Ten years ago, Sir Harrison Birtwistle and his wife, Lady Sheila, exchanged their remote crofter's cottage on the island of Raasay, near Skye, for a farmhouse near Gramat

in the Lot Valley, between the Dordogne river and the town of Cahors.

On Free Presbyterian, dry-as-a-bone Raasay, the laying-in of supplies of alcohol demanded constant ingenuity: the broadcaster and food critic Derek Cooper wrote that a visit to the Birtwistles there was like hearing a Gregorian chant in Mecca. At their French farmhouse, though similarly isolated, they have no such problems.

Sir Harrison has converted a water-storage area into a cellar, filled it with cases of young Hermitage, Cornas and St Emilion, and sealed it. 'It's an Aladdin's cave, which I shall open up in a few years' time.'

While waiting for this cache to mature, he is buying in stocks of wines he and Lady Sheila have enjoyed while eating out. When he comes to England, he scouts around for the odd case of something special - such as the 1982 Chateau Meyney and Potensac that he bought from Bibendum.

'In France, if we go to a restaurant and find a bottle that we like, we call the grower. Nine times out of 10, the wine just arrives and the bill comes later. We discovered the wine of Cahors itself by drinking it in local restaurants, then going to get it. I like the wines from the top of the hillsides that go up from the valley in Luzech. Domaine de Paillas, Cayrou and Chambert - which is supposed to be the classiest - are very good. But Cahors has doubled in price recently.'

Harrison Birtwistle was born in Accrington, Lancashire, where 'the world was divided between people who went to church and people who went to the pub, and my family was the family that went to church'. Port was a Christmas treat, and that was it. 'I had my first pint of beer on my 18th birthday. I thought, 'If I'm old enough to fight for my country, I'm old enough to go to the pub.' It felt like going into a brothel and drinking sin.'

After port, the nearest thing he had to wine was something called Tarragona. 'I think it was sort of light, fortified wine. Beaujolais was the first real wine I had, and I can still remember it because it was very, very thin, almost a rose - not soupy and fruity as we think of beaujolais now.

'Wine wasn't there, but I was instinctively attracted to it. It has such significance in literature that, by reading, I think I invented wine for myself. It seemed to be another part of my make-up that I was searching for, in the same way as being a composer.'

After he left the army, Harrison Birtwistle worked as a clarinettist in London, before going to live at Port Regis near the Dorset-Wiltshire border, where he taught at a summer school in Gillingham with Peter Maxwell Davies and Alexander Goehr. In the bar of the summer school he bumped into Robin Yapp, now a leading Rhone and Loire specialist, who had just started to practise as a dentist.

'Shortly after that, Sheila and I were in bed with flu. I remember Robin came to see us with his baby, and got into bed, too, as it was so cold. We were all drinking from toothmugs a wine he'd brought, when the GP arrived. He was rather shocked.'

Despite protestations from Lady Sheila, Sir Harrison claims that he has 'never been terribly serious about wine. It's too important to a lot of people for my liking.' But he admits to having enjoyed some rather good bottles. He and a couple of friends once cleaned out a City restaurant of its La Tache and Romanee-Conti before they became prohibitively expensive.

'I've also probably had a couple of dozen really great first-growth clarets in my life,' he says. 'The spectrum of flavour can be absolutely extraordinary. In Bordeaux it becomes very subtle - something you can't really put your finger on.'

Sir Harrison's taste for Rhone reds is due in no small part to the influence of Robin Yapp. He insisted on being photographed with Gerard Chave of Hermitage and Auguste Clape at Yapp's 20th anniversary celebrations, though the French growers had only the haziest notion who he was.

'I buy a couple of cases of Auguste Clape's Cornas every year, and I've got some '83s that I can just drink now,' he says.' I love Chave's Hermitage, it's fabulous, but my relationship with the Cornas is a different thing. There's a simplicity, I suppose, if that doesn't sound too pretentious.'

Since coming to live in France, Sir Harrison has acquired the French taste for drinking wines younger. 'It becomes a very definite thing: when you taste older wines, you think, 'It's a bit too old for me, it's just gone past it,' whereas a lot of people in England would think it's just right.'

But he is not a fan of New World wines. 'Wine for me is by definition French. I think white burgundy is absolutely fabulous, although it's ridiculously overpriced.

'There's a marvellous expectancy, always, in opening a bottle of wine, that is never quite fulfilled. Well, very rarely. Sometimes when you go to places where it's made, and they pour it, it seems absolutely right. It doesn't have to be a great wine. But as soon as you take it away, it's not quite the same. I never know why that is.'

(Photograph omitted)

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