Many Britons know Lord Professor Robert Winston as the host of numerous television programmes aimed at demystifying genetics and exploring the relationship
between science and religion. It is hard to imagine someone better qualified: Lord Winston’s string of honorifics — FMedSci, FRSA, FRCP, FRCOG, FiBiol,
FREng, (Hon) — is surpassed in depth and complexity only by his work.
As a scientist, Lord Winston is a pioneer in the field of genetics and gynaecological microsurgery, having founded the British National Health Service’s first in vitro fertilisation programme and developed methods to screen embryos for genetic diseases. As a professor, he leads a research programme at Imperial College London, through which he has published more than 300 studies on human reproduction. He is a political animal as well, having been made a life peer in the House of Lords in 1995, where he speaks frequently on education, science, medicine, and the arts.
Outside the lab and Westminster, Lord Winston is also a keen wine lover, having built a sizeable collection at the north-west London home he shares with his wife of 42 years, Lira. Recently, he shared a bottle over lunch with Christie’s International Head of Wine, David Elswood, where the two of them discussed the merits of Rhône over Burgundy, the joy of a stylish tasting note, and the romance of a good cellar.
David Elswood: How did you first become interested in wine?
My father died when I was very young. A few years later, when I was 16, we had a few people over for dinner, and I was put in charge of drinks. I went to
the cupboard and took out this single bottle that had been sitting there ever since my dad died. It was a Gruaud-Larose. None of us knew anything about it,
but it was a revelation to me. I’ve followed Gruaud-Larose ever since. I bought a case of the 2005 not long ago.
And you’ve been interested in wine since then?
Yes, though in my student days I didn’t have enough money to pursue it fully. As a student, it was beer — and lots of it. And I remember getting my first
pay slip, in 1964 — £34 for a month — and buying a bottle of Glenlivet. I still love whisky, particularly Japanese whisky. A single malt is one of the most
mesmerising drinks in the world.
When did the wine bug resurface?
It was always there, it was just a case of having the means to pursue it. I remember buying a few bottles of 1967 Château d’Yquem from a local wine
merchant in Essex. He couldn’t shift them, so he was selling them cheap — £5 a bottle. I’ve always tended to buy simply to drink. I don’t buy for
investment. I did once: six cases of 1982 Bordeaux, all first growths, and they were stolen. They were £350 a case, which seemed like an absolute fortune
at the time.
What bad luck.
I’ve actually had wine stolen twice — the second time was a case of Grange ’82, which was a fantastic wine. But I’m more concerned with the temperature of
my cellar than security. It fluctuates a bit, so I’ve just bought a Eurocave. It gave me the motivation to reorganise things a bit. I don’t keep a cellar
book any more, so I wasn’t quite sure what was there, and to my surprise and delight I found 20-odd bottles of Latour, from the mid-1970s. I’ve no idea if
they’ll be drinkable or not — I must open one and find out. The trouble is, I keep buying, and it can build up over time. Unfortunately, my wife isn’t
quite as interested, so I’ve been buying more half-bottles recently.
Why did you stop keeping a cellar book?
I just don’t think it’s very romantic to be too prescriptive about what you’re going to drink. I prefer to just go down to the cellar and grab it. There’s
a Chinese scientist I work with in Singapore, and he always brings very good wines to dinner, along with extensive notes about them. He even has them
decanted by the restaurant in advance. I’d never do that.
I do plan some things, though. For the millennium I had a big dinner party at home, and we drank a 1919 Richebourg, 1953 Mouton, an 1863 Bual Madeira, and
a 1980 Yquem. I enjoy Madeira very much. Port seems more popular, but I find Madeira far more complex. My wife is very fond of sweet wines, and I enjoy
them too, but we don’t always have them with dessert. I drink quite a few as aperitifs, particularly Mosel Riesling.
Do you often entertain?
I do. I like to trick my guests though. I’ll tell them I’m serving a red Burgundy and actually give them an Otago Pinot to see what they make of it. I’m a
big fan of New Zealand Pinot. They have such good character — clear, distinct. I remember trying Churton for the first time many years ago, when it was
only NZ$30, and thinking to myself, ‘It won’t stay at this price’. I’d drink more red Burgundy if I could afford to though. Rousseau, Trapet — they’re just
about still attainable on my budget. Roumier too is fantastic; I remember first tasting it on a Christie’s French wine course run by Michael Broadbent
around 20 years ago or so. It was spectacular, though I’ve never found it to be quite so good since! I do love Burgundy, but it can be inconsistent.
Generally I find the Rhône more reliable. I enjoy Rhône wines more and more — Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Côte Rôtie in particular.
Did you learn a lot from the course?
What I remember most was Michael’s tasting notes, which were fantastic. Such style, along with a bit of innuendo. I much prefer reading notes to looking at
scores. I’ve never really followed scores or particular critics. It doesn’t make sense to me, it’s too much a matter of taste. I do follow vintages,
although having said that, I don’t mind buying ‘off’ years. I’ve just bought a few Bordeaux second wines from 2007 and 2004 — Moulin Riche from Léoville
Poyferré and Pavillon Rouge from Margaux. They’re so balanced. I also like 2001, particularly Barde-Haut, in St-Emilion. It’s got good bottle age, but is
still fresh. I like 2008 too. I bought some Cantemerle. It’s not ready yet, but I rather like it.
Your tastes sound fairly classic. Do you experiment much?
I like ageing Chilean Cabs for 10 years or so — and I’ve been rewarded; they can become very good. I’ve tried to get to know Napa, but I find the big
vineyards and wines just too commercial for me. It’s the same with Tuscany. I prefer the more obscure Italian regions, in the south — Sardinia, Sicily —
there’s some great value there. I’ve got a dozen bottles of Turriga, which are great.
There was some research done at Imperial College that suggested the antioxidants from red wine were beneficial. Did you have any involvement in that?
Unfortunately I didn’t, and even more disappointingly, it’s since been disputed. But I remain of the opinion that in moderation wine is good for you.
Generally I don’t take a scientific approach to wine. I’m not one to study soil types and topography and PH levels. It’s too much hard work, and I have
enough of that in my day job. Wine should just be about enjoyment.
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