This week we celebrated 50 years since Tony Laithwaite brought his first cases of wine back to the UK.
He had a name – Bordeaux Direct – a few half-bottles of Saint-Émilion and a lot of passion.
Since then we’ve had a name change (we travel much further than Bordeaux for our wines now!) but the idea has stayed the same: to champion small, unknown winemakers all over the world and bring their wines directly to our customers.
We try a lot of wines (around 40,000 every year, but who’s counting?). But there are a few which stand out, even if we no longer stock them in our cellars.
These are the 10 most important wines in our 50 year history …
Château la Clarière Laithwaite
Of course this is one of our favourite wines … Tony made it!
In the 80s Tony was offered the chance to buy the winery where he’d first started out all those years ago.
And now he shares Château la Clarière Laithwaite – both the wine and the place it’s made – with his customers … the thousands of Confrères who have an open invitation to visit and an annual delivery of bottles each vintage.
Le Vieux Château Guibeau
Le Vieux Château Guibeau 1966 (pron: Ghee-bo) was the second wine Tony ever sold and it taught him much by comparison with his first.
Its maker, old Henri Bourlon, showed Tony that wine isn’t just about the difference between one patch of soil and another. It’s mostly about different levels of skill and dedication. Many people realise this now, but few did back then.
We first sold Guibeau for 18 shillings and sixpence a bottle. Today the 2016 is £16.99. Now we buy it from the lovely Brigitte, granddaughter of the old, original owner; Henri Bourlon. And she is a brilliant winemaker.
Read more about what Tony learnt from Henri Bourlon in his diary entry here.
Bulgarian Cabernet Balkan Vine
Because of Bulgaria’s Communist regime, this wine cost customers hardly anything in comparison to how much to cost winemakers to produce.
That, and Bulgaria’s large, sunny vineyards, meant this wine was responsible for more than half of our sales in the 70s.
Unfortunately, the regime eventually became greedy and the quality of the wine dropped so we had to remove it from our list.
XV du Président
This big red from the rugby-mad village of Opoul was our first 15% wine, and it’s sold very well ever since it entered our cellars.
It’s from the warmest place in France. Cabalié, which has eventually overtaken XV, is from the same region.
The French Midi is responsible for lots of wines that have been very important to us, and XV du Président is just one of them.
Sec Sec Sec Montravel
In 1987 this Semillon raised a lot of eyebrows. We’d decided to fly young Australians over to France to make wine.
It shook things up a lot because, before then, winemakers in France were often held back by the country’s classification system.
But our team didn’t care about that, they just wanted to make great wine. So they did, and Sec Sec Sec won Wine of the Show in Mâcon the next year.
Our Flying Winemakers were eventually sent home, but they weren’t keen on returning to their stuffy day jobs. So we had another idea …
We created RedHeads Wine Studio, a place where winemakers could do whatever they wanted with minimal supervision.
Of course if they were making modern, rule-breaking wines, they needed to have modern, rule-breaking labels to match. This one, Esulé ‘woman with gun’, is now featured in San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art.
If you’ve not heard of this one then where have you been? The Black Stump Durif Shiraz is our best-selling wine ever.
When we first started selling this wine, Durif was sniffed at. But we didn’t know that, and thank goodness … because our customers love it.
Every vintage, winemaker Alan Kennett pulls out all the stops to create another sublime ‘Stump’. And he’s just created this limited released Black Stump 50th Anniversary edition. Made just for us from 100% Durif.
Winemaker Angelo Maci has been one of the leading figures in revolutionising southern Italy’s wines.
He’s the man behind this pure Primitivo – a rich, powerful red with plenty of ripe fruit. He broke the rules when he started ageing his wines in oak – something that was rarely heard of in Puglia until he started doing it.
Packed with spiced plum and raspberry flavour, Pillastro Primitivo has bagged 50 awards in the last seven vintages, while the winery has twice been voted southern Italy’s finest. With more than 500 5-Star online reviews, it’s a firm customer favourite.
The Elqui Valley is an extraordinary wine region in the far north of Chile next to the inhospitable Atacama Desert.
You might not expect somewhere so close to the equator to produce fresh fruit-forward wines, but thanks to the high altitude of the vineyards the area produces exceptional wines.
Alta Tierra is from Viña Falernia, which was set up by two Italians, Aldo Olivier Gramola and Giorgio Flessati, in 1995. Today they have 135 hectares of beautifully trellised vineyards and a cellar packed with state of the art equipment.
Hunter’s Sauvignon Blanc
It’s strange to think that not too long ago the only place anyone would go for Sauvignon Blanc was France’s Loire Valley.
That was until persistent Ernie Hunter, who had rescued Tony from a bus shelter in Blenheim, encouraged him to try out his wines in the UK market.
Tony says that first sip of Hunter’s Sauvignon Blanc was like an explosion, and our customers agreed – they voted it Wine of the Show at The Vintage Festival in its debut year.
We’ve worked with Hunter’s ever since, and this year the team created a limited edition release with a tiny parcel of their best grapes to help us celebrate our 50th anniversary.