Travelling in wine regions near and far, meeting growers, walking through vineyards and cellars and tasting wines on the spot where they are made is one of the best parts of a wine buyer's job.
A mass of information on websites can help. Cold analysis in the Stevenage tasting room is essential, but there is no better way to learn and find good buys than by talking with people who make the stuff on their home ground.
My first wine-trade job was the skivvy and office boy who took orders, got wine out of bad-tempered London bonds, and saw it delivered round the country. Fred May had the exclusivity of wines from the Hungarian monopoly at the time. We shipped Bulls Blood and Balaton riesling and furmint in beautiful Hungarian oak barrels and bottled it under the railway arches near Waterloo. Though Bulls Blood was Fred's top seller, Hungary's most original wines are white. Fiery, spicy, full dry furmint is unusually Hungarian. In Tokaji it can be magical, but so too can whites from the isolated volcanic hill of Somló, and the vineyards along the north side of Lake Balaton, the favoured resort of many apparatchiks under communism, make admirable flavoursome whites too.
Travels in Australia
'Perhaps the revelation for me was a later visit to the isolated East Coast of Tasmania.'
Though The Wine Society has bought and listed Australian wine almost since its inception, I did not visit down under as wine buyer until 1992. The Brajkovich family at Kumeu River north of Auckland and the late Greg Trott in McLaren Vale, South Australia, were incredibly generous founts of information on the New Zealand and Australia wine scenes. John Duval at Penfolds' Nuriootpa Winery, Barossa shared his unrivalled knowledge of Australia's best vineyards with a huge memorable tasting. Perhaps the revelation for me was a later visit to the isolated East Coast of Tasmania. Freycinet Vineyard, as it was called, after Freycinet Bay, until bullied by Freixenet in Spain to change its name, created by ex-abalone fisherman, Geoff Bull, who was making exciting pinot noir and chardonnay in vineyards near the sea, protected by high wire fencing from invasive possums. His successor there, Claudio Radenti, makes our Exhibition Tasmania Chardonnay, still a personal buy. Tasmania remains for me an enchanting, beautiful destination.
Discovering South America
'… 60% of Argentina's wine production went to Buenos Aires and there was even a plan to build an underground wine pipeline all the way from Mendoza to the capital.'
Chilean cabernet, shipped in bulk, was a Society staple when I joined The Wine Society in 1967 as a member; in the seventies we imported fine Argentine reds from Toso. My first memorable visit to South America tasting in all the most interesting wineries was with a party of other opinionated, experienced but entertaining Masters of Wine in 1989. Pinochet's toxic regime was still in control and most of us suffered Montezuma's revenge (stomach upset for a couple of days, treated with horse pills!) just after we crossed over the Andes into Argentina, but it was great to be there at the beginning of an era of change in the vineyards. Poor-quality vinestock for whites, in particular, would be replaced by proper chardonnay and sauvignon blanc. New sites were being found. At this period 60% of Argentina's wine production went to Buenos Aires and there was even a plan to build an underground wine pipeline all the way from Mendoza to the capital. But the bulk wine market was shrinking and the largest blending vat in the world with a capacity of 5.2 million litres at Trapiche was empty. By 2010 Argentine home wine consumption had dropped from a dizzying annual 95 litres per head to 38 litres, and only 15% was exported. Malbec, their trump card remains great value and our buyer Toby Morrhall knows where to source the best.
Adventures in Europe
'The famous vineyards of Bordeaux and Burgundy have an aura from the wines they produce, but I have special affection for the vineyards of the south of France'
Unsurprisingly, I have spent most wine-buying hours in France and lately in Italy; many visits to Germany and Greece, never enough to Spain and Portugal. The famous vineyards of Bordeaux and Burgundy have an aura from the wines they produce, but I have special affection for the vineyards of the south of France; Gigondas and Vinsobres, for example, in the Rhône. Minervois and Corbières at their best are almost unrivalled value for wines of such character. The land and climate of Corbières are fairly unforgiving and yields are lower than in grander districts which charge so much more but you may find wines with a wonderful sense of place.
Barolo country and Chianti Classico have some spectacular scenery and gorgeous wines, but exploring Italy's south can be just as exciting. Basilicata is one of Italy's least-visited regions but Oronzo Alò's aglianicos make the journey well worthwhile, and the long drive onwards to Calabria's Santa Venere was worth it for Giuseppe Scala's lovely Cirò wines from beautiful organically cultivated vineyards overlooking the sea. Regaleali in central Sicily is an oasis of superbly managed green cultivation supporting the local community. Don't approach it from the north, as we did the last time we visited. The narrow curly road is seriously degraded by land slips. We were faced at one point by what looked like a skateboard ramp.