Not many people go to their physiotherapist for advice on fine wine, but then not many people have a physio like Peter Crawford. The former pro polo player and founder of leading west London practice Form Physio also happens to be one of the most prolific collectors of vintage champagne in the world. “A client recently asked me to take a look at a bottle of 1985 Krug,” says 39-year-old Crawford, whose collection stands at several thousand bottles, some dating back to the 19th century. “It had clearly been languishing in a cupboard for years. It was all dark with bits floating around in it. Completely shot.”
Crawford’s interest in vintage champagne was sparked when he was at university, working part-time at Oddbins. “A friend gave me a bottle of 1988 Pol Roger to try,” he recalls. “It was the first time I’d tasted a more mature champagne and I thought it was wonderful. Back then you could get bottles for next to nothing, so I was able to buy a lot of fun old things. Vintage champagne has so many layers to it – earthy, biscuity, forest-floor flavours. From around 30 years old, it develops lovely tertiary flavours of tobacco, chocolate and coffee. It acquires a special texture, too, and often has few or no bubbles. It is a completely different style of wine.
“I remember buying a few bottles from a guy who chucked in a 1928 Pol Roger for free because he wasn’t sure if it would be OK. We opened it at a tasting I organised last year; it was stunning.” Today a 1928 Pol Roger would cost around £5,000, highlighting how the market for vintage champagne has developed in the past 20 years. And interest is growing: a recent report by Live-ex showed its share of the secondary fine wine market had grown from one per cent to eight per cent since 2010. “There’s a lot less liquidity than there used to be,” says Chris Wood, director of fine wine curator Chelsea Vintners, who has often acted as Crawford’s eyes and ears on the market since they met several years ago at the annual Printemps de Champagne.
“We now speak once or twice a week,” says Crawford of the relationship. “I’ll pop round to his office or we’ll go out for dinner.” They favour low-key, convivial restaurants such as Hedone, Bubbledogs and trade favourite Medlar, to which they often bring their own wine. “We’ll open a bottle of something interesting and chat.” That “something interesting” might be a Dom Pérignon from the 1960s – a decade he greatly admires – or a prestige cuvée from 1988 – possibly his favourite vintage of all. “[That vintage] has always been wonderfully strict and I like that. I don’t like wines that are ostentatious and flabby,” he says. “It’s the best vintage of the 1980s. In fact, I think it’s the best vintage ever: perfectly balanced, with really good structure. Just beautiful in every sense.”
This specific passion recently culminated in a two-day tasting of more than 150 vintage champagnes from 1988, which was held at three-Michelin-star restaurant L’Assiette Champenois in Reims and attended by 15 enthusiasts from all over the world. “Chris helped me get hold of a 1988 Pol Roger Winston Churchill in magnum [£900 in bond], a 1988 Philipponnat Clos des Goisses [estimated at £375-£400] and a 1988 Billecart-Salmon Elizabeth [£350-£375], which is as rare as hens’ teeth,” says Crawford. “We also had a 1988 Krug Clos du Mesnil, worth around £1,800.”
To track down bottles like this, Wood has to scour private collections and tap up agencies and brokers across Europe. “I’m hesitant about buying from auctions as there’s no recourse if something turns up and it’s not in great condition,” he says. “One of the most difficult aspects of buying vintage champagne, especially older bottles, is ensuring provenance; that’s why we turn down way more wine than we buy.” And since Crawford is such an impassioned collector, Wood can turn to him for advice at times, too. “Peter brings a level of knowledge to the table that sometimes even we don’t have,” adds Wood. “He takes it to a new level.”
Crawford goes out to Champagne a dozen or so times a year, usually visiting houses under his own steam, and has tasted more than 15,000 champagnes. He won’t put a price on his collection, but reckons the methuselah of 1990 Cristal (worth around £6,500) and a 1959 Dom Pérignon Rosé (worth around £15,000-£20,000) are the most valuable bottles he has. “But it’s the 1960s and ’70s Krugs and Salons that have probably accrued the most value, although investment is not what I’m in it for.” He describes himself as a “massive fan” of grower houses like Frédéric Savart, Bereche, Agrapart and Brochet. “But I am concerned about the long-term effects of the [low] dosage levels and young oak that some of them are using – where will they be in five or 10 years time? We don’t have the history to know that yet.”
His collection is divided between his house in Hammersmith (“my drinking cellar”), the family home in Fife (“interesting old stock that I touch once in a blue moon”) and France, where he has “a corner of a cellar” in Epernay. Amazingly, the only way he keeps track of his wine is in an old notebook. He also posts tasting notes – “I am a very mean scorer!” – on his Instagram account. “Apart from that it’s all in my head.” The only time this system backfired was during a cellar clear-out several years ago when he threw a bottle of 1947 Pol Roger into the recycling by mistake: “Every time I go into my cellar I wonder what happened to that ’47. It absolutely kills me.”