Letter from Kenneth Christie, MW
By Kenneth Christie MW
Opimian was the largest part of my working life, especially during the 38 years when I worked as a wine finder and consultant for the society until my retirement in 2011.
Before working with John Sambrook, the founder of Opimian, I had first been a wine buyer and then became the Fine Wines Director of the wine merchant subsidiary of Allied Domecq, Europe’s largest wine organization, which, at that time, owned Hiram Walker and many other world-leading brands. During this period, in the late 1960s, I witnessed the emergence of the celebrated Beaujolais négociant Georges DuBoeuf and other firms in the region. They propelled the sales of Beaujolais to levels never seen before.
Sadly, it seemed to me that Beaujolais and its wines had lost their market appeal as the quality of the region’s wines declined. In my role as the wine buyer for a large company, I was determined to address this situation. In November 1970, I visited the region and purchased a total of twelve cases of Beaujolais Nouveau from the quality négociant house of Loron et Cie. I brought these cases back to London by train. Recognizing the significance of this, our company’s Public Relations team orchestrated widespread publicity for my small shipment of the youthful wine.
This became the early foundation of the maniacal craze in the subsequent years for the Beaujolais Nouveau fad. This fad rapidly evolved into an international annual wine event, where even the Canadian Liquor Boards joined the mad chase to get the Nouveau back to their market in record time by air freighting the wines to Ontario and Québec. This was particularly aimed at satisfying the growing thirst for the taste of wine in Canada.
Of course, the craze I started in 1970 with my initial purchase was never meant to last. Within a few years, not only did the rush to sample the wine from the new vintage lose its appeal, but also the demand for the unfinished wine of questionable quality dwindled. Concurrently, the production of the finest wines from the Beaujolais region, which had lost their consumer appeal, also declined.
This was close to being a tragedy for the many talented vignerons who were producing wonderful wines using the fruit of the Gamay Noir grape, the classic vine of Beaujolais and the vineyard region of southern Burgundy. Once again, I took to the road in my mobile home, which I always drove to the regions I wished to explore. This not only made my travels economically sustainable, but allowed me to return home carrying large volumes of samples for further tasting.
On this visit, I took an old friend, John Brownsdon, a fellow Master of Wine known for discovering top-quality vineyards and wines. On our first evening in France, we arrived in Chenas as night fell in appalling weather. We parked alongside the high stone wall of the village church and settled down to enjoy an early gin and tonic before crossing the road to eat in the local restaurant. My friend opened the door to the mobile home and threw out the lemon slice from his aperitif. As he jumped out, he slipped on the lemon slice and tumbled into a deep pool of rainwater. Undeterred and after a change of clothes, we dined well on the local Beaujolais gourmet food specialties.
Early the next day we set off to see a grower in the village of Ternand, in the extreme south of the region. Leaving the main road, we climbed steadily upwards towards the tops of the hills from which we could see over the oceans of vineyards of the Beaujolais region and towards the Montagne de Brouilly. Close to the summit above Ternand was a stylish house alongside a modern winery. This, as my companion advised me, was the Domaine de Milhomme, a historic vineyard named after a great battle in Roman times.
The property belonged to a highly talented young vigneron named Bernard Perrin and his wife, Blandine. Bernard, a graduate of the local viticultural college, had an extensive circle of friends who owned vineyards in the best sites across all the villages of the Beaujolais. These villages collectively form the ’10 Crus de Beaujolais’.
With Bernard guiding us, we visited several vineyards, sampling wines and savouring brandy along with slices of smoked ham freshly carved from the bone. One by one, I selected the wines I wished to offer from our host’s vineyards. During our first stop, we met Annie Jambon, the owner of a superb winery from the Côte de Brouilly appellation. Even at that early hour, as we tasted her wine, it became evident that its quality stood on a different level compared to other wines of the appellation.
Throughout the day, we visited each of the Beaujolais Crus, and by evening, our mouths were stained a deep purple and I had compiled a list of wines to offer to Opimian. Yet, realizing the significance of a name, I made the decision then and there to name the selection ‘Le Cercle de Beaujolais,’ and that’s how it was referred to in the subsequent Opimian Cellar Plan.
During that time, there was no other outlet—not only in Canada but also in the UK—where a selection of wines from this long-overlooked region could match our selection for its ubiquitously high quality.
For some years after that, my new friend Bernard Perrin oversaw the wines we wanted for the Opimian Society’s offerings. Each year, Bernard tweaked the list of vignerons we used, always seeking out the very best wines from the region. Whether it was from a vineyard hugging the steep hillsides of Juliénas, the volcanic slope of the mountain of Brouilly, or from underneath the windmill of Moulin-à-Vent, Bernard always found the best.
A year or two after our initial offering, Bernard let us know that he wanted to work as a négociant. He believed that we could significantly enhance our selection of wines from the entire Rhône Valley by applying the same finding-and-selecting techniques we had used during our initial collaboration. Once again, with Bernard leading the way, I drove down to southern France. During this trip, we called vignerons from numerous villages and appellations within the Rhône Valley, tasting widely and culling the selections until we found the best growers. Opimian’s Rhône offering had never been so well considered, diverse and excellent.
Now, Bernard is about to retire, perhaps to make music given that he and other family members are all talented players of the trumpet. Or he might simply bask in the sunlight on the hillside below the Domaine de Milhomme, enjoying a glass or two of his wine with superb views over the vines of his beautiful vineyard region.
Bernard and his delightful wife Blandine have served Opimian admirably for many years, and their dedication deserves a long and relaxing retirement.
Merci, Bernard and Blandine. Vive le Beaujolais!
Ken was Opimian’s Master of Wine for 38 years, starting in 1973. With his father being a prominent wine merchant in Manchester, Ken entered the Wine Trade to gain deep wine knowledge and subsequently became an early Master of Wine in 1969. He retired in 2012.