A couple of weeks ago I joined cricketer Ian “Beefy” Botham at Lord’s for a tasting of his debut range of wines, currently New World centred, as they all hail from Australia. Botham’s interest in wine was sparked in his youth by the commentator John Arlott, with whom he shared many bottles, and to this day he pays tribute to his mentor by drinking a fine bottle by his graveside – most recently a Waterford Estate Kevin Arnold shiraz.
There are plenty of wines associated with sports stars, musicians and Hollywood names, but Botham insists he is not making another celebrity wine. “They let me loose in the winery,” he says defiantly, as we sample the ’76 Series Margaret River Chardonnay (£12) – cricket fans will know 1976 was the year of Botham’s first century, 1,000-run season and international cap for England.
An unorthodox – at times controversial – player, Botham takes a similar approach to his wines: he blended grapes from two different vineyards for the series, changing the rules to get the style he wanted. The result is pretty impressive – nicely balanced with clean, vibrant fruit, running along a refreshing vein of juicy acidity and backed by well-judged oak. Better still is the premium Sir Ian Botham Chardonnay 2017 (£42.50) from a small parcel of Adelaide Hills fruit on the Lane Estate. This is a richer style made with more new oak (“unoaked chardonnay is a waste of good grapes”, says Botham, who asked winemaker Marty Edwards to use more in the maturation), but the quality of the fruit and the mineral intensity of the site shines through and the lack of malolactic fermentation ensures crispness from start to finish.
Botham is adamant the wines stand on their own. “What I’m doing now is what I’ve been working towards for the past 15 years,” he says. “It’s not a walk in the park and I still want to be making wine in another 20 years.” While a buyer might be led to a first purchase because of the name on the label, if further bottles are bought it’ll be because of what’s inside. The ’80 Series Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon (£12) and ’81 Series Barossa Shiraz (£12) – 1981 being the year of “Botham’s Ashes” – both show good regional character and varietal typicity, the shiraz especially showing a sufficiently savoury, herbal edge and structure to partner its ripe black fruit core.
When I press him on the subject of making wines nearer to home rather than with old sporting foes, Botham reveals he is in talks with several English vineyards to make a sparkling wine and, on the subject of other whites, suggests a New Zealand Pinot Gris is a far more likely next step than a Sauvignon Blanc, a grape he has no taste for. A Pinot Noir with South Victoria’s Paringa Estate is also well advanced.
Of the current reds, I found top single parcel reds within the “Sir Ian” label sumptuous but textured: the old vine Barossa Valley Single Vineyard Shiraz 2013 (£42.50) from the Dorrien Estate, aged five years prior to release, is already showing interesting secondary characters of coffee, leather, eucalyptus and pepper alongside the dark berry, cherry and vanilla notes. Meanwhile, the Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 (£42.50), sourced from old friend the Australian winemaker Geoff Merrill, is from a much cooler, damper vintage, and shows the mint and chocolate aromas that typify premium wines from the region, remaining coiled on the palate with a morass of dense autumnal hedgerow fruits that will no doubt unwind over the next few years.
Alongside the opening “All-Rounder” range (from £8 a bottle), these Botham Series and Sir Ian wines are confident and well made and avoid caricature, with a restraint to balance the ripeness. I look forward to seeing how the range develops.
Tom Harrow is a fine-wine commentator, consultant and presenter. His Grand Crew Classé is the ultimate invitation-only club for fine-wine enthusiasts, with exclusive access to rare bottles and events around the world. Follow him on Twitter @winechapUK.