The acclaimed actor first encountered serious wines while at Cambridge, and is firmly a fan of the Old World classics. By Anastasia Edwards
Within minutes of beginning our interview in his dressing room at the Palace Theatre, which we conduct sitting on the floor, Simon Russell Beale CBE leans over towards my tape recorder and declares: ‘I’m a complete ignoramus about wine.’ But it soon becomes clear that Russell Beale, one of the finest British actors of his generation, with landmark interpretations of roles including Iago and Hamlet to his credit, views anything less than mastery of a subject as inadequate.
He retrieves a clutch of tasting notes of Italian wines he recently shared with friends, which he diligently prepared for our interview. While he loves Barolo and tends to prefer red wines, feeling white wines ‘are a little more elusive to an uneducated palate’, he is delighted with two new discoveries, Ruggeri’s NV Argeo Prosecco Brut and Nicola Bergaglio’s 2005 Gavi di Gavi La Minaia.
‘The Prosecco was gorgeous,’ he says with a warm, inclusive laugh. ‘It was bubble-gummy; it was easy on the palate. Someone described it as a good swimming pool wine, and I think that’s probably right. It doesn’t knock you out and it’s sort of non-combative.’ A step up from a swimming pool wine, the Gavi ‘felt a little bit more dangerous’. ‘I loved the Gavi,’ he says. ‘It was sort of apples and pomegranates… A lovely, fruity, easy wine but with just a little bit more punch than the Prosecco.’
Russell Beale’s favourite red of the tasting was Fonterutoli’s Chianti Classico 2004, which, given the classic influences on his palate, is perhaps not surprising. A graduate of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, where he got a first in English, Russell Beale’s first exposures to serious wine came courtesy of his college.
‘We used to have these formal dinners and the wines were spectacular,’ he recalls. ‘I remember tasting a red wine and thinking, “This is a qualitatively different thing from what I am used to drinking.’’’ Claret featured prominently at Caius, and it is top-class Bordeaux that has most influenced Russell Beale’s palate, though he is keen to learn and taste as much as he can of Italian and Spanish wines.
He does not have room for a cellar and, where possible, he likes people more knowledgeable about wine to select something interesting for him. ‘There used to be a wonderful wine merchant when I first moved to Pimlico, called Pimlico Dozen on Tachbrook Street [now Vintage Cellars on Churton Street], and I used to ask the owner John Trevena to put together a case of wine,’ he says. ‘The idea of saying, “You just choose it for me” is great.’ However, he frequently mentions his friends Charlie and Amanda, contemporaries at Cambridge. Charlie has built ‘an amazing wine cellar’, and has frequently shared both his finest wine and knowledge with Russell Beale.
But the auto-didact in him has prompted Russell Beale to also pursue knowledge independently. ‘Did I tell you I taught myself French wine in half an hour?’ he asks, with a deeper version of his laugh. ‘That’s a complete lie, really.’ His self-imposed crash course consisted of learning all the major French wine regions off by heart, and a quick sketch with his finger on the tired carpet brings the country’s map to life, complete with rivers and sub-regions and Château Pétrus.
As part of this ‘DIY French wine pack’, Russell Beale discovered a passion for Château Ducru-Beaucaillou. ‘I wasn’t working at the time, and so a friend and I had it at lunch time,’ he says. ‘And it was fantastic. We went through a period of about six months of doing classed growths such as Léoville-Barton and Lynch-Bages. I don’t know why Ducru-Beaucaillou hit me, but it hit me best of all.’
Ducru-Beaucaillou made such an impression that it appeared on stage with him. ‘When I did The Philanthropist [by Christopher Hampton] at the Donmar, playing an Oxford don, I said, “I want really bad food and really good wine, because he’s obviously not a particularly good cook but he would have access to a very good cellar”,’ he says. ‘It’s got that very distinctive label, and I wanted somebody in the audience to recognise it as a really, really rather good wine to be drinking with a normal plate-on-your-lap supper.’
Playing the connoisseur is one thing, but has he ever had to play the drunk? ‘Thank God, no!’ he says. ‘I think it’s one of the most difficult things to do convincingly.’ He explains the paradox of playing drunk: usually you can’t remember how you’ve behaved while drunk, and, like crying, it’s a state that most people try to camouflage.
Russell Beale has no problem crying on stage, nor indeed with expressing deep emotion off stage. He recalls being shown a cellar full of ‘row upon row’ of 1945 Bordeaux. ‘I found it very moving. I thought, “How extraordinary! How extraordinary to have gone through all that, that hell, and have just plugged away and produced some of the world’s greatest wines.’’’
Simon Russell Beale will be starring as King Arthur in Monty Python’s musical Spamalot at the Palace Theatre in London throughout June.
What did you drink last night? Two pints of lager. I like liquid after a performance, and I drink very little during the run of a show.
What’s your dream wine? Before I die I must try a first-growth claret.
Where would you drink it and with who? There are too many people I could choose who are alive, so I’d choose the great Shakespearean actor Richard Burbage (circa 1567–1619).
What’s the most you’ve ever spend on a bottle? About £50.
For previous My Passion for Wine interviews, see the celebrities and wine page on decanter.com
Written by Anastasia Edwards