Food / Interview

Vinous Williams

Stephen Williams – one of the world’s leading experts in fine and rare wine

“The difference between wine and any other beverage, I suppose, is that wine changes as it gets older – it has greater complexity. When we open a bottle of wine over dinner we can talk about it. We don’t talk about how good the Coca Cola is tonight, do we? It’s always the same, whereas wine is a changing, living thing. So I have always found it very, very interesting.”

In 1982 Stephen Williams turned this passion into a career by launching The Antique Wine Company. Considered one of the world’s leading experts in fine and rare wine, Stephen has created some of the world’s greatest wine cellars – in chateaux, palaces, wineries, hotels and private residences around the world. Among his achievements is the purchase and record-breaking sale of the world’s most expensive white wine, a bottle of 1811 Chateau d’Yquem, which sold for £75,000.

“People say to me: ‘Wow! What a great job you’ve got, because you get to drink all these fabulous wines every day.’ That is indeed a privilege,” acknowledges Stephen. “But of far greater interest are the people who I come into contact with through the wine business.”

From now on this will include the good folk of Marylebone, after the recent opening of Stephen’s AWC Wine Academy on Queen Anne Street. “The reason we started this academy is because I found, as a novice wine enthusiast, that the more I learnt about wine the more I enjoyed it. It gave me the confidence to taste wines beyond the boundaries of familiarity and to be able to analyse them in a slightly structured way.”

The two of us are sat at one of the large tables in the wine academy space, which is bright, open and – unlike most classrooms – very welcoming. My school never boasted a trophy cabinet full of Riedel stemware. Neither did its tables stand on barrels. And not once did any of my teachers offer me a glass of wine.

I think I’m going to like it here.

While many people might feel intimidated in attempting to learn about wine, Stephen stresses the need to break down those barriers by offering courses that are structured and informative, yet relaxed and entertaining in their delivery.

Having appointed the respected wine journalist John Stimpfig as its director, the academy is already setting a precedent in the quality of its teaching. It has secured the services of a range of specialists, each of whom is recognised throughout the industry for their in-depth knowledge and passion.

“They are specialists in different wines,” explains Stephen. “For example, we used Tim Atkin to do the recent Essential Wine Tasting Techniques for Beginners, and that was a huge success because he’s such an entertaining personality. Tim has a very broad knowledge of wine and takes away the mystery. Then we have Suzi Atkins revealing the secrets of matching smart wines with spicy foods, and in a couple of weeks we have a master class with Charles Metcalfe on the 1990 vintage in Bordeaux, which was a great year.”

The courses are structured by themes, with couples and singles evenings, lunchtime courses for busy mothers and more in-depth courses for those wishing to progress all on the agenda. “We have a series of themes where we add an element of blind tasting to try to figure out what’s what,” says Stephen. “And that might be spot the odd one out. You’d be amazed how difficult it is to tell the difference between red wine and white wine if you can’t actually see it.”

Actually I wouldn’t. Stephen is talking to someone whose enjoyment of wine is hamstrung by a complete lack of both knowledge and confidence. To me a restaurant wine list is a ticking bomb, a deadly object to be passed onto somebody else double smart. I wouldn’t know which wine to order and, equally, if given the dubious honour of tasting the chosen wine I’d probably give the wine waiter the same nod of appreciation whether he’d just poured a Chateau Lafite Rothschild or the kitchen vinegar. And I’d never feel brave enough to suggest the wine might be corked.

Stephen understands these fears. “If you’re in a fancy Michelin restaurant it takes a bit of bottle to say that the wine is corked. But if you actually know that it’s corked, because you’ve been taught what a corked wine tastes like, then you’ll have the confidence to make that protest and be served a decent bottle of wine.”

Wine tasting involves all the senses – starting with hearing. “The sound of the cork popping out of the bottle is very inviting,” says Stephen. “So too is the sound of the wine being poured into the glass.”

Once named the “Sherlock Holmes of Fine Wine”, Stephen is perfectly suited to turning up clues. Much can be deduced from the wine’s appearance. For example, looking at the depth and intensity of colour where the wine touches the side of the glass can point to its relative youth or maturity. “Wine should never be cloudy,” says Stephen. “It should always be pleasant in appearance. If a wine is cloudy then there’s something wrong with it.”

Swirling the wine around in the glass helps to release the aromas. “We want the wine to express itself in the glass – to open up. It took me lots of practice to do this,” laughs Stephen. “I ruined a few shirts along the way.”

The sense of smell is critical in the process of analysing a wine. Humans can detect over 2,000 different scents – with wine having more than 200 individual aromas discernable to the human nose. A wine’s “nose” or smell is an excellent indicator of its quality, origins and unique personality, and, more often than not, the more intense and complex the aromas, the better the quality.

With practice we can recognise the characteristic aromas of certain grape varieties and determine how and where the wine has been made. By smelling the wine we can also tell something about its age. The more primary fruit aromas, the younger the wine. Older and more mature wines will develop complex, subtle and tertiary aromas including such things as nuts, undergrowth and mushrooms.

Tasting the wine is the fun part. But, compared to the nose, the mouth is a relatively blunt tasting instrument. In fact, there are only five flavour sensations that we can actually taste with the mouth – sweet, salt, bitter, sour and umami. That said, what we notice in the mouth is very important. For instance, we’ll sense that the wine is sweet, dry or somewhere in between, and be able to determine the acidity and the amount of tannin.

What defines a fine wine isn’t necessarily price. “Part of our business is going out there to spot the value – to look for wines that are out of the limelight, that haven’t yet become overpriced and very famous, that offer great quality,” says Stephen. “So price isn’t necessarily a big indication of where the value really lies. I would say that a fine wine is a wine that can be defined as having a profile which changes throughout its life. By that I mean a gradual evolution that remains enjoyable for many years until it gracefully fades into oblivion. To me that’s an important quality. This would also be accompanied by a distinctive expression. Very fine wine will have an individual expression, and it will change from one year to the next.”

So will there be an optimum time to drink it? “Very much so, yes, because when a wine is young it has individual elements that are all independent,” says Stephen. “So it will have a structure. In the case of red wine it’s going to have tannin, which is the backbone of the wine. It’s going to have fruit, which is the flesh on those bones. It’s got acidity, it’s got extract, alcohol – and these individual pillars of taste start off separate and they all change at different rates. Eventually they effectively become in harmony, and the key is to drink the wine when it’s in that window of harmony.”

And when will that be? “There’s no standard,” says Stephen. “Every wine and every vintage follows a different pattern, but with fine wine there is always a stage when it’s magnificent. There’s a stage when it still needs more time and there’s a stage when we think we should have drunk it five years ago. That’s why, if you’ve got a significant wine collection, you have to keep an eye on it. You have to live with it, keep enjoying it and tasting it at different stages of its life. There’s an enormous pleasure in doing that, and hopefully you get more pleasant surprises than disappointments.”

Stephen was born and raised in Derbyshire. He began his working life with Barclays Bank, followed by two years in the insurance industry where his interest in fine wine developed as he entertained clients. “I started making a bit of money and having foreign holidays,” he recalls. “Occasionally I’d visit vineyard destinations and bring wine back, and then friends started asking me to bring them back some as well. After a few years I gave up the day job and decided to sell wine as a profession.”

Stephen travels the world tracking down the rarest and most sought after vintages. When not out meeting winemakers and collectors, he lives in Mougins, south of France, with his wife and two children. Stephen commutes to London aboard his Cessna light aircraft – aviation is his other great passion in life.

Though the Antique Wine Company does business with many of the world’s top hotels and restaurants, many of Stephen’s clients are private individuals, wine enthusiasts from every conceivable background. “It never ceases to amaze me how many different ways there are to make a living,” he says. Increasingly these clients come from emerging economies such as China, India and Brazil. The arrival of these new consumers onto the market has driven the price of fine and rare wine ever higher.

Yet Stephen would argue that most people who invest in wine don’t do it for reasons of pure profit. Instead it tends to be more of a passive investment. “Most people who invest in wine have an interest in wine,” he says. “They think: ‘Okay, well it might be nice to have more than I’m going to consume, and then I’ll sell off half in 10 years time when it’s ready to drink. That will pay for the half I keep and so I’ll drink for free.’ That’s the philosophy and it works all the time. And once you’ve actually got a cellar to that stage, where every year you’re buying to top up and you’re selling to cover what you’re buying, it goes on perpetually. So your children and grandchildren will be able to keep that process going.”

The Antique Wine Company doesn’t only deal in antique wine. “We do sell some very old bottles of wine, but actually more than 60 per cent of our business is with very young wines,” says Stephen. “We sell wines that are only one, two and three years old, which are going to be antiques of the future – so long as it’s great wine.”

A wine that many generations hence might develop a legendary reputation. Such as that bottle of 1811 Chateau d’Yquem, which recently set a Guinness World Record for being the most expensive bottle of white wine ever sold. “We actually bought that bottle as part of a greater wine collection,” says Stephen. “I had a bit of a tear in my eye when I saw that bottle go out of the door, because I got quite attached to it. But we were approached by a client from Indonesia. He was opening a new restaurant and wanted to buy a very special bottle of wine as a statement of his presence. That was the particular bottle he chose to buy, and it turned out to be a world record transaction.”

I doubt very much if I have a bottle of wine in my cellar – or small kitchen cupboard as is actually the case – that is ever likely to develop a legendary reputation. Not that I’d be able to recognise such a wine. Not yet anyway. For everyone can develop their skills and increase their knowledge.

My first step might be the academy’s next Essential Wine Tasting Techniques for Beginners, where the highlights include classic tasting techniques, describing wine and assessing quality, understanding different wine styles, grape varieties and regions, and food and wine matching. “You’ll go away with the ability to identify definitely whether there are any faults in the wine, and what the quality is,” says Stephen. “Whether or not you like it is another matter really, but at least you’ll understand the principles of how to taste and analyse wine, and you’ll have the confidence to comment upon it.”

So confidence really is a big factor then? “Well I think so,” says Stephen, “because people do find an element of mystique behind wine. “And knowledge overcomes that.”

Words: Jean-Paul Aubin-Parvu
Images: Viel Richardson

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