PETER CRAWFORD HAS BECOME ONE OF THE UK’S FOREMOST ‘GO-TO’ GUYS WHEN IT COMES TO MATURE CHAMPAGNE – OR INDEED, ANY KIND OF CHAMPAGNE AT ALL
BY CHRIS WOOD
Peter’s encyclopaedic knowledge and marvellously Champagne-centric lifestyle has been discussed everywhere from the Daily Mail to the Financial Times, where he has offered keenly insightful investment information and advice.
Peter himself has one of the largest collections of Champagne in the UK, and alongside his wine pursuits is also an ex-polo player, former physiotherapist, recent founder of a grower Champagne import business, and a part-time English cider maker. However, all of Peter’s varied occupations, old and new, do have one thing in common, they all take place with a daily glass of fizz in hand. Chelsea Vintners Managing Director Chris Wood caught up with Peter over a couple of glasses of the good stuff to find out what makes him tick.
How did you discover your love of Champagne?
I am one of three brothers from what is very much a non-drinking family, so it was whilst at university I discovered Champagne through my part time job at Oddbins. My first ever bottle was a 1988 Pol Roger and I remember it clearly to this day; a relatively young but beautifully expressive vintage, which had only spent a relatively short period of time on the lees and yet still had so much fantastic autolytic character with plenty of butter and brioche notes.
I quickly realised if you’re going to drink alcohol, it should always be the good stuff, and so my newfound passion escalated aggressively. Much of the rest of my time at Oddbins was spent cracking open wonderful prestige cuvées on Tuesday nights. Champagne always spoke to me – I was fascinated by 300 years of prestige marketing and a completely unique way of ageing, and I have been an obsessive collector ever since.
Despite that, you didn’t immediately consider a career in wine?
Well, during and after my first stint at university my main focus (other than tasting as many prestige cuvées as I could get my hands on) was playing polo. My father had been a professional player before me, and I took polo scholarships in New Zealand and Argentina and played up until 2014. At that point I went back to university to study physiotherapy, but that business came to a close around the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. I decided it was time to take the plunge and began my own business focusing on the import of small-production grower Champagnes.
Nevertheless, I had always kept a finger on the pulse of the Champagne business no matter where I was. My collecting drastically ramped up at the end of my second university course and I also began to organise tastings. The first event I ever put on was a brilliant tasting of large format Moët vintages at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, with wines dating back to 1914 and an appearance from Benoît Gouez, the long-time Cellar Master at Moët & Chandon … an incredible memory and a day that has inspired many great tastings since.
You’re well known for your love of aged, mature Champagnes. What is the appeal of older vintages for you?
Honestly, my love of mature Champagne simply came from drinking it. Sadly, many other people have cottoned on now and it’s no longer feasible to explore mature vintage Champagne on a university student budget, so I was very lucky to come to it when I did.
Mature Champagne might not be as youthful or seem as approachable as younger fizz, but I genuinely don’t believe you need to have an aficionado’s palate to appreciate these wines. I believe that it’s about flipping the switch on what these wines actually are – not a palate cleanser or an aperitif. Mature Champagne can be deep, complex, rich and moreish, and I don’t think you need to learn anything more to appreciate that style.
I still remember picking up a magnum of 1993 Pol Roger in 2006 for the bargain price of £100. I opened it with my dad, who is far from a regular wine drinker or an expert, and I will never forget the look on his face – these wines at their best are just like nothing else you’ve tried before. This Pol was bursting with butterscotch, glazed stone fruit and an intoxicating savoury sautéed mushroom character that neither of us have ever forgotten.
You’ve touched on the fact that mature Champagne can be ever harder to source – what are the main challenges you perceive?
For me, provenance is absolutely key. We’ve seen prices skyrocket over the last few years but with that, failure is becoming less and less of an option; when prices were lower and buyers weren’t tying up huge money, the possibility of a faulty bottle wasn’t as much of an issue. Now, buyers are looking for impeccable provenance, which is where specialists such as Chelsea Vintners can really make a difference.
If I can I always like to actually get my hands on a bottle before I commit. I’ve found that bonded storage doesn’t always guarantee great quality, and I will happily take a bottle or two that’s been sat in a Scottish castle for twenty years in the right conditions. I look for wines that have been stored at a constant temperature and humidity with a good seal and great clarity – anything floating is a no-no.
You have ample opportunity to taste across the entire spectrum of Champagne, from mature to young. Are there any stylistic differences that you are perceiving between the old and new?
Yes, absolutely, and whilst the diversity of styles is great, if we continue in this vein the changes are going to become less and less positive. The increase in hotter, riper years is giving us more wines that are unflattering on the palate, less elegant and unwieldy, lacking that terse structure and freshness which makes great Champagne what it is. I’m generally not a fan of these fatter, riper vintages and the key focus in Champagne at the moment is maintaining freshness in the wines despite the warming weather.
Freshness can of course be achieved in different ways and there are all kinds of approaches; for example, Roederer are increasingly blending from older reserves whilst the region more widely is looking at approaches such as new grape varieties (much like the rest of France). Having said that, the great formulas, such as Dom Pérignon, seem to be staying the same, and what I suspect we will see in coming years is different styles of marketing coming from the Grandes Marques in particular.
Now, the big question, what are your go-to Champagnes?
What a question! I think Krug is amazing – the consistency across their entire portfolio is great and the Grande Cuvée always delivers. I’ve had some fantastic bottles of GC 1979 and 1988, which proved to me that sitting on those wines for 10 – 15 years is a no brainer. I’ve also experienced some sensational Clos du Mesnil verticals in my time.
Many Champagne lovers would choose Salon, and for me that’s a whole different equation. I’m probably going to die and still not quite understand what Salon is really all about, but that mysterious quality is the great thing about it. I’ve tasted a huge range (including a recent vertical at La Dame de Pic, where we tasted vintages from the 1970s to the 2000s accompanied by a sublime menu from Anne-Sophie Pic) and what I know is that a great vintage is truly astonishing. I remember a bottle of 1959 Salon which was so transcendental that I have compared all mature vintages to it ever since.
Finally, I do have to mention Roederer Cristal – I believe that their Chef de Cave, Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, is the best winemaker in Champagne. His wines are just ridiculously good, head and shoulders above everything else. Cristal shakes off any uniformity and takes things to a whole new level of texture and finesse which is just phenomenal. Truly the rockstar of the Champagne world.
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