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Superyacht wine guide: Tips for wine tasting on board
Want the ultimate wine experience on your superyacht? You’ll need bespoke storage, a dedicated tasting room and specially selected vintages, says wine expert Susy Atkins
What could be better in life than enjoying a glass of exceptional wine on board a superyacht, whether you prefer a pretty-in-pink Provence rosé, or the finest of fizz? Yet wine at sea presents a number of logistical problems. How easy is it to get it on to the boat and, once there, where should you store it? Will it remain in its best condition on board, just as it would in a decent cellar or wine fridge at home, and what would make the ideal floating cellar?
Yacht owners have always been serious about wine, say top merchants such as Nick Baker, founder of London’s The Finest Bubble, which specialises in champagne and other premium sparklers. The company gets “a certain number of large requests” to supply superyachts, either directly or through agents and wine companies based near the boats. “I often taste with owners,” he says, “and although they know their stuff, they usually have a lot of sensible questions to ask. They like to serve something to their guests that they know about, even to display a bit of showmanship.”
The good news is that the technology is now available for owners to keep their wine in tip-top condition on board. Nigel Jagger, founder and owner of Octavian, a fine-wine storage vault in chalk cellars under Wiltshire, southern UK, that has private and merchant clients, explains: “Nowadays there is always highly adjustable temperature control, set differently in separate areas for whites and reds. Thirty years ago you would have just one uniformly chilled area.”
Most owners stock up with wine for the season, rarely keeping bottles on board for longer. Jagger thinks it’s wise not to store certain styles on a yacht for long. Even with today’s advances in storage conditions at sea, he doesn’t recommend keeping older, more fragile red vintages on board. “It’s not realistic to expect to have exactly the same conditions as on land in the long term,” he says. “Don’t push the envelope too much – I would never keep, say, 1945 vintage reds for long on a yacht.” The wine storage expert should know – Jagger used to own the 45-metre Abeking & Rasmussen Shark, which he purchased in 1990 when it already had a “fantastic” cellar on board. He purchased the wines too, which included lots of mature ones and an especially notable mature white Burgundy.
It’s relatively straightforward to get any wine on board a superyacht quickly and efficiently. Matthew O’Connell, head of investment at global wine and fine spirits merchant BI Wine, explains that his company takes one of three routes to supplying an owner: direct to the yacht; direct to the owner’s property (so the wine can be transported by the owner); or to a wine broker based near the location where the boat is moored. O’Connell says that in his long experience clients take purchasing wine for their yacht “every bit as seriously” as purchasing wine for their home. “They quite rightly want reassurance about such matters as whether it will sit for too long on the quayside. They want to have full confidence over provenance of the wine and conditions on board.”
Stephen Browett is chairman of UK-based Farr Vintners, one of the world’s leading fine-wine merchants. He tends to get sales in the summer months from Cannes, Nice and the Med in general. Before Brexit, supplying superyachts in Europe was not a problem at all, he comments. “Any wine sold by an EU member country can be delivered to any other EU member country with no further tax to pay. We delivered duty paid and there was no further paperwork.” But, he warns, now that Brexit has happened, “this is likely to get more complex.”
Once you have your wine on board, the possibilities for storage are, now, endless and hugely exciting. In the past, most wine “cellars” were tucked away, often in the bowels of the boat, essentially used only as a place to keep the wine, not a place to show it off. But over the past five to 10 years, according to Marc Jessing, head of interiors at Lürssen, the range of options has expanded dramatically. “Wine is very personal,” he says. “Someone sacrificing space on board for something to drink will want to give that wine a huge amount of attention. Many owners today decide to make choosing and pouring it part of the whole superyacht experience. The options for storage design must be every bit as wide open as they are for interiors in general.”
Jessing refers to “wine walls” – sometimes several metres long in an open display, and often from floor to ceiling, bottles displayed individually, hanging horizontally and looking for all the world like pieces of art. Alternatively, entire rooms are now dedicated to wine, often built with large wine fridges or cabinets, typically with a central tasting “island” or large table and chairs specifically for the pleasure of sampling.
And wine has moved up in the world of yachts – literally. “There’s a tendency now for wine displays to be pulled forward and upwards into the more decorated and designed areas of the boat,” he continues. In short, he believes that, today, the wine-storage options at sea are just the same as those on land and adds that “it is always highly customised and integrated into the ship’s design”, be that contemporary or classical, which was rarely the case in the past.
The architecture, design and building company Studio Indigo is experienced in creating wine spaces in all areas of life. Founder and creative director Mike Fisher, who also owns the award-winning 36-metre Brigadoon, divides many of his onboard wine storage projects into two groups. “There’s the wine wall, usually in a main area on the main deck, somewhere people are passing all the time. It’s like an art installation and the lighting should be very beautiful. Then on a bigger boat you may well have a dedicated wine room, maybe further down in the boat. It might have a staircase that winds down and down. You may be in the hull, with the cellar surrounding you. I’ve even seen glass flooring so you can see down to the ocean below while you taste.” As for design, “at the moment anything goes, style-wise, from ultra-modern to Louis XIV Baroque,” he says.
Certainly, when BOAT International pictured a selection of the best cellars for superyachts recently, the range was very diverse. The 107-metre Andromeda (ex-Ulysses) has a modernist circular tasting room with a central tasting station and a separate seating/tasting area, while the 69-metre Suerte has a beautiful wine wall and 47-metre A2 has futuristic gimballed storage pods. The 60-metre Paraffin has hundreds of bottles in more traditional dark-wood cabinets in a formal dining area.
Canadian-based fine wine design company CellArt has created “nautical wine spaces”. Founder and president Jonathan Primeau describes wine as “a living product, so we need to think carefully about light, temperature, possible vibrations and more”. His company sets out the important requirements for keeping wine at its best: the bottles must lie horizontally (both to keep them in a stable position and to stop the corks drying out), at a temperature of between 12 and 15 degrees Celsius (before chilling), with humidity between 50 and 70 per cent, in a space with neutral odour and protected from UV light.
Despite these practicalities, CellArt’s designs are pieces of art. They’ve ranged from a nautical cellar the company created using navy-blue lacquer and golden metallic inserts with multiple rectangular lacquered onyx recesses to hold bottles, to a bespoke set of wine racks with beautiful curved lines, looking like waves and emerging as ripples.
Is the weight of wine a problem? Not at all, says Jessing, but one drawback can be the noise produced by the cooling system. When wine was tucked away, far down in the boat, that wasn’t a problem, but moving it up into the guest areas means the noise comes with it. It’s not without its solutions but it can be complex.
What about the rocking motion of the boat? Jessing believes the wine is consumed sufficiently quickly, once aboard, for this not to affect its condition, while others say that superyachts tend to be “fair-weather vessels” and won’t experience too much rough water. Fair enough if you stick to the Mediterranean or the Caribbean, but those more adventurous owners experiencing rougher seas should take note: some wine experts point to the issue of sediment that accumulates in mature bottles of certain fine reds and ports, saying that this can get very unsettled at sea, turning your venerable claret cloudy. “Sediment is a problem particularly in older Bordeaux reds at sea,” says Matthew O’Connell. “A rocking motion disturbs and disperses it and then it’s a hassle to remove. The same wine in a restaurant or served at home would not have this problem.” Another reason to avoid older red wines at sea, then.
Which brings us to the question of wine styles most enjoyed at sea. If you thought there was a new desire for obscure or lesser-known labels, regions and grapes, think again. Stephen Browett at Farr Vintners is quite clear that the two types ordered the most are the same as ever – top-quality rosé and iconic champagnes. “We supply champagnes such as Moët Hennessy and Cristal [Louis Roederer’s prestige release]”. Nick Baker of The Finest Bubble notes the healthy sales of “large-format bottles of champagnes – such as the Methuselah which holds eight bottles’ worth” to yacht owners, and says there is a definite demand for limited editions of top champagnes such as the Dom Pérignon Luminous release, the label of which glows in the dark.
Gary Owen, fine wine private account manager at London’s Berry Bros & Rudd, also sells a lot of “larger-format champagne bottles, specific editions, Cristal, Dom Pérignon and Krug” to yachts. He describes the other most popular rosés as “sunshine wines” – the top-end, pale and dry Provence rosés such as Whispering Angel and Garrus (both from Château d’Esclans) and Miraval (from Brad and Angelina’s château). Jeany Cronk, who with her husband Stephen owns rosé producer Mirabeau wine estate in the Golfe de Saint-Tropez, says that the appeal of Provence rosé on board stems from the fact that, unlike some rosés from other regions, it is notably dry – “its fresh, crisp acidity makes it a perfect aperitif and a great match for light food eaten al fresco,” she says. Mirabeau’s top cuvées, Etoile and Pure, like most top Provençal rosés, are best enjoyed young, from the most recent vintages, she says “to maintain the freshness and fruit-forward characteristics”.
What about reds? Interestingly, when it comes to the premium classics, Burgundy gets the nod over Bordeaux, reports Owen. Red Burgundy suits the occasion better, perhaps, with the softer Pinot Noir grape of the region more suitable for warm weather than the more tannic Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated blends of Bordeaux’s Médoc. And Owen offers some advice to owners: “On a yacht, drink red Burgundy that’s a bit younger than you might choose at home,” he says, “and consider chilling it lightly. Youthful, cool red Burgundy tastes juicy and refreshing.”
Nigel Jagger of Octavian has more tips on wine styles at sea: “You will mainly be in warm climates and probably eating light food, so as well as finest vintage champagnes, white Burgundy is a really good choice.” Burgundy in both colours it is, then.
But it’s not only French wine that is quenching superyacht owners’ thirsts. Italian wines are also popular, especially the “Super-Tuscan” labels such as Antinori’s Tignanello, and top names from elsewhere in the country, such as Masi’s Amarone. There will always be a demand for wines from specific vineyards that the owner has visited, knows well, and may even have business links to. But overall there is less mention than you might expect of New World wines on superyachts, though famous names do occasionally crop up, such as Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand, Kistler Pinot Noir from Sonoma, California and Penfolds Grange from Australia.
Martin Davidson was a chief officer on superyachts for 11 years and offers the perspective of the crew. He became used to seeing large-format bottles of champagne, especially big stocks of Jeroboams (four bottles’ worth) and lashings of 1996 Dom Pérignon. Wine tastings as well as food-and-wine pairing evenings are very popular, he says, as is top-of-the-range glassware, silver ice buckets and fine decanters – all the wine accessories you would expect on land. As for sommeliers, Davidson says the wine was more likely to be served by general stewards and stewardesses with wine training rather than a space on board being taken by a specialist sommelier, something that’s becoming more common today.
He has fond memories of wine on board superyachts. “I was given a glass of 1956 Penfolds once,” he says. “A superyacht is a seven-star hotel, with the best of everything. Of course the wines are of the highest order.” And nowadays, the extraordinary places where they are displayed on board are of the very highest order too.
Five of the finest wines to bring on board
Champagne Dom Pérignon, France
A single-vintage prestige cuvée made only in top-quality years, this champagne is renowned for its powerful fruitiness, complexity and the ability to age wonderfully well. The DP Luminous edition has a front label that lights up in the dark via a button in the bottle’s base.
Garrus, Château d’Esclans, Provence, France
Bordeaux-born Sacha Lichine’s Garrus rosé, made at this Château d’Esclans, is an exceptional Provencal pink made mainly from grenache vines averaging more than 80 years of age. Garrus is a pale bone-dry rosé renowned for its pure, mineral notes, delicious hints of wild strawberry and orange and plum.
Tignanello, Marchese Antinori, Tuscany, Italy
A hugely innovative and influential wine when it was first produced by Piero Antinori in the 1970s, Tignanello is a so-called “Super-Tuscan” blend of Italy’s sangiovese grape with Bordeaux’s Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Expect ripe cherries and cassis, and notes of fresh tobacco and cigar box from oak barrel ageing.
Masi Amarone, Veneto, Italy
Amarone is made using the concentrated juice of semi-dried grapes for an intense flavour and texture.
The Masi estate in Valpolicella is one of the great masters of the technique – expect their Amarone to be a powerful red with deeply concentrated raisin, plum and cherry notes.
Kistler Pinot Noir, Sonoma, California
Some of the best Pinot Noir outside its spiritual home of Burgundy can be found in California. Kistler’s Pinots from Sonoma County are renowned for their fine balance, lovely aromas, concentrated red-berry
flavour and freshness.
This feature is taken from the July 2020 issue of BOAT International. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.