When did your interest in wine begin?
I was 15 years old, on holiday in France with my folks, and my old man took us to Oustau de Baumanière. He ordered a bottle of Chassagne-Montrachet, and a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape – I don’t recall who the producers werebut the wines were good.
So when did it really kick off?
I was about 20. My wife Zanna and I had just started dating and we’d saved up for a trip to France. My folks had a flat near Montpellier and we visited loads of restaurants and vineyards. And when we were both 21, I took Zanna to L’Ortolan near Reading for a surprise birthday lunch – we spent so much money – most of it on a half-bottle of Château d’Yquem. I had to write out four cheques to pay for the meal, I felt so small! Though I still remember how it tasted – it’s like trying your first truffle.
Other special bottles you remember?
I’ll never forget the first time I tasted great Burgundy. It was a 1985 Echézeaux from Henri Jayer and I was in my early 20s. I spent all my money on wine, after that. I visited this little wine shop in Thame where I got some amazing deals off Lance Foyster, the owner. I once split a case of 1990 Le Pin from Pomerol for £300 with my dad.
Where did you like to drink these wines?
At home, with Zanna, with a plate of spaghetti bolognese mostly! When we first lived together our home was my folks’ garage, done up a bit. We celebrated our son Jack being born with a lovely piece of beef onglet and some charred onions, with one of those bottles of Le Pin. By the age of 26, I had 600 bottles in my collection! But gradually I discovered less expensive wines, still made by great producers – such as Jean Thevenet in the Mâcon.
Any great wine moments?
I’ve tasted lots of amazing things through The Fat Duck but the 1961 Château Palmer that I had once at the restaurant sticks out. I was a lot more involved with the wine list in the early days. Before it opened, I did my higher certificate at the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, and Part B of the diploma – I even did a viticulture course at Plumpton agricultural college.
Do you like to travel in wine regions?
You’re joking, aren’t you – with three kids? Not these days so much, though every year I get together with Harold McGee [the expert on the science of cooking]. Last year we went to Spain and visited Alvaro Palacios in Priorat, which was pretty amazing. And last October I did a couple of days in Burgundy with my sommelier, Isa, and my mate, Lee Dixon [the football pundit and former Arsenal defender]. We went to Coche-Dury and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. While we were at DRC we tried a 1988 Bâtard-Montrachet that’s made just for the family – an amazing experience. I think the context of wine is as important as anything else.
Do you have any other favourite wine regions?
The Languedoc – because I feel a bit of ownership, with my folks having the flat in Montpellier. I used to set off for the vineyards in my car clutching a copy of Robert Parker and The Hachette Guide to French Wines. That was how I discovered Mas de Daumas Gassac, and La Grange des Pères, and Mas Jullien – all long before they became trendy. They were only a 20-minute drive from the flat. That area holds a lot of affection for me. And I thought the wines were exciting – still do.
Have you got a favourite place where you like to drink wine?
That’s a difficult one. I could say drinking a lovely chilled bottle of Muscadet with a big plate of oysters in the Loire on a rare weekend off – but then you take it home and it never tastes as good, does it?
Favourite food and wine matches?
Wine, sherry, saké, whatever – all contain the same aroma molecules as food. The more complex the drink becomes, the more difficult it is to find the perfect food match. We all know that Sauternes and foie gras works really well but I think it’s good to try something else – I think we should be much more creative when matching food and wine. We’ve had some amazing pairings at The Fat Duck: an Amarone with salmon and liquorice was unbelievable; and my Sound of the Sea dish goes really well with saké. I judged the Copa Jerez sherry and food matching competition last year and we stopped for lunch in Sanlúcar at Bigote [the famous seafood restaurant]. I’d had a heavy night – I was very ‘beads of sweat on my top lip’. Then I had a glass of chilled manzanilla with grilled shrimps and a couple of grains of salt. My world stopped. It was a beautiful combination – and a great hangover cure!
What do you drink at home?
There’s always a bottle of fino or manzanilla in the fridge. We’ve just moved to a new house so I’ve still got to sort the cellar – which is a home cinema at the moment. I’ve got to build up the collection again, too – as I flogged it all at auction to keep the restaurant going a few years back.
Any pet hates?
I used to love Viognier, but I drank too much of it. The good stuff is still great, but a lot of it doesn’t have enough acidity for me. I’m not that keen on really pungent Sauvignon Blanc either.
What would you choose as your last meal on earth, where would it be, and what would you drink with it?
It would have to be Sunday lunch – roast chicken – at home with the family, with a bottle of 1986 Tignanello. We had a wine dinner at The Fat Duck a few months ago with winemaker Piero Antinori, and that Tignanello was drinking unbelievably well.