My passion: Viticulture

Simon Tam, Head of Wine at Christie’s in Hong Kong, on how his unique soil collection is a reminder of wine’s natural origins

‘It all begins in nature,’ says Simon Tam, Head of Wine at Christie’s in Hong Kong. In his 30-year career, Tam has collected some 60 different soil samples from vineyards around the globe. ‘My collection sits by my office window and is something of a talking point. It’s a bit unexpected, but it helps to remind people of where wine comes from,’ he explains.

It takes seven years for a vine to produce its first grapes. In another 60 years a vine’s yield will decrease, and will have to be pulled out and replanted.

Soil contributes to the growth of a vine in many significant ways: it provides the mineral nutrients essential to its development; promotes drainage; and helps to reflect light or heat.

The older the vine and the deeper its roots, the more layers of soil it will penetrate. Some vines have roots three metres deep, allowing them to pick up nutrients from many different layers of soil, Tam explains.

‘The pebbles and gravels of Bordeaux yield some of the finest wines in the world, yet they’re so unassuming’ — Simon Tam

‘Vines that thrive and grow deep roots are the healthiest and most robust. The grapes they produce are equally robust and flavourful. And of course, if you have good grapes, you have delicious wines,’ the specialist continues.

When Tam visits a vineyard, he makes a point of inspecting the soil, taking careful note of its physical properties: ‘How crumbly is it? How smooth? How rough? Sometimes I smell it, especially if it’s high in iron. There’s a whole range of sensory characteristics associated with different soil types.’

‘My favourite soil type must be the pebbles and gravels of Bordeaux. They yield some of the finest wines in the world, yet they’re so unassuming,’ says Tam, who has collected soil from the vineyard of famed Bordeaux producer Château Lafite. ‘The little pebbles soak up the sun’s heat during the day and release it at night. This also helps a vineyard drain after it’s had a lot of rain.’

Tam loves the wine industry because it has taken him to ‘incredible places around the world’. But his unusual collection serves as a daily reminder that the production of the most delicious wines depends on something much less glamorous.

‘I hope one day that I’ll visit a Chinese vineyard and collect soil from there,’ he adds. ‘Of all the soil types in my collection, I don’t have anything from China yet!’