The death a few weeks back of Michael Broadbent, founder and former head of Christie’s Wine Department, marked the end of an era rather than a “changing of the guard.” Born in 1927, and active at Christie’s until 2009, he had first-hand tasting experience of vintages from the mid-18th century onwards.
He was best known internationally for his books of tasting notes (The Great Vintage Wine Book I & 2 and Vintage Wines) detailing some 90000 wines he deemed worthy of describing. There were many which never landed up in print: he once said “I for one am not interested in writing about Sauvignon Blanc, for example. These wines are for drinking, not for writing about.”
Everyone who was part of the fine wine world he presided over from the 1960s onwards has an anecdote about him. The obituaries consistently describe a born teacher and mentor. Unashamedly a man of his era, he was gracious and witty, a stickler for detail, an entertaining raconteur. His expertise was mainly in European wines. From this perspective, there’s very little about his life and achievements relevant to wine drinkers in South Africa today – other perhaps than his much quoted comment on a pinotage “tasting of rusty nails.”
He had a more substantial tasting experience of old and age-worthy wines than anyone else in the second half of the 20th century. Many of the styles of wine he celebrated have changed or vanished entirely. Few people nowadays keep wine for a decade, so notes on wines a century old are of very little general relevance. Unless you stumble across a treasure trove of late 18th century Bordeaux and want to decide whether to buy the 1784 Lafite or the 1787 Branne-Mouton (now Mouton Rothschild) reading his tomes serves much the same purpose as watching MasterChef from a desert island.
He was probably the last direct link to these wines: his life in this arcane segment of the wine world just overlapped with Andre Simon – described by Hugh Johnson as “the charismatic leader of the English wine trade for almost all of the first half of the 20th century, and the grand old man of literate connoisseurship for a further 20 years.” Both lived into their nineties, both had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the classical wines at a time when the wine world revolved around France and Germany (and very little else). Both made important contributions to wine writing. Both served as mentors and reference points for the next generation of experts.
Broadbent’s tasting notes draw on Simon’s era and aesthetic, rather than Robert Parkers, where 100-point scores and multiple adjectives are the hallmarks. Simon once described a wine as “a girl of fifteen….curtseying herself out with childish grace and laughing blue eyes.” Broadbent summed up an 1848 Chateau Belair Marquis d’Aligre as “a faded beauty with twinkling eyes.”
Broadbent started Christie’s wine department, selling off vast collections of 19th century claret from Lord Rosebery and the cellars of Glamis castle. At that first sale in May 1967 a magnum of 1864 Lafite fetched $225 (then about R150). The London papers were outraged at these prices – little realising that by 1981 the same bottle would sell for $10000 and today would be worth twenty times that amount.
It’s fair to say that Broadbent launched the wine investment market. While producers all over the world owe him a debt of gratitude, the result has not entirely served the best interests of wine drinkers. True, with higher prices producers have been able to invest in healthier vineyards and cleaner cellars. But the idea that wine – even the best wine – is a beverage made to be consumed has been exchanged for the view that it is some kind of hard asset. The great classics have become the status symbols of oligarchs. The wines that Broadbent tasted, celebrated and sold are as distant from wine consumers today as the Giacomettis and Matisses art lovers can only see in museums.