Competition – Alastair Mackeown


'My name is Alastair Mackeown. I studied Economics at Trinity College, Cambridge and then Mathematics at Worcester College, Oxford. I worked my way through the various levels of WSET exams, gaining the Diploma in 2013. I am involved in the wine world in a part-time role, occasionally choosing wine for clubs and restaurants. I live in Wales, below the mountains and above a well-stocked cellar. I am passionate about old white wines, which I feel have been very much ignored, and neglected even more so with the modern movement towards fresher, lighter whites. So I am very pleased indeed when I discover a small parcel of ancient Savennières at auction or a merchant flogging off some venerable Riesling. My favourite hobby is sharing wine and food with good friends & family, but I also love real tennis, travelling to unusual places, and Persian cats – like my wine, preferably old & white.' Here's his unedited entry in our seminal wine competition.

I grew up in a family who drank wine but mostly only the cheapest plonk. On the few occasions I was offered a sip to try, I thought that wine was pretty awful stuff (perhaps quite correctly, given what it was that my parents were drinking). By the time I was of legal age, my preferred drink was beer. When I went to university, I joined the wine tasting society with a fresher’s enthusiasm, mainly because I liked the people, rather than for what we might be drinking.

The tastings were sociable and great fun. Often there were extremely entertaining speakers: I remember a London merchant who came with a selection of South African wine. This was in the days when Apartheid still existed and the KWV cooperative ruled wine production. The tasting lurched from one undrinkable bottle to the next, with reds smelling of horse manure and whites like paint stripper. One particularly repellent Sauvignon Blanc defeated even our urbane speaker. As he struggled to describe the wine’s aromas to us with any enthusiasm, he said, “unripe Sauvignon Blanc is sometimes described as having the perfume of, er, cat’s pee…….though on this occasion, I’m afraid to say I think the cat might have actually been perched on top of the bottle.”

But my moment of epiphany came when the Oxford Wine Circle was visited in 1998 by Corinne Mentzelopoulos from Chateau Margaux. She had generously brought an extraordinary vertical of vintages stretching back from the current release all the way to 1959. As well as this, we tried the years 1982, 1983, 1989, 1990, 1995 and 1996.

As I sat back and tasted the glasses, I thought: “this is wine.” I remembered back to holidays in France with my parents and dinners in bistros with unnamed red liquid poured from carafes. These rustic reds had tasted uniformly one-dimensional, sour and rasping on the throat. But here was something exquisite and new: so many flavours and aromas that with my uneducated palate I struggled to come up with the words to describe them; and the perfumes and tastes were in such harmony that the wines were simply……delicious. Wine could be delicious. What a discovery and revelation!

The Oxford Wine Circle had a core of very serious members who took copious notes during the evening and studiously spat out their poured samples. I meanwhile had savoured everything I had been given and greedily finished the lot. At the end of the event, everyone left – but leaving behind various half poured bottles – which would be swept away and thrown out by the cleaners. I was astonished and not a little horrified. How could anyone waste this most wonderful of wines?

Amongst the remnants was an almost full bottle of the 1983. This wine in particular had stood out for me during the evening. As I had tried it, I had been almost lost for words, as I lacked the vocabulary of a trained taster. But I could recognise and agree with what others in the room were exclaiming: cedar, tobacco, blackberry, blackcurrant, liquorice, leather, cassis, herbal, silky, earthy, vanilla, violets……the words were a poem accompanying the wine, explaining it to me. This wine had opened a door into a new and complex world about which I knew next to nothing. Here was a vast area of knowledge, spread across the globe throughout all the wine-making countries, ready for me to explore.

I could not bear the thought that this bottle would probably end up being poured down a sink. I scooped it up and took it to the college bar. But the others there seemed not to see in it what I did; one friend took a tiny sip and refused any more, preferring to buy himself another pint from the bar. I spent the rest of a very happy evening slowly enjoying the Margaux 1983 while everyone else downed their pints.

I did indeed end up exploring the world of wine. Visits to restaurants became new adventures as now the wine list became something of interest. Holidays revealed different grape varieties to try. I embarked on courses, sitting blind tasting exams and writing essays on wine. I attended trade tastings and helped businesses, clubs and clients choose which wines to buy. And of course, over these many subsequent years, I found many other bottles that were sublime or revelatory. But perhaps rather like love, it is that first wine that is the most romantic.

Over the passing years, Bordeaux boomed, the rest of the world discovered its glories, and prices rocketed. But one evening, I found myself sitting in a London club, with bottles priced as if none of this had happened. There it was: Margaux ’83 – and at a very reasonable price indeed. A bottle was ordered. Was it what I remembered it to be? Yes and no. It was still exquisite. But it had changed: there were new flavours, as if the fruits had been dried in the sun, and an overall added richness; but there were also familiar scents that instantly thrust me back in time to when I was a student, particularly a smokiness, reminiscent of tobacco. But then I had changed too. I had now tasted thousands of different bottles from thousands of producers from all over the world. I had learned the lingo of wine descriptors. I had perhaps been a little spoiled by tasting many amazing bottles over the intervening years. I was also now finally fully aware of the enormous reputation of Margaux from 1983.

But I was glad to find that it was still a very great bottle of wine. And it will always remain something special to me. It showed me a path leading into this very wonderful world of wine, a world I am still exploring with immense pleasure, experiencing new moments, and making more memories to treasure – to add to that long-ago memory of that first bottle of Chateau Margaux 1983.