What do you get when you give a Master of Wine free rein to hold a tasting in a ‘wine cellar’ containing over 10 million bottles of fine wine worth over two billion pounds? The Octavian wine cellar tour tasting, of course. This was a tasting where the wine list was sent ahead on the invite and caused palpitations and no lack of envy amongst those unlucky enough to immediately receive a WhatsApp snap of the list accompanied by the caption ‘Tomorrow’s Lunch Wines’. Peter Dean got a Golden Ticket….
Was the first reply I got back when I sent the Octavian cellar tasting wine list to the Wine Club I’m a member of.
“Actually I did think of one”….
That age-old adage that ‘Christmas comes but once a year’ is, quite frankly, utter drivel. Those lucky enough to be working in the wine trade know it’s not an annual event. If you are not attending a good many tastings every 12 months that turn you into an insomniac the night before or cause you to wake with that giddy apprehension of a five-year-old then you need to Google ‘life coach’. And fast.
Such was the anticipation caused by the invite to the Octavian Wine Cellar Tour Tasting and Lunch that the only sleep I did manage on Thursday night was entirely fitful. That mood was exacerbated in the early hours of the morning when the Octavian Train Group Whats App group started chattering like school children.
The reason for the sense of excitement was that Octavian and organisers Swirl had ‘opened the presents under the tree’ early for us by revealing that the first-ever tasting lunch held at this underground fine wine storage facility would include:
Dom Perignon Champagne 1996
Krug Vintage Brut Champagne 1996
Domaine Jean François Coche-Dury, Meursault, Genevrières Premier Cru, 2010
Domaine des Comtes Lafon, Meursault, Genevrières Premier Cru, 2002
Domaine Drouhin-Laroze, Latricières-Chambertin Grand Cru, 2005
Domaine Fourrier, Gevrey Chambertin, Clos St-Jacques, Vieille Vigne, Premier Cru, 2005
Château Cheval Blanc, St Emilion, Premier Grand Cru Classé A, 1949
Château Cheval Blanc, St Emilion, Premier Grand Cru Classé A, 1998
Château Mouton Rothschild, Pauillac, Premier Cru, 1986
Château Mouton Rothschild, Pauillac, Premier Cru, 1996
On the day’s menu each wine was also accompanied by details of when the wines had been stored at Octavian to emphasise the premium standard of cellaring there.
The day arrives….
At Paddington Station, the group started assembling like characters in an Agatha Christie – ‘Ten Little MWs’ (working title). It being modern Britain the coach that our seats were booked on didn’t exist of course. There were three coach As but no H. Silly us. Then from Chippenham a short cab ride took us to Corsham, our destination where Octavian stores over one million cases of wine worth two billion pounds in a million square feet of old mine.
In much the same what that the caves along the Loire were created by the stone mined for the châteaux there, so the city of Bath (and the town hall of Cape Town, fact finders!) was built from the stone that started to be mined at Corsham in the 1800s. The Ministry of Defence then took it over and stored munitions there during the Second World War and I wasn’t alone in thinking that when World War Three happens there isn’t another place I’d rather be. With a corkscrew.
The war connection didn’t end there, incidentally, because the MOD installed a ship’s engine to act as an emergency generator in the mine, and this was also used as a location for the film version of Alistair MacLean’s The Guns of Navarone, which is why the doors to the generator are painted in German and there is a German sentry box built alongside it, which felt a tiny bit weird until it was explained to us.
Back up on terra firma the assembled throng were each given their own gas mask on arrival, the safety demonstration of which resembled a very low budget war film, shot in a Perivale car park. Because this is a working mine, we were told by security, entry without carrying the mask was strictly verboten. Wearing pink gilets was just to make us look stupid and added to the feeling we were attending a motorcycle training course rather than going underground to skull First Growths.
Talking of dress code, the first hint that this lunch was going to be a tad messy came in the first email that said ‘We recommend you leave your cars at home’ and not to wear heels – the flat shoes advice coming, not because we might be a bit unsteady in the afternoon, but because there are 157 steps down to the wine vaults, the ascending of which after lunch was like a tedious John Buchan remake.
To clarify, the Octavian team does not totter down the stairs carrying cases of fine wine, there is a ‘train’ carriage in which it is winched down. This, and all manner of other facts and figures about the logistics of running a storage facility were relayed to us by our co-host Vincent O’Brien, Octavian’s managing director, a man who was both disarmingly honest and pragmatic – the kind of person, in fact, you would be quite happy to toss the keys of your DRC to or whatever else you want to park down there.
Whisky is increasingly a thing, of course, which has helped Octavian introduce an uplifted charge for an uplifted insurance premium on bottles worth over £8k.
“There was a bottle recently sold at auction for £1.2 million,” O’Brien said, one of the reasons he doesn’t tell his staff here the value of the bottles, presumably so they don’t get the jitters.
The booking-in bay was surprisingly interesting, although if my schoolteacher had said I’d get a glass of 1949 Cheval Blanc if I paid attention during double Physics, then I might well have received a better grade than Fail.
We learned that booking-in at Octavian can be a four-day process hindered, you guessed it, by a lack of paperwork. 40% of all deliveries don’t have an invoice, 5% have damaged packaging, many cases have their intermediary labels removed, all of which makes O’Brien’s job of “selling trust” and guaranteeing provenance all the more tricky.
With Berry Brothers building a new warehouse and Lay+Wheeler building their ambitious complex, the timing of this outing and first-ever tasting at Octavian was not lost on us. Swirl has developed a comprehensive new marketing strategy for Octavian “from the words up” which includes tutoring their team on “how to speak and think Octavian” and presumably on not wearing red trousers. This trip was part of that overhaul.
I personally have no direct experience of using Octavian, I use other facilities to store my wine, but one of our number, someone with a very large wine collection indeed, does use them for the bulk of their storage, explaining that it is the robustness of Octavian’s insurance that sealed the deal.
One presumes that, as Putin puts the squeeze on our energy supplies, so fine wine storage charges will increase across the board although, here in Corsham, Octavian’s largely natural temperature and humidity control will turn out to be an added advantage.
And so to lunch…
It is a measure of a fine wine lunch when: the (unopened) back-up bottles are Raveneau Les Clos 2006; the editor of Decanter makes an unprompted speech describing this as “one of the top wine experiences” of her 20-year tenure; and co-host Sarah Abbott MW confesses to feeling “tender and emotional” at its conclusion.
Regular Buyer readers will know that we have experienced wine that has been vinified on top of a mountain, at the bottom of an ocean and stored in caves for a very long time. I was at the first opening of one of the Pol Roger bottles from the Nineteenth Century recovered after their cellars collapsed and I have ‘journeyed to the centre of the terroir’ tasting cave-aged Rhône wines in complete darkness miles underground, after the consumption of which we had to absail out of a cavern, bumping into centuries-old stalectites in the process.
The Octavian cellar tasting was on a different vinous level entirely and felt, not accidentally, like a tasting in the cellar of a fine wine estate. All of the wines shown were in impeccable condition, even ones that had only been stored there for two years. The stock we were drinking was from Octavian’s own reserves although the success of this event will surely open the door for private collectors to replicate it.
Perhaps most surprising of all was the quality of the 1949 Cheval Blanc which was fresh as a daisy. Even jobbing sommelier of the day Donald Edwards (La Trompette) commented on the capsule’s unusually good condition. Given there is still an estimated 10,000 counterfeit bottles in collections from counterfeiter Rudy Kurniawan’s crimes, O’Brien’s task of verifying provenance on such an iconic wine is put into sharp focus.
The 10 wines were served as pairs and there were clear ‘winners’ in each of the servings. Having said that, any one of these wines served solus would have been a treat but served en masse gave one a license to compare and contrast.
The 96 Dom Perignon was impressive, distinctive and served with canapés but then the Krug 96 was lift-off time. Here was some people’s wine of the day and a wine considered by the House to be the sparring partner of 1928. It had breadth and intensity, was rich and robust with an attractive interplay between the punchy acidity and developing tertiary notes. There were caramel notes, typically oxidative, wisps of smoke and mushroom emanating from its deep gold almost browning body. Chalky fresh on the palate, citrus, superbly integrated bubbles, broad-shouldered and still a little punchy. My word.
The scheduled Lafon Genevrières 2002 turned out to be a 2004. I have tried the 02 on a number of occasions and it never disappoints which, unfortunately the 04 did, falling a bit flat and blousy. The Coche-Dury Genevrières 2010, on the other hand, was my wine of the tasting. Lifted, precise, complex, bright acidity just a pointe, perfect balance – in fact it sat on the palate like a perfect mould of my mouth, vinous, clean as a whistle, lick of lemon curd, sesame. Insane. Where do wines get this energy?
Two Pinots from the hot, dry vintage of 2005 followed – Domaine Drouhin-Laroze, Latricières-Chambertin Grand Cru and Domaine Fourrier, Gevrey Chambertin, Clos St-Jacques, Vieille Vigne, Premier Cru. The Drouhin-Laroze was very good but not truly outstanding – it had a pretty, almost confected note that someone described as “having too much make-up”. The Fourrier lived up to St-Jacques’ billing as the first of the 1er sites with vines dating back to 1910. This was the flip-side to the Drouhin-Laroze with both hands in the dirty earth, its heady incense of black soil, crushed red fruit and sweet spices dangerously alluring. The balance and proportion between the fruits, acids and ripe, finely-woven tannins was so well judged here with Fourrier’s early picking lending the wine a serious structure and tension.
My tasting note for the 1949 Cheval Blanc is best summed up thus…
Always a treat to try a septuagenarian Claret, with this House’s seductive beauty so effortlessly and weightlessly framed. There’s still plenty of fruit here, burnt sugar, wet earth, long dry finish. Amazing that there are no faults here – truly ethereal.
Where the rains of 1998 made the growing season for Margaux and Pauillac, in particular, a tricky one, not so in St Emilion and although the 1998 Cheval Blanc had some tighter tannins, and tasted understandably leaner after the 1949, this was fresh, clean, pure and elegant. I’d bet this will reach its 70th birthday with room on the cake for extra candles.
I cannot imagine that the 49 Cheval Blanc will get better than it already is and the 100-Parker-point Mouton Rothschild 1986 feels like it has also reached its apotheosis. Beautifully evolved this was dry, still brightly tannic, with a complex nose showing ripe cherries, tobacco, noble wood, wet muslin; the core of the wine was mineral-charged, with blackberry jam, nougat and a dry, biscuity finish that left a dry, river stone texture on the tongue.
The Mouton Rothschild 1996 had not fully opened its peacock tail and still had a youthful strut about it – precocious perhaps. Pretty, with a graphite streak running through it like letters in a stick of rock. I’ve never felt sorry for a Mouton before but this was a hard position to be in – like going into a new business pitch knowing you’re the last agency and the prospective client has already made its choice.