10 astonishing discoveries from a 200-year-old cellar
Wine specialist Charles Foley shares a selection of incredible finds from the Avery family’s cellar — an expansive collection built by several generations of wine enthusiasts
The first visit to a substantial wine cellar of genuine importance is an exciting and tantalising prospect. This particular cellar, located beneath the Avery family home in rural Somerset, is within striking distance of Bristol, home to Averys Wine Merchants since 1793.
Descending the stone steps, one begins to realise the full extent of the passion behind the collection, and its extraordinary range and diversity. The corridor is lined with cases and racks leading into the main chamber — a room of some 40 square metres, every wall hidden by floor-to-ceiling racks double-stacked in depth.
In the centre of the chamber a mass of cases and cartons, many original, are stacked up to eye-level and above. The chamber in turn leads to the ‘Dungeon’, which was lined with original brick bins and contains more large racks, protected by an ancient wood-and-metal door. Here, many remarkable discoveries lay in wait.
A legendary liquid, this wine was produced at the close of the Second World War and has been maturing in the cool, dark Avery cellars ever since. Famed wine critic Michael Broadbent last tasted the vintage at a mountaintop lunch and awarded it six stars — his rarest and highest accolade. In the minds of many it is the greatest wine that Mouton, or for that matter anyone in Bordeaux, has ever made. The wine’s rarity adds to its value — just 151,744 bottles were produced.
Broadbent, who established Christie’s wine department 50 years ago, described the wine as ‘Churchillian’ for its larger-than-life style — eagerly noting its spicy bouquet, eucalyptus notes and ‘amazing’ nose ‘reminiscent of mango chutney’. It is a full-bodied, rich and complete wine of silky tannins and great length.
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti is a ‘monopole’ vineyard (controlled by a single winery), and is famously referred to as ‘the pearl of Burgundy’. It is renowned for its intense bouquet, formidable finesse, magnificent silken texture and unequalled complexity.
The 1969 vintage is one of the rarest and most fabulous of the last century, and unearthing a bottle is akin to pulling a gleaming jewel from the mines of King Solomon. The Domaine de la Romanée-Conti acquired its name from the Prince de Conti, a prince du sang and cousin of Louis the XV, who purchased the estate in 1760. This royal lineage courses through the 1969 vintage, which has a deep regal hue, fine-boned structure and elegant bouquet.
This wine comes cloaked in beautiful gothic labels and was famously served at the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976 — a wine competition, also known as the Judgement of Paris, at which Cabernet Sauvignons from North America were subjected to a blind tasting by industry experts alongside Old World luminaries including Château Haut-Brion, Château Mouton-Rothschild and Château Montrose.
It’s been 40 years since this wine’s most famous uncorking, and these bottles have been resting in the Avery cellar, awaiting the spike of a corkscrew. Heitz is considered the champion of single-vineyard wines in the United States, and its Martha’s Vineyard, produced since 1966 from a 34-acre plot of Cabernet Sauvignon, is its flagship label. The vineyard is owned by Tom and Martha May, who lends her name to the fabled plot; for The New York Times’ wine columnist Frank J. Prial, it was the benchmark for California Cabernet, against which all others were judged.
The Quinta do Noval 1931 was a vintage undeclared by British port houses, which sought to control the importation of port to Britain because they were still long on stocks of 1927 port. As a result, it flew under the radar for many years. Indeed, it was not until Michael Broadbent tasted the Quinta do Noval 1931 in the 1960s that it was truly appreciated, developing a towering reputation that has contributed to Quinta do Noval’s renown.
The liquid is joyous to taste, with caramelised raisins tumbling over a peppery-prune compote. It has a plump, mouth-filling style, with a fine mesh of acidity. Delicate clove and cinnamon flavours curl from the glass.
The esteemed Wall Street Journal columnist Jay McInerney compares a sip of the rare Pétrus 1961 to Catherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour. Seductive, charming and slightly sinful are apt descriptions of a wine that Michael Broadbent described as ‘black as an Egyptian night’.
The yield that year was very small due to a drought in August, but the quality of the crop was stunning, with small, thick-skinned and plump grapes. The wine was a great favourite of Auberon Waugh, the journalist and son of writer Evelyn Waugh, who intoned that it was surely the most Burgundian of clarets.
A sensual and elegant Bordeaux, it has a fine-filigreed structure and an oriental spice element, with a spray of sumac, paprika and black pepper. For Broadbent it is an unbeatable mouthful; for McInerney, the best red wine he has ever tasted.
Ronald Avery was the first importer of Pétrus into the UK after his discovery of the estate in the late 1940s. Having moored his yacht at Libourne, he asked a taxi to take him to the vineyards of Antoine Moueix, only to be driven to the end of the road and back again to the door of the négociant, J. P. Mouiex. He entered, tasted the wines with Jean-Pierre, and promptly offered to fill his yacht with cases to sail back to England.
The late, great Max Schubert was chief winemaker at the famed Penfolds Estate in Australia from 1951-1975. Remarkably, he began production of the Grange wine as an experiment, and other bottles from the Estate’s vineyards would have begun life in the same way.
When we discovered the Magill Estate Dry Red Bin 145A 1954 in the Avery cellar, it immediately piqued our curiosity. We spoke to current Penfolds winemaker Peter Gago, who told us that hardly anything is known about the tiny volume of the maker’s 1950s releases. This bottle, it seemed, was something of a mystery.
Gago’s best guess was that Don Ditter, who became head of Penfolds upon Max Schubert’s retirement, had stored this wine at the company’s Sydney headquarters. Don was known to mark out storage shelves A, B and C, stacking very small quantities of special bottlings on each.
John Avery was known to be a fan of Australian wines, and was responsible for bringing a number of great estates to the UK market. We can only imagine that he visited Don’s ‘A’ shelf on one of his many trips to the country, which is when this remarkable bottle changed hands for the first time in its life.
In the words of noted Burgundy expert Remington Norman, Musigny is ‘statuesque in structure, patriarchal in presence’ and ‘derives its authority from its extraordinary purity, energy and outstanding class’.
The Domaine Comte Georges de Vogüé owns seven hectares of Musigny Grand Cru. For François Millet, its winemaker, these stately old vines are distinctly masculine — the resulting wine having the character of ‘a noble old gentleman’. The Musigny is as sophisticated and serious as the metaphor suggests; strong vintages, such as the 1964, suggest a robe of rich cherry and raspberry, billowing over warm chocolate, with a crème brûlée texture.
Great care is taken with the production of the noble Musigny: only 3.8 hectares of the vines are used because these are the oldest, offering the most consistency and depth of character. For Remington Norman, these fine old vintages have supreme poise and breeding, agile self-assurance, and a charming suavity.
Only 5,952 cases were produced of the Château Lafite-Rothschild 1897 — a fraction of the yields from the vintages that preceded and followed it. Extraordinarily rare at the end of the last century, today it is even more so.
The wine was last tasted by Michael Broadbent in 1976, and he later sold bottles of the 1897 from the cellars of the Caviar Kaspia restaurant at the renowned Heublein auctions in San Francisco. Encased within this bottle is a sensual liquid, redolent of plump fruits, yet with a mature note of cinnamon and coffee.
This small 7.53-hectare plot in Morey-Saint-Denis has been described as the ‘grande dame’ of the Côte de Nuits: at once feminine and delicate, but with a full-bodied backbone. The plot is unusual in that the vines are planted north to south across the slope, rather than vertically up the ridge; this protects them from erosion, and assists drainage through the heavy soil.
On 9 November 2009 the Mommessin family hosted a vertical tasting of 56 vintages. Allen Meadows was in attendance and found the length of the 1945 vintage to be the most impressive of the entire line-up. He noted the wine’s earthy complexity continuing through ‘supple, intense and big-bodied flavours’.
It is a rare pleasure when an old curiosity such as this is uncovered; the day the cobwebs were wiped off the bottle, none of those present in the cellar could remember ever having set eyes on this ‘grande dame’ of a wine before.
A cart-driver’s son, Eugène Aimé Salon left Champagne for Paris at the start of the 20th century, seeking to make his fortune. In 1905 he returned a richer man, and purchased a one-hectare plot of Chardonnay vines in Le Mesnil. As his wealth grew, so did the reputation of the Champagne he produced: by the late 1920s, it was the house Champagne for the famous Maxim’s restaurant in Paris.
While it shot to fame as the drink of grand dukes and starlets, Salon de Mesnil also gradually caught the attention of true connoisseurs. For late Champagne expert Colin Fenton, its most alluring quality was the flavour of walnuts; the fruit-forward 1969 is atypical in its display of toasted, maturing walnuts. The vintage is notable for its sharp acidity, which, in the finest bottles, contributes to longevity.