With 26 years as manager of Manchester United Football Club, it's only natural that Fergie's preferences in wine are steadfastly red. Chris Mercer finds out how his passion for collecting began...
There can’t be many things in Sir Alex Ferguson’s possession more numerous than his gleaming stack of winner’s medals, but wine is one of them.
It is a neat quirk that Ferguson’s quest for a first major trophy at Manchester United Football Club also kick-started his life as a fine-wine collector.
His interest was fired when he was talked through a display of bottles from d’Yquem and Pétrus at Montpellier’s Maison blanche hotel in 1991, while scouting opponents in the European Cup Winners’ Cup that United went on to win that year. his wine epiphany arrived right on cue, he says. ‘It was a time in my life when I needed an interest. My wife said I was becoming obsessed with the game.’
Now, barely a year into his retirement as arguably the world’s most famous football manager, 73-year-old Ferguson sits in the De Vere Mottram hall hotel on the edge of Cheshire’s wealthy ‘Golden Triangle’, exuding the relaxed demeanour of someone with nothing left to prove.
Football may have come early to the lad from Glasgow’s backstreets, but alcohol did not. ‘I wasn’t a drinker, really,’ he says. ‘When I went full-time into football I didn’t drink.’
Strange to think, then, that he would end up owning pubs before pursuing a career in football management. ‘When I got older, I used to take a sweet Sherry. That was my drink when I was about 30, and then I started taking a glass of red wine at about 32,’ he says.
Spending more than £10 on a bottle of wine was a serious event. ‘I remember my [wedding] anniversary, at about 33, and I bought a bottle of wine for £15. I brought it home and my wife Cathy said: “how much did you pay for that?” I said £15. “Fifteen pounds!”, she said, “are you off your head?”’
Getting a taste for wine
A wry smile crosses his face. ‘And then things progress. When I went to Aberdeen [in 1978], I developed a more discerning taste in red wine. Then you progress to the level where I am now, to meeting this chap in Montpellier.’
Although, he says, there was ‘a spell when I did study a lot’ about wine, Ferguson’s introduction to classed-growth Bordeaux was dominated by his desire to invest. He remembers the hotel owner in Montpellier talking up Bordeaux’s 1982 and 1985 vintages. Later on, in the 1990s, he became friends with wine merchant John Armit and also dined with the critic Oz Clarke.
‘At first, I was buying all the recommendations, but they weren’t really making money,’ he laments. ‘So, around 2000 I concentrated all my money on big stuff, like Pétrus, Domaine de la Romanée- Conti, Lynch-Bages and Lafite-Rothschild.’ He has had an allocation of Pétrus and DRC every year since 1996.
Most of that is in private storage in London and Oxford, but he estimates he has ‘about 800 bottles’ of various wines in three wine fridges in his garage. ‘It’s not just Burgundy and Bordeaux. My drinking wine would be Tignanello,’ he says, remembering the time he was invited to a tasting in New York by one of Marchese Piero Antinori’s daughters.
Beyond that, his tastes encompass Californian Cabernet, Australian Shiraz and Ribera del Duero, a region he discovered while travelling Spain to scout a potential player.
White wines don’t get such a good write-up. ‘I’ve got a lot of Bâtard-Montrachet at home but it never gets used,’ he says. ‘If I was at a big dinner I wouldn’t refuse it, but I find a lot of white wine too acidic.’ He leans towards Bordeaux when dining in restaurants, preferring wines from Pauillac and St-Julien if they’re available. ‘And, of course, Pétrus,’ he adds. ‘But that’s a wee bit expensive!’
At home, he drinks if there’s company. Can he cook? ‘As a player, I worked in a grill restaurant. I learned how to use knives and make a roux, but that was about it.
‘But he’s a good cook,’ he says, pointing to his son Jason, who is also present and looks after the business side of his life. ‘He’s got five kids, but he prepares for 40.’
Tales from the changing room
In the football world, Ferguson’s palate is known to be as sharp as his one-liners. He once told Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich that the London club’s wines were ‘paint-stripper’. As for Chelsea’s Portuguese manager, José Mourinho, he adds: ‘José promised me Barca Velha and brought something different. I gave him stick for it, so the next time he brought Barca Velha. It was stupid, but he’s fine.’
Other tales include the time at West Ham United when fellow manager Sam Allardyce had opened a bottle in preparation for Ferguson’s arrival, only for the cleaner to pour it down the sink.
At United, older players were deemed responsible enough to have the odd glass after a game, but not the young ones. ‘They wouldn’t have dared ask for a glass of wine,’ he says, offering a glimpse of the Fergie who once prided himself on the number of loyal informants spread across northwest England’s drinking holes.
In 2011, United’s board of directors gifted him a case of Latour 1986 to mark 25 years at the club in 2011. ‘That doesn’t last long,’ he says.
Looking ahead, there have been rumours that he might produce his own wine, possibly in the south of France. ‘I had an opportunity in South Africa a few years ago and I didn’t do it. Running a football club was enough. Now I think I’m too old, plus I’ve got ambassadorial roles at United, Unicef and UEFA. I don’t think I’ve got the energy.’
His most recent challenge has been deciding which wines to sell off at a trio of Christie’s auctions in May and June. ‘I didn’t realise I had so much. It can engulf you. So then you say to yourself, well, I’m never going to drink that, so do I leave it to this mob when I die [nods at Jason], or do I sell it now?’