His great great grandfather designed the London sewage system, and he has been accused of taking prime time TV to a gutter level. Yet OLIVER STYLES finds the media tycoon has exquisite taste…
You might sneer at Peter Bazalgette by association – as creative director and UK chairman of TV production company Endemol, this is the man behind the intellectually inert reality TV phenomenon Big Brother. But he’s also a wine-loving, opera-going gastronome, and creator of the only TV programme of the last two decades to consistently push wine into the mainstream.
Bazalgette is undoubtedly a populist (‘BB’ regularly attracts six million viewers). He is proud that his TV programme Food & Drink, which ran for 20 years in the 1980s and 1990s, was in some way responsible for ‘bringing wine to the people’. And he condemns the wine writers who attacked Jilly Goolden and Oz Clarke, the show’s presenters, as ‘snobby’ and ‘up their own arses’.
Yet he can, on occasion, appear removed from his self-styled image as a man of the people. He talks in a frightfully well-spoken timbre, but can’t understand why London wine merchants are ‘full of public schoolboys’.
He also enjoys what many would see as the highbrow entertainment of theatre and opera (he’s a benefactor of the English National Opera) and is co-chairman of the British Academy of Gastronomes.
He likes to combine all three loves: one story involves dinner in a box at the opera and eight bottles of Mâcon-Lugny that inexplicably turned out to contain water. ‘It’s a miracle when you turn water into wine but it’s not a miracle to turn wine into water,’ he says.
The 52 year-old Bazalgette got into wine through his family. He started drinking it when he was 14 and still has a few of his late father’s bottles, including six of Château d’Yquem 1985, a Hugel Riesling Vendanges Tardives from the 1970s (he can be frustratingly offhand about vintages) and a couple of Bonnes Mares from 1993 and 1994. ‘I mostly drank the other stuff,’ he says.
As for his own collection, he buys his wines from Mayfair Cellars and Bibendum and, as ‘a chip off the old block’, remains classic in his tastes. He goes for top clarets – mainly first and second growths, red Burgundy, northern Rhône, Champagne and Sauternes.
His desert island wine is white Burgundy. He particularly likes Chassagne- and Puligny-Montrachet and Meursault – ‘throaty with lots of character’, and particularly rates Alain Coche of Meursault’s Domaine Julien Coche-Debord (‘lovely wines’), Bernard Morey in Chassagne and Darviot-Perrin. In fact, he bought so much white Burgundy in the mid-1990s that he’s had to throw some away. ‘Oxidised… horrible to admit’.
As for red Burgundies, he recently opened a bottle of La Tâche 2001 which was ‘magnificent’. Although he concedes that it may have been a tad too young, it ranks with d’Yquem 1953 and a Corton-Charlemagne as one of his greatest ever wines.
old school ties
His favoured clarets are all traditional Bordeaux: cases of Lafite 1990 and Cheval-Blanc 1989 are just two examples from his cellar. He buys two or three cases of Bordeaux a year but, ‘I try and buy good stuff’. He thinks that Léoville-Las-Cases can be as good as the first growths and has a particular fondness for Château Talbot.
‘Another claret I absolutely love is Palmer – that’s a glorious wine,’ he says, with a whisper of admiration.
His wife Hilary is also a wine aficionado, but marital harmony does not always stretch to his wines. He loves Côte-Rotie and is ‘particularly fond’ of Condrieu. But, he points out, his wife ‘rather disapproves’, believing his love of Viognier to be ‘pretentious’.
The couple are currently renovating a house between Tuscany and Umbria and discovering the local wines – Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Brunello – as well as experimenting with a few Supertuscans, notably Sassicaia.
‘It always amazes me that these incredibly expensive wines have really no denomination at all. I mean, they’re as close to illegal as a wine can get, which I rather like – it’s a contradiction.’
Bazalgette seems to revel in contradictions and does not have an entirely Old World palate. He loves Californian Pinot Noir – ‘they do it really well’ – especially Saintsbury; although he says pure Californian Merlots are ‘lousy – the best description I can give is that they have their cleavage hanging out.’
What else does he drink? He buys non-vintage champagne and ages it for a few years – a trick he learned from Jilly and Oz; he doesn’t touch Port – ‘it buggers me around’ – but he likes malt whisky including Macallans and Balvenie, though is ‘not enough of a man’ for Islay malts. He also has a fondness for dark, dry sherry.
So, this is a man who peddles lowbrow, popular entertainment and loves La Tâche. Is he a walking contradiction? He doesn’t think so.
‘Everybody should enjoy wine. We spent 20 years on Food & Drink, proving that everybody could enjoy it,’ he says.
And will he be producing another wine programme? No, he says. ‘The pleasure of wine is in drinking the bloody stuff.’
Written by Oliver Styles