There’s a time and a place for esoteric wine gifts, but Christmas is not it, says Justerini & Brooks MD Chadwick Delaney. “At this time of year people tend to fall back on the kind of thing everyone knows – bordeaux, burgundy, champagne, port. Things they can be pretty sure the recipient will recognise and understand the value of.” The big change of the past few years has not been in the wines so much, he continues, but in the way people are choosing to give them.
“There was a time when just giving the big names was enough, but now it’s more subtle than that – people want to show that they’ve put real thought and effort into what they’re giving. We’re seeing a lot more clients asking for verticals assembled to order, for example, something we hardly saw at all just a few years ago.”
Some of the more astonishing verticals J&B has assembled for clients include a complete set of Mouton Rothschild vintages from 1945 to 2010 (£120,000) and a collection of every vintage of Pétrus from 1970 to 2010 (save for 1991), housed in an engraved wooden case (£93,500). Not subtle, exactly, but proof of real dedication from the giver. “Creating one of these will often mean getting hold of vintages that are not readily available, or buying direct from Bordeaux. It can take a huge amount of planning,” says Delaney. “But people are increasingly prepared to put in the time and money. They’ll plan these kinds of gifts months, even years, in advance.”
Bordeaux first growths will never lose their wow factor. But Burgundy is the region that, in Delaney’s words, is currently “pre-eminent”. “We’re seeing more people specifically requesting burgundy – and to a lesser degree barolo – for gifting rather than bordeaux, because the wines are in such short supply and from such small producers. It’s that much harder for the recipient to replicate.”
Jeroboams commercial director Matt Tipping also reports a rise in more creative wine giving. “A mixed case is always wonderful to give and can be a lot of fun to put together. You could, for example, do a case of red wine, sauternes and champagne from the same vintage.” He proposes a riff on 2009 featuring that year’s Château Haut-Brion (described by Robert Parker as “one of the most compelling examples of Haut-Brion ever made”, £865), Château d’Yquem (£450) and Louis Roederer Cristal (£185), a prestige cuvée that was on absolutely dazzling form when I revisited it the other day.
“We get a lot of drinks companies offering us ready-made gift packs, but we find they just don’t sell,” says Alistair Viner, head buyer for Hedonism Wines in Mayfair. “People really want to be involved in putting these things together, even if it ultimately ends up costing them more.” Gifts that tell a story, or offer scope for comparing and contrasting different vintages, producers or regions, prove particularly popular, says Viner. “And you don’t have to give a whole case. A pair of reds on the theme of ‘California now and then’ could be very interesting.” With more than 1,500 US wines, including 46 Californian vintages, in stock, Hedonism is particularly strong in this department; Viner picks out two Cabernet Sauvignons – a 1984 and a 2012 – from the prestigious Spottswoode Estate in St Helena in the Napa Valley (£141 and £177 respectively). “Or you could give a selection of wine, grappa and olive oil from one of the Super Tuscan estates like Tenuta San Guido [which produces the sought-after Super Tuscan Sassicaia] or Ornellaia [2012 magnum, £390; olive oil, £30].”
Virtually every wine merchant I speak to reports a dramatic rise in the number of wines now being gifted in large formats: magnum, double magnum, jeroboam and beyond. Big bottles have many benefits. They’re often better value, they’re practical for large-scale entertaining and, as Giles Cooper of BI (formerly known as Bordeaux Index) puts it, “if you give one as a gift, you know the recipient is not going to accidentally open and drink it on a Tuesday night”.
But the real reason for favouring large formats, as more and more oenophiles are coming to appreciate, is they’re almost certainly better for the wine. Blessed with a higher wine-to-air ratio than an ordinary 75cl bottle, large formats encourage the contents to mature more slowly, resulting in wines with greater freshness, complexity and finesse.
Highlights from BI’s current selection of large formats include double magnums from two high-profile Margaux estates, the 2004 Château Giscours (£245 in bond) and 2006 Château Rauzan-Ségla (£260 in bond), while Justerini & Brooks has some tantalising large-format burgundies, including the Nuits-Saint-Georges, Clos de la Maréchale, Premier Cru, Jacques-Frédéric Mugnier, 2012 in magnum (£700 for six) and double magnums of Clos de la Roche, Hospices de Beaune, Grand Cru, elevé par Laurent Ponsot, 2011 (£410) and Clos de Vougeot, Grand Cru, Domaine François Lamarche, 2013 (£400). For white burgundy on a grand scale, head to Corney & Barrow, which currently has the benchmark Olivier Leflaive 2015 Bourgogne Blanc Les Sétilles by the magnum for just £39.50.
“If you want to buy en primeur, then the physical gifting is delayed – most merchants would give you a certificate of purchase – but the value is even better,” adds Cooper, who is currently offering the 2016 Château Les Cruzelles from Denis Durantou’s Lalande de Pomerol estate at £95 per double magnum in bond.
A staggering array of big bottles – serried in rows like so many warheads – is on display at Hedonism. The 27-litre primat of Torbreck 2006 (£29,942) has to be seen to be believed. “Even rosés like Garrus [from Provence’s Château d’Esclans, £226 for a 2011 magnum] are currently doing well in large formats,” says Viner. A double magnum is probably the largest size most people could pour unassisted. If you’re bestowing something bigger than that on your nearest and dearest this Christmas, you might want to throw in a decanting cradle as well: Hedonism does all sorts of models that can take magnums and above, in chrome, matte black, gold plate and custom colours (VCanter Rustico, £3,100).
It won’t come as a surprise to learn that champagne continues to be a firm favourite at Christmas. “When it comes to gifting, it’s still mainly the usual suspects,” says The Finest Bubble founder and MD Nick Baker, “but we’re seeing a lot more people asking for a particular vintage, or vintages. Clients are much more clued-up about that now.” The Finest Bubble’s stock of nearly 350 champagnes includes a particularly good inventory of sought-after vintages such as 2002, an advantage that has allowed it to put together some stunning cases for customers. “We’ve done Cristal verticals, verticals of Taittinger Comtes de Champagne and Dom Pérignon. We also have a very rare trio of Krug Clos d’Ambonnay 1996, 1998 and 2000,” says Baker.
If you’re not prepared to stump up the £6,000 for that trio of single-vineyard champagnes, The Finest Bubble also has the new Krug 2004 by itself (£250) or as part of a limited edition sextet dedicated to 2004 (£900), which features three bottles of the 2004 and three of Krug Grande Cuvée Edition 160 (a multivintage composed around the 2004, which, for my money, has rather more charm at the moment). From early December, it’ll also be listing a small amount of the new 2006 vintage of Pol Roger’s majestic prestige cuvée Winston Churchill (£160) – so join the waiting list now.
The vintage that’s causing the biggest buzz in champagne at present is the fruit-forward 2008, which is currently being released by several houses. My pick of the 2008s so far would be the spine-tingling 2008 Clos des Goisses (£600 for six) from insider favourite Philipponnat. It won’t be ready to drink for at least another decade, though, so you’ll need to make sure the recipient is the patient type. Pick of the British bubbles would have to be Nyetimber Classic Cuvée 2009 in jeroboam (£165), which recently won Best English Sparkling Wine at The Champagne & Sparkling Wine World Championships.
If the trend-watchers are to be believed, though, what we all really want these days isn’t more stuff, but more experiences. And several companies now offer vinous adventures that would make excellent presents. Moët Hennessy – which counts Dom Pérignon, Krug, Ruinart, Veuve Clicquot and Moët in its portfolio – now offers a series of lavish champagne trips (from £5,400 for two) through its new online portal Clos19, a fine-wine retailer styled in the vein of Net-a-Porter. Tasting Dom Pérignon 1998 P2 to the sound of bells tolling in the abbey where Dom Pérignon lies buried is, I can attest, pretty magical; descending into the cathedral-like chalk crayères of Ruinart is possibly even better.
If you like the idea of giving your loved one a private tasting or wine dinner in rarefied surroundings, then look no further than Berry Bros & Rudd. However many times I dine at its HQ in St James’s, the thrill of visiting a wine merchant that’s been supplying the crown since the reign of George III never wanes. The wonky lamp in the cellar may have been placed just so, and the jug of snakeshead fritillaries on the drawing-room table sourced from a local florist rather than some cottage garden in Hampshire, but there is an atmosphere here (as well as a 4,000-strong wine cellar) that you don’t find anywhere else. And the operation is slick, with four entertaining spaces ranging from state-of-the-art cellars to clubby dining rooms. Choose from tailormade wine dinners for up to 36, champagne tastings, wine and cheese matching sessions, courses in burgundy and bordeaux, and even the occasional quiz night – prices start from £95, but the sky is the limit.
Jeroboams also recently unveiled a new fine-wine room at its Belgravia branch that can be hired for private tastings. “You could do a comparison of the best from the left bank and the right bank, Médoc versus Saint-Emilion,” suggests MD Matt Tipping, “or a tasting of top-flight burgundy.”
But even the best-laid plans come unstuck sometimes. In which case there are several merchants that now deliver at incredibly short notice. The Finest Bubble recently introduced a two-hour delivery service within central London (it can even deliver your vintage ready chilled). And Hedonism can often deliver within the hour if it’s very central (although everyone, quite rightly, maintains that getting the wine to its destination in perfect condition remains the first priority). With so many options at hand, there’s really no excuse for turning up with a predictable bottle this Christmas.