Bowled over by a well stocked cellar: The former England cricketer Ian Botham tells Anthony Rose how John Arlott introduced him to the joys of wine
It is mid-morning. Botham ransacks one of the stone bins for a bottle of 1992 Thelema Mountain Chardonnay from South Africa, and pours. 'I hate people who stick them in freezers and ice boxes. John Arlott taught me that.'
Arlott was a kindred spirit and formative influence. 'I was about 16, on the ground staff at Somerset, when I first met John. The commentary box at Taunton was up a rickety old ladder on top of the old pavilion. I carried the wicker basket. I thought . . . chink, chink, chink . . . hello, strange typewriter, this. We get up to the box and he opens the wicker basket, lays out four different wines, all beaujolais. He had his cheese and some fresh bread, and that was him for the day. He invited me to 'kill my thirst' after carrying that basket for him.
'In the cellar at his home - the Old Sun Inn in Alresford, Hampshire - he showed me great old bottles with labels saying two shillings and ninepence. He was anything but a wine snob. He taught me the different beaujolais and burgundies. I told him about Australian wines.'
He became very close to Arlott in his last few years, after the commentator and wine writer moved to Alderney. 'I bought a house there which we use in the summer. We used to get a phone call about 9.30 every morning: 'What time is 'e coming around? Tell 'im to bring 'is thirst'. I would wander up about 10.30, often stay for lunch and drink some wine.'
Botham discovered New World wines when he began touring in Australia and New Zealand. He also discovered Geoff Merrill, the rumbustious Australian winemaker - 'fortunately, or unfortunately, depending how you look at it. He's a danger: Public Enemy Number One. He used to take me up to Wyndham Hill Smith's place in the Barossa. He made a very big mistake one night. He let me loose in his cellar at home. He's still got quite a lot of stuff from the early days when he was at Chateau Reynella. He's taken me to some amazing little vineyards. I'm very fond of his Cockatoo Ridge chardonnay. It's such good value. Another wine I've enjoyed is Bridgwater Mill. The owner originally came from Bridgwater in Somerset.'
Fuelled by Australian wine, Botham stumbled on the earthy side of Adelaide. 'David Gower, Bob Willis and I used to nip down the road to this little place called Lubo's. It's where David Gower got his nickname, Lubo. The house wine there was paintstripper of the highest order. The garlic steaks were famous. The bowlers and a few of the batsmen would go in and have the steak smeared with extra garlic sauce which was so thick you had to spoon it over. Next morning you'd breathe over the opposition and actually start to sweat garlic. The Australians would run a mile.'
Botham's admiration for Geoff Merrill is as great as his disdain for wine snobbery and rip-off prices. 'Merrill puts wine in the right perspective. He's not a snob. For years, I've felt the French tended to palm us off with a lot of rubbish at inflated prices. They have had their arse kicked by New World wines, particularly New Zealand and Australian. Now South African wines are creeping in, and Bulgaria and Chile are in the supermarkets. too.'
Botham keeps his older wines near the front in his cellar, the younger ones at the back, 'so they're out of temptation'. His only criticism of Australian wines is that they are mostly drunk too young. 'That 1962 Grange Hermitage I've got in there, you'd struggle to find that at Penfolds. The 1979 is still 10 years away from being at its best. I had six dozen, but I've whittled that down to about three. I've hardly touched the burgundies, because they're only just starting to come into their own. I like to buy a wine when I know it's an excellent vintage and lay it down for 10 or 12 years. I've got some 1984 Wolf Blass Black Label. It's probably the best wine in the cellar for drinking now. It's perfect.'
In New Zealand, Botham's watering hole is Cloudy Bay. With Robin Smith, David Gower and Allan Lamb in tow, he would often take a helicopter from Wellington to Marlborough for lunch. 'I'm very impressed with their wines. Everyone raves about the chardonnay. I actually think the sauvignon blanc is a great wine. Kevin Judd showed me the shiraz grapes he's been quietly cultivating for the past couple of years. We tasted some of the wine and it was bloody marvellous. Some people just have that touch, instinct, whatever.'
He buys his Australian wine through Merrill or Geoff Walls, the agent-general for South Australia in London. 'I think at one stage I had the largest private collection of Australian wines. They are very durable and robust. Magnums keep longer and improve the quality. The only thing is, when you open one, you need at least two of you to have a good go at it.'
He has magnums of St Hallett's Old Block, 'an excellent shiraz, beautifully peppery', Henschke's Hill of Grace, Penfolds Bin 707, and Grant Burge Meshach.
He buys French wines from Everton's, Lay & Wheeler and the Wine Society. Apart from beaujolais and burgundy, he is keen on chateauneuf-du-pape, Vieux Telegraphe in particular, hermitage and cote rotie. The French acknowledged his passion for wine by making him a Knight of Cahors. 'Apparently, it gives me access to every cellar in France, but not droit de seigneur.' He enjoys beaujolais ('a nice light red you can drink all day'), and always tries a case of nouveau. His passion for wine was 'a bit of a standing joke in the Durham and Worcester dressing-rooms. They give you the drinks list at the cricket ground and ask what you want to drink in the evening. I used to put a bottle of beaujolais-villages or morgon or whatever I fancied.'
With a bottle of South Africa's La Motte Fume Blanc and Shiraz cradled in each arm, Botham strides out to the pub. It does not bother Jez, mine host of the Fox Hall on the A66 - and also, latterly, of Botham's road show. 'His white wine is actually pretty low - Lutomer Laski Rizling, that sort of thing. That's where landlords are a bit nave. If you put a crap wine on, you're not going to sell it. If you put on a decent wine at a decent price, people will drink it. Nowadays there's no excuse.'
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