoted to his estate and determined to pass it on intact. He talks warmly of his family. He also has the habit, common to owners of historic houses with streams of visitors, of unobtrusively adding explanatory subclauses to his conversation. So he won’t just say, for example, ‘Pevsner said of the house that…’; he’ll say, ‘the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner said…’ He’s thoroughly, but amiably, professional.
And he has enviable amounts of cellar space. The cellars have uneven flagstones, and wooden columns support the ceilings. Old bin labels are pinned to the racks, in no particular order. One says ‘Greek wine, bottled 1802’. A fortified sweet Muscat, perhaps? Earl Spencer hated coming down here as a child: it wasn’t well lit, ‘and in a house like this you can never get rid of all the rats’.
Later, his father kept it under lock and key; so the most he can produce in the way of teenage misbehaviour is having smuggled the odd bag-inbox wine into Eton, ‘more for the dare than anything else’.
As a wine collector he is slightly betwixt and between at the moment. His father bought a lot of wine and established a good cellar, but in his last years he was weakened by a stroke, and his cellar was a bit neglected: ‘Some hadn’t been stored in good condition, and some hadn’t been drunk at the right time. So we sold the wines that we couldn’t drink in time.’
At the moment it looks like a cellar in need of replenishing: there’s some good Burgundy, some Léoville-Barton 1985, some Champagne, quite a lot of South African – but it’s patchy. There’s another cellar, though, with some very good stuff in it, apparently, because this house needs wine: there are shooting days for local businessmen, and corporate events, and weekends for rich Americans, and all must be supplied with the appropriate wines. The late earl was ‘quite traditional in English terms; he was typical of his generation, and he very much liked claret and Sauternes’ – Pétrus and Yquem, to be specific. He himself was quite abstemious, says his son, but he loved the look on his guests’ faces when he produced something spectacular.
Guests today are unlikely to go short of a drink, but Earl Spencer confesses that he’s no expert. He’s fond of red Burgundy, in particular Gevrey-Chambertin. And his younger son is called Ned, so there’s some New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc called The Ned – ‘I bought a lot in case they go out of business.’ Then there’s South African wine – that’s a bit of a passion, really. It was in South Africa, he says, that he began to understand the rudiments of wine.
‘I was working as a television correspondent, on a series about 12 great houses of the world. In South Africa I chose Meerlust and became great friends with Johannes Myburgh. I still drink Meerlust to this day.’ And other South African wines: ‘I love the country, and I know some of the growers; I like that personal involvement.’
Personal involvement is taking another turn now: he’s about to plant a vineyard at Althorp, in the old walled garden. The soil tests have been done, and this year the ground will be prepared for planting next year. But planting what?
‘Germanic varieties,’ he says. I hold my breath. ‘Gewürztraminer.’ Phew. Then there’s the question of replenishing the cellar. The sale of his father’s wines realised some £80–90,000, and the plan was to plough it back. ‘But so much of my role here is keeping the plates spinning, and sometimes you forget one. My older son is 14, though, and one of the things a house like this teaches you is that 14 soon becomes 40. Part of the joy and responsibility of living here is planning ahead.’
He wants to hand on an organically working cellar; one where wine is regularly bought, matured, sometimes drunk, sometimes sold. The cellars were tidied up for our photo shoot and that, he says, might prove the spur to address the matter. Oldest son Louis is not interested in wine at the moment, though all the children are offered wine as a matter of course. He himself was introduced to wine with water as a child.
‘It’s important that they have their first taste of drinking wine with a parent. I’m keen that they know their alcohol tolerance.’ The evolving cellar will not go unappreciated. ‘I always thought gardening and wine were middle aged. I’m 43 now; I can’t drink as much as I used to, and I may as well have good wine.