“How’s a 2005 Volnay Burgundy sound? How about a vintage 1985 French sweet wine? Or perhaps a 2006 Barbera d’Asti? Or the piece de resistance, a Sandeman port that’s been in the cellars for 45 years?”
The email was pretty enticing. Not overly enlightening (for all I knew, a Barbera d’Asti could be compact hatchback, a Volnay Burgundy some kind of pancetta-wrapped oyster dish…) but from context I gathered that these were wines I should get excited about. And so I signed on for the MCR wine-tasting and cellar tour.
On the morning of the tour, a small group of us congregated under the New Building colonnades. We were joined by the butler Terry, who has been at Magdalen for over 40 years and is a fount of college knowledge. He tells a great one about helping to recover the chapel’s magnificent 17th Century window (based on Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel) which was hidden in a ventilation tunnel alongside the wine cellar pre-WWII; knowledge of its whereabouts having passed down from his predecessor’s predecessor. You can read the full account here – it’s a rollicking tale including one Stuart Lever who was Master of the Worshipful Company of Glaziers and Painters of Glass (most amazing title ever) and Anthony Hopkins. Terry also regaled us with rumours about lost hoards of 16th Century silver, which the President apparently has an annual hunt for (he picks a day, picks a spot on the foundation map that could harbour a secret cavity, sets out with a shovel, and only once drilled through to the porters’ mailroom).
The cellar itself is incredible. Honeycombing all the way under New Building, it’s like an alcoholic rabbit’s warren, brimming with racks upon stacks of wine from every major vineyard and year (some 40 000 bottles all up). My friend, whose oeknowledge (ha, wine pun) far exceeds mine, spent a good few minutes tenderly cradling a bottle of 1897 port the way an elephant mum nurses her newborn (the way you would after 22 months gestation). And cooing over a cobwebby bottle of Château d’Yquem which Terry casually pegged at £2000.
As Terry talked us through the cellar stocks, it became clear that he knows his wine. And I can understand why; not only is he responsible for twice daily selections for the fellows, but he also frequents wine-tastings at the various college: “We’re trying 70 wines over at Christ Church tomorrow. I guess someone’s got to do it…”
As for the wine tasting, I enjoyed it more than my ill-fated whisky foray. Probably because it’s not so much of an acquired taste (whisky is like a pet axolotyl; you could learn to love it, but why would you want to?). I’ve also spent more time in its convivial company, not least because I lived with a wine marketer for a while who was basically a guy version of Courtney Cox in Cougar Town (who could forget the dual decanter station in our kitchen? Or shower wine?).
So although I’m not so clued in technically, I can appreciate a decent glass. More importantly, I can fob people off with terrible wine chat — lots of talk about strong tannins, ‘unctuous mouthfeel’, and wine having the slow tears of a heavily-mascara-ed Lauren Conrad gif.