Growing up in a cricket-mad household in the seventies, it’s no surprise that one of my earliest memories is of Ian Botham putting the Aussies to the sword in the Ashes series in the summer of 1981.
During that iconic Headingly Test, I distinctly remember my father declaring England were “useless” and “had no chance” as an apparently familiar tale unfolded on the TV.
Although only seven years of age, I was starting to get used to this narrative, so when Ian Botham strode to the crease and started smashing the ball to all four points of the compass in what would become one of his most iconic innings, my brother and I had a new hero – and not just because he had proved my father wrong.
Now, they say you should never meet your heroes. They are, after all, only human, with the same weaknesses and frailties as everyone else. So, when I got the opportunity to spend some time with Sir Ian Botham, I like to think I wasn’t star-struck. Prepared even, perhaps, to be a little disappointed.
Sir Ian, or Beefy as I get to call now him, is a true English icon. An outrageously gifted sportsman with a legendary competitive spirit, he is a committed charity ambassador as well as a knight of the realm. Since retiring from the game, he has commentated for the last 25 years for Sky, finally retiring at the end of another glorious year for English cricket (we won the World Cup for the first time in case you missed it).
But what has been less well known is his other passion, wine. Especially New World wine. But not French, we’ll get to that …
We met for a chat, and a drink, of course, at 67 Pall Mall, in St James’. Ostensibly to talk about the wines, where they’re from, and how they’re made, I also wanted to get a better understanding of the why? Why, when you’ve finally retired from the cricketing world at the age of 63, would you want to get into the world of making and selling wine?
The old adage of ‘the best way to make a small fortune is to start with a large one’ is a familiar refrain in the wine trade after all, and for good reason. It’s a cluttered and competitive market with thin margins, and continually endangered by the weather. Plus, in these volatile times, exchange rates too. Surely it would have been better for Beefy to just put his feet up and enjoy drinking the stuff in his well-earned retirement?
We started off gently, as I asked what got him interested in wine in the first place. Aged 17, and playing for Somerset, he told me he was given the task of helping the legendary commentator John Arlott (and his well-stocked hamper) into the one-man radio commentary box at the ground: “Getting him up there was ok, getting him back down the ladder later was a bit more tricky!”
The contents of that hamper would soon inspire Ian’s love of wine. “Arlott asked ‘Do you like wine?’ I replied that I’d never really drunk wine because I was raised on a cider farm. In that hamper he had all the latest vintage releases from Beaujolais, and he invited me to try a few sips and that’s how it all started!”
That epiphany would not only spark Ian’s interest in wine, but also a long and deep friendship with Arlott himself. Botham recounts how later, when Arlott’s health was fading, he would holiday on Alderney where Arlott lived in order to ferry him around his local haunts. “I’d drive him around the island. There were three pubs. We’d stop at each one where he’d have a large brandy and I’d have a glass of red – then we’d get back to his house and try the latest wine samples that had been sent to him from various French vignerons.
Occasionally I’d slip a new world wine into these blind tastings, but he’d always spot them. He did once say that the Penfold’s Grange I gave him one time was ‘not bad’! When John passed away, my father-in-law and I would take a fine bottle to his graveside and share it while looking back at memories before leaving the cork – and there are many corks but definitely no screwcaps – in that Alderney grave yard.”
Botham’s interest in Australian and New Zealand wines was sparked initially by cricket tours to those shores. Back in the good old days, five-day Test matches lasted six days, with the highly civilised concept of a ‘rest day’ halfway through each match. Botham recounts how these were usually spent visiting wineries and vineyards, drinking more of their produce than one suspects elite athletes today would consider to be acceptable…
There is little doubt in my mind that they probably had a lot more fun back then though, and lifelong friendships with winemakers, as well as like-minded opposition players such as Dennis Lillee, were forged. Botham reckons that he has spent around 20 years of his life in the Antipodes all told, a tally that will only increase as he pushes on with his eponymous wine brand.
A highly successful TV career followed after he retired his cricket whites, but Botham had by then well and truly caught the wine bug – and as anyone who knows anything about Botham knows, he isn’t given to doing things by halves. Frustrated by what he sees as exploitation of customers by some of the bigger wine players, especially the French (“I couldn’t give a stuff about the French. For years they’ve been selling poor wine at inflated prices. Some of their top end stuff is great, but only at ridiculous prices”) it was perhaps inevitable that he would want to do his own thing, to do it his way. So he created Ian Botham Wines.
What comes across very clearly is how passionate he is about wine, and how focussed he is on making a success of his own brand. Let’s be clear, while he is not a trained winemaker, picking and fermenting the grapes himself, he is very hands-on in the blending process, and the creation of the final product.
All very laudable I thought, but I have heard this sort of thing before. So, I ask, what makes you different to other celebrity wine brands – only to immediately wish I hadn’t. This is Ian Botham after all, straight talking is what he does.
“I hate that term with a passion, celebrity wine brands, it really pisses me off to be honest. Most of those are just cheap tanks of wines with a celebrity ‘endorsement’……it’s shite. We don’t have that problem because we won’t compromise the quality. I just say to people, try the wine and come back and tell me what you think. If people like it, they buy it again, and that’s what we’re seeing because we’re delivering quality, affordable quality. There’s oceans of cheap wine around, we don’t want to be part of that. Every single wine that I put in the portfolio is a wine that I would put on my own table. They need to be authentic, and they are. Nothing gets into the bottle unless I sign it off.”
Feeling chastened, I remember an old TV advert from the 90’s, I have no idea who it was for, but I do remember that it featured a South African winemaker who said “you have to have a passion for wine, or get out of the business!” And that’s exactly what I wanted to see and hear from Botham. It’s very clear to me that this is something he truly believes in and cares passionately about. He’s not just sticking his name on any old crap to earn money he doesn’t need.
His eyes light up when he talks about the success he’s already had and his plans for the future: “There’s a whole world to still explore, to find and make some interesting, different stuff. I’m not tied to any one region, I can go around the world and work with brilliant winemakers. I can’t get enough of it, I just love tinkering with wine.”
I’m fairly certain that Botham isn’t one for regrets, but perhaps if he would admit to one, it’s that he didn’t start his own wine brand a little earlier.
Just for fun, I thought I’d finish our chat with Ian’s views on the health/anti-alcohol lobby. “I couldn’t give a stuff about them quite frankly. I’ve read many times that drinking a couple of glasses of red wine a day is good for you, so drinking a couple of bottles a day, I’m going to live forever!”
I couldn’t have put it better myself…
There are three tiers to the Ian Botham Wines range. The Allrounder wines are designed to be everyday drinkers and are widely available now, The Series Range (which each commemorate a famous cricket Series involving Botham) form the Premium tier, and the pinnacle of the range, small parcels of top-end fine wines, are under the Sir Ian Botham moniker. Below are my tasting notes on a selection of these. They are all available from www.bothamwines.com, and as stated below.
The Botham and Balfour, Hush Heath Estate, English Rosé 2018
Not surprisingly, Beefy is very pro-English wines. Huge strides have been made in recent years in both still and sparkling wines in England, and 2018 is widely recognised as the best vintage ever seen. This pale pink rosé is a blend of various red and white grapes, including Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and is made in conjunction with the celebrated English winemaker Richard Balfour at Hush Heath Estate down in Kent. Hints of strawberries, wild flowers, red cherries. Soft and creamy, reflecting the ripe vintage, this is zippy on palate, with flavours of lime, strawberries and cream. As we move into Autumn, this is a welcome reminder of Summer!
RRP £10.99, Available at Tesco shortly
The Botham 76 Series Margaret River Chardonnay 2019
Margaret River, over in Western Australia, is known as one of the best Chardonnay growing regions in Australia. A blend of vineyards from right on the coast and slightly further inland give a nice mix of freshness and richness. The nose has white peach, classy French oak and citrus peel, and whilst obviously young and fresh this is already harmonious on the palate, with nice weight and a creamy, butterscotch finish.
RRP £10.99, available at Tesco, Waitrose and Booth’s
The Botham 78 Series Limited Edition Central Otago Pinot Noir 2017
Selected from 7 different vineyard sites across the whole of Central Otago, New Zealand’s most renowned Pinot Noir growing region, this is soft, rich and lovely. In terms of bang for your buck, this is probably the highlight of the range for me. Hints of coffee, strawberries, dark cherries and mulberries with a juicy finish, showing coffee again and finally a touch of mint.
RRP £12, exclusively on www.bothamwines.com
The Botham 80 Series Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 2017
Coonawarra first put Australia on the map as a serious producer of Cabernet Sauvignon, so it’s not surprising that Beefy has chosen this region for the Cabernets in his range.
This has the trademark characteristics of blackcurrant and cassis and a touch of eucalyptus (but not too much). On the palate, these flavours shine through along with tobacco notes, though it’s not jammy or tough with a refreshing finish thanks to ripe tannins and balanced acidity.
RRP £10.99, available at Tesco, Waitrose and Booth’s
Sir Ian Botham Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 2014
It’s great that with these top-end wines, Botham has selected wines with some age and development. These are wines that you can drink on release rather than having to stick them away for years – the ageing has been done for you.
Serious stuff here – this has a lovely mix of primary and secondary flavours thanks to the age. On the nose there is blackcurrant jam, tobacco, cream, leather and graphite. On the palate these flavours are joined by coffee, menthol and creamy oak. 2014 is seen as an excellent vintage in Coonawarra, with a long, slow ripening period which gives the wine great character and ageability – this should age well for another decade at least, though why wait?
RRP £42.50, available at Berry Bros and Rudd
Sir Ian Botham Barossa Valley Single Vineyard Shiraz 2013
Again, no surprise that this comes from the most classic region for Australian Shiraz, the Barossa Valley. Once more this shows some lovely development. Cinnamon, bacon fat, saucisson, pepper, and blackberry cheesecake flavours all jostle for your attention. Rich and unctuous, with depth of flavours, concentration and length, this is a very serious wine that is delicious today but will still improve for a few years yet I’d say.
RRP £42.50, available at Berry Bros and Rudd