It has never been easier to find and drink the world’s greatest wines, especially if you are in commuting distance of financial megahubs such as London, Hong Kong and New York. Difficulties arise when you stray off the beaten track — but fascinating wines can be found in the most unexpected places. Recently, I was at Ningxia Helan Mountain on the Chinese-Mongolian border, where a prosperous local farmer had paid for French expertise to produce Legacy Peak, a seriously interesting Cabernet Sauvignon. It was a logic-defying exercise as the winters are so harsh that each vine has to be buried for four months to avoid cataclysmic exposure.
Maybe Henri IV’s boast of a chicken in every pot will be transmogrified into a vine in every valley. But until such time, wandering oenophiles have to use their own initiative. Before liquids were banned on planes, it was easy. Whenever I spent time in remote locations, such as northern Laos or eastern Indonesia, I would bring with me half a dozen interesting bottles as hand luggage. It sounds like a lot of effort, but nothing compares to being on an unspoilt island in the East Indies surrounded by pristine nature, drinking d’Yquem with a friend.
Africa poses a challenge, as nothing of merit is produced anywhere other than South -Africa. During a stint in what was then Rhodesia in the mid-1970s, I ordered supplies from London, including magnums of Latour ’59 and Margaux ’59, plus Cristal and d’Yquem. The Smith regime pushed self-sufficiency to combat sanctions and even produced a ghastly red ‘table wine’ from the Eastern Highlands. Once I asked the producer at a trade fair why it was so horrendous. He replied, ‘Is this off the record?’, after which he confessed: ‘Well, it started off white.’ Potassium permanganate had done the trick.
In Asia, you need your own supplies unless you’re in one of a handful of major cities. Most great wines in the best restaurants tend to be of poor vintages. There is no point shelling out a fortune for a Château Margaux 1987 — better to stick to less grand châteaux such as Leoville-Barton or even Cantemerle from a more robust year.
One of the joys of travel is uncovering something from a great vintage at a ludicrously cheap price. During the Sri Lankan civil war, I discovered that the -Meridian in Colombo not only served prime steak from the USA, but Pichon Lalande 1975 for less than £30 a bottle. It seems strange to remember this, given that the local population were busy killing each other, but such occasions were a way of coping. The next day, we had to fly to Madras to drive through the countryside to a rendezvous with the Indian navy. I brought along a second bottle of the Pichon. It was the best picnic imaginable, even though we drank it joltingly from the bottle and told our vegetarian driver that the leftover steak was chocolate.
Sometimes you find a local wine you like so much that you decide to bring it home. In Albania at the height of its Maoist isolationist phase many years ago, the wine on offer was akin to Dr Johnson’s dog walking on its hind legs — it may not be great but it was astonishing that it even existed. Then we stumbled on a 1963 Pinot Noir in German Riesling bottles that tasted like a mature Paulliac from Bordeaux. We drank several bottles and took two back home, full of excitement at our discovery. Perhaps it was a mistake to serve it next to a Cheval Blanc and a Haut Brion, but it was a shocker. I recalled Robert Parker’s warning about ‘the sunset in Provence factor’ when bringing home a glorious-seeming local bottle.
At least I haven’t had to deal with the emotional fallout of the following. Earlier this year, a hotelier told me about some VIP guests at a hideaway in Bali. They decided to celebrate their wedding anniversary by drinking their last bottle of Château Pétrus 1959. It was shipped out from California in a special container weeks ahead so that it would be in perfect condition. The loving couple sat at their table, gazing at the sunset over the Lombok Straits, and waited for their treasured wine, which would cost a five-figure sum if you could ever find another. After a while, they enquired when it was going to be served. At which point the ghastly truth emerged: it had been delivered to a neighbouring table, where another couple had drunk it with pleasure — and thanked the staff profusely for such a delightful gesture.