Food & Drink: A good judge of fine clarets: In our series on wine collectors, Lord Slynn explains to Anthony Rose how he started to build his cellar

WHEN I was growing up in Cheshire after the war, whisky and port were more popular than wine. During National Service, I drank mostly gin and tonic. At university, rather cheap wine, or, for best, college claret or Berry's good ordinary claret - and bad sherry. Later, I developed an enthusiasm for very dry sherries. One used to get deliciously chilled La Ina at the Garrick. Now I hardly ever drink sherry.

Getting to know wine has a lot to do with knowing and liking people who like wine. I had three or four friends at Gray's Inn, who were all very knowledgeable. Lord Devlin was one - he had a great claret cellar. They put me on to the wine committee at Gray's Inn. That's when I really began to learn about wines, from around 1970.

When we decided to buy wines for Gray's Inn, I used to buy something for myself at the same time. I bought a lot of 1961 and 1962 clarets, and a few from 1964. I'm still drinking the 1966 and 1970 clarets. I paid pounds 3 a bottle for wonderful Berry's-bottled Palmer '61. I sold some for what now seems a very small sum. I was stupid to sell it. Knowing it is now fetching over pounds 2,000 a case is almost as bad as not having it to drink.

When I was Treasurer at Gray's Inn, we had a foreign head of state - the Grand Duke of Luxembourg - for dinner, and I opened the last of the '53 Lafite. We served it after dinner with some very good port. He was delighted because 1953 was the year he had been married. I was born in 1930 and it was a very bad year, so no one will ever offer me a 1930. I've never had one.

When I started on the Gray's Inn wine committee, people rather looked down on burgundy. But I was quite a lot younger than the others, and I preferred good burgundies. Now I find I can cope better with claret in the evening. I suspect for most people it's easier to appreciate a good burgundy than a good claret. It's less tannic and fruitier. With burgundy you can get stuck into the sensual appeal of it. To appreciate first-class claret, you need to have a feeling for the thinness and delicate taste of it.

I haven't started on my 1975s or 1978s yet, and I got rid of most of my 1976s. One of my very favourite clarets is Ducru-Beaucaillou, and I've got a case or two from 1976 on. I've got some 1982 Mouton-Rothschild, too. Apart from Ducru and Mouton, I buy Gruaud Larose and Talbot. I've got quite a bit of the 1970. I very much like Leoville-Lascases. I've still got some 1966 and some 1978. I have some Pichon Lalande, and I've bought quite a lot of Lynch Bages over the years.

I don't like drinking clarets and burgundies too young. In Brussels, you get served wines that are much too young by our tastes. With mature wines you don't get that fresh, young taste, but something that is deep and mellow. The bouquet is very important. Really, though, it is the depth of the wine: claret goes on getting better. It's not the fruit, but just some sort of indefinable maturity that I like.

My first time in Bordeaux, I visited Chateau Cheval Blanc and Ausone. A few years later, we had a conference on European Community Law dealing with wines and spirits. It's the only conference I've ever kept awake throughout. To my surprise, I was taken to Chateau Margaux and made a commandeur of the Commanderie du Bontemps du Medoc et des Graves. It was a wonderful ceremony. I wore rather grand, colourful robes and they all turned out.

My time as a judge of the European Court in Luxembourg (1982-92) was quite helpful because I had Spanish and Portuguese colleagues who encouraged me to try their countries' wines. I had no idea red Portuguese wines could be so good. We used to go to a restaurant, start with a fresh vinho verde and go on to something more serious. Then I got to know a little bit about Spanish wines. I enjoyed deciding issues of European law relating to wines - labelling, mixing, description and fair trading. And I began to drink perhaps much better quality clarets than I might otherwise have done. I'm surprised Luxembourg white wines don't sell here. A good riesling, a good gewurz, can be extremely nice.

I had lunch with one of our ambassadors abroad recently and drank some absolutely superb white English wine, which came from Wiltshire. I've got the label somewhere. Sam Whitbread is making quite nice white wines, too, at Warden Abbey in Bedfordshire.

It was John Avery, however, who persuaded me to look at wine outside Europe, and introduced me to Australian wines from the Hunter Valley. Since then, I have been to quite a few places in the Hunter Valley, and I have been several times to the Napa Valley in California. Some of the New Zealand whites, such as Cloudy Bay, are absolutely delicious. But I don't believe anyone has yet produced anything as good as the best French, although some Italian wines are excellent.

Everyone always seems to assume that you have to drink very expensive wines. It just isn't true. If you know someone who can tell you what to choose, one can drink extremely well at a moderate price. In a restaurant, I would much rather go for a Rhone such as St Joseph, Gigondas, Chateauneuf or Crozes-Hermitage or a Loire wine, and drink a better bottle at home. Midi wines are fine down there in hot sun over garlic pate.

There's a lot of nonsense talked about wine. It's become a sort of social one-upmanship. I don't think that's necessary at all. Some people are afraid of sallying into wine tasting because they can't say it's got a good follow-through or nose or how much tannin there is, and so on. The thing is just to enjoy it and not worry too much. When I retire, I hope to be able to have a glass of wine with lunch - or even one glass of champagne as elevenses.

Lord Slynn of Hadley is a judge in Britain's highest court, the House of Lords. He was previously at the European Court in Luxembourg, where he was a judge until 1992.

(Photograph omitted)

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