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October 18, 2013
Of all the European markets, London (indeed, the whole of the UK) is by far the most developed with respect to fine wine. One explanation for this is historic. Specifically, the strategic alliance of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine meant England enjoyed the finest of Bordeaux for nearly 900 years, long before the Médoc was drained. On the grounds of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend,” England and Portugal also had a friendship based partly on a shared enmity with Spain. For the same reason, Port and Madeira have also long been key elements of a British cellar. The other explanation is a refreshingly-Catholic attitude towards wine. Not being a producer itself (and, despite some decent fizz, I do not really consider England to be a wine-producing nation), England sought the best from all over the world. As a result, there was no national pride to be offended should one region prove to be better than another.
England is, therefore, a treasure trove for wine lovers, which presents both huge opportunities and a slightly overwhelming sense of “where do I start.” In this post, I shall look at some of the best retailers and brokers, auction houses, and storage facilities in England.
Retailers and Brokers
From my perspective, it is truly hard to beat Berry Bros. & Rudd (www.bbr.com) on any aspect except, perhaps occasionally, price. In terms of value however, I think the few extra pounds are well worth knowing that the bottle of DRC you have in your hands does, indeed, contain DRC, which you do with Berry Bros. They have an excellent website and wonderful contacts across the industry, with particular strengths in Burgundy (where Jasper Morris MW, their Burgundy specialist resides for part of the year), Bordeaux, and Italy (where David Berry Green resides). They also have a trading site, and will buy (carefully vetted) wine from individuals. Wine bought from them can be stored with them either in bond or duty paid, and easily traded on their internet-based trading platform.
Corney and Barrow (www.corneyandbarrow.com) has extensive exclusive relationships with a number of fine producers, particularly in Burgundy, including DRC and Domaine Leflaive. Although based in London, they have branches in a number of other locations, including Ayr, Scotland, as well as an excellent website and good delivery options.
Further north, in Clitheroe, Lancashire, another treasure is D. Byrne & Co (www.dbyrne-finewines.co.uk) – a rabbit warren of a building with hidden gems in every corner, where you risk getting lost in their extensive cellars. (With a corkscrew in hand, it would be no hardship.) When I first started visiting 20 years ago, they still rang up the orders on a mechanical cash register and didn’t accept credit cards. Although things have now changed sufficiently for them to have both a website and a Twitter presence (@dbyrnefinewines), they don’t keep a wine list on the web, on the grounds that things change too quickly. Their prices are an incredible value, the breadth of sourcing is excellent, and their longstanding relationships with merchants around the world mean that they regularly have wines other retailers seem never to be able to stock. It is well worth a visit.
Finally, no discussion of the UK market for fine wine can ignore the current holders of much of my personal wealth – The Wine Society (www.thewinesociety.com). This is a membership organisation, with a one-off fee of £40. If you live in or near the UK and have not yet joined, I can only say, what are you waiting for? With vast buying power, the ability to take a long term view on pricing and building relationships with suppliers and (like Berry Bros. & Rudd) some of the best buyers in the business, the Society is a sometimes-forgotten resource for fine wines.
This is but a few of the very strong list. Other retail sources include:
Personal experience sadly tells me there is not much worth getting excited about, in vinous terms, beyond this, although the Darroch Learg Hotel (www.darrochlearg.co.uk) in Ballater, near Balmoral Castle has one of the best value restaurant wine lists I have ever come across.
There are, of course, many auction houses based in London, and the global wine heads of both Christies (www.christies.com) and Sotheby’s (www.sothebys.com) are based in the city. Late autumn is an exciting time for London wine auctions with Christies having a sale on 24th October as well as Burgundy-focused sales on 7th and 8th November. On 23rd October, Serena Sutcliffe MW of Sotheby’s will auction the cellar of Mme Lacoste-Loubat, former owner of Pétrus amongst other chateaux. Sotheby’s has additional finest and rarest wine sales on 13th November (focusing on the 270th anniversary of Moët) and 11th December. Bonhams (www.bonhams.com) is perhaps not on the same level as the other two, but with two Masters of Wine leading the London team, they have a sound reputation and source some interesting wines. Their upcoming sales include interesting lots from Conterno and Penfold’s Grange (24th October).
Storing wine in the UK is a relatively easy prospect. For those not blessed with 17th century cellars, Octavian (www.octavianvaults.co.uk) provides state-of-the-art storage in the Wiltshire countryside. Its facilities are literally bomb-proof, having been used by the Ministry of Defence all through World War II. London City Bond is another option. Many wine merchants also offer storage for wines purchased through them, including Corney & Barrow, Berry Bros. and Rudd, and The Wine Society.
This is just a small selection of what the UK has to offer – there will be many reputable options I have left off the list, and others will spring up. Every one listed here, however, is a company I would personally trust to sell me wine, to pay me if I sold them wine, or to store my wine safely for me.