Toby Morrhall has been a Wine Society buyer since 1992, and covers Burgundy and South America. He will take over responsibility for Beaujolais from December 2014.
Have you always been interested in wine?
We ate and drank very well at home. My father liked Claret and my mum was a very good cook. I decided I wanted to be a chef, so I got a job at Orme’s Wine Bar in Clapham, south London. The owner was a real wine enthusiast, and he told me that he wanted me behind the bar, not in the kitchen.
Where did you go after that?
I got to know the wine writer Michael Schuster and was amazed by his level of knowledge. I was so impressed, I decided to do the same course he had done: the Diplôme Universitaire d’Aptitude à la Dégustation des vins (DUAD) in Bordeaux. I always wanted to be a buyer, but everyone said ‘Don’t, because you’ll never become one.’ But I got a job in Bordeaux working for a small négociant, then at European Cellars (now Grant’s of St James), then Sainsbury’s, then I joined The Society in 1992.
The New World really emerged in the early 1990s, didn’t it?
I tasted everything in those days, and after those sulphury Muscadets smelling of wet dog, it was a revelation to try Rosemount Show Reserve Chardonnay, with all those pineapple flavours. But later, I realised that less is more, and I didn’t want my chardonnays to taste of pineapple. Having said that, when people say they prefer New World wines, I know exactly what they mean.
What is it about Chilean wine that you rate so highly?
As soon as I tasted the wines, I knew they were fantastic value for money. I remember the first time I tasted Cono Sur Pinot Noir – I couldn’t believe how good it was. They’ve only really scratched the surface in Chile. The syrahs are phenomenal, and I love Chilean sauvignon blanc. Screwcaps allow you to put less sulphur in, which is why screwcapped sauvignon blancs are so fresh.
On to your other love, Burgundy. Why do so many wine drinkers feel daunted when buying it?
It is complicated, because you have lots of growers: some are good, some are rubbish. The Burgundians don’t help themselves because sometimes the growers put their name right at the bottom of the label, and in very small print.
The way to buy Burgundy is to try different producers from the same village – you get a huge variation of styles. So, find a grower you like, and stick with them. But what’s lovely about Burgundy is that you have people, rather than corporations in charge. You normally need at least three years to get to know a region – but with Burgundy, it’s more like six.
Having worked at Sainsbury’s, how do you think a supermarket differs from an independent wine merchant?
I have huge respect for Sainsbury’s, and I learned an awful lot there, particularly about negotiating with suppliers. But I like the integrity and freedom at The Society to buy good wines. Wine is about people, and you do need to go out and meet the producers and see how they look after their vineyards, rather than just taste a sample of their wines in the office.
What are your interests outside wine?
I do like cooking. My sister and I have a cottage on the Isle of Mull, and you can go and buy lovely lobsters, crabs, and langoustines, which are fished from the bay beside the cottage. When the sun shines up there, the white-sand beaches and turquoise seas can look Mediterranean, but are empty and unspoilt. I spend a lot of time in Scotland.