When a friend makes your wine……
We’ve known Devon born and based Liam Steevenson, MW, since early days but lost contact in the last 6 years while Liam crossed the globe in his quest to make the perfect wines. He’s just resurfaced with a curated list of his own wines for SH, so we asked Liam a few probing questions about what he’s been up to.
SH: Let’s start at the very beginning….
LS: I’ve always wanted to make wine. My Dad, Charles, is an established wine merchant based in Tavistock, which is where I grew up. Wine was always part of my life: winemakers sat round our kitchen table, summer holidays were spent in the vineyards of France. Some kids rebel against their parents but…it got under my skin. As soon as I felt ready, I studied for, and passed, the Master of Wine qualification. I got lucky; at 27 I was then the youngest MW in the world. Inevitably, I followed Dad as a merchant myself, buying wines I loved and selling them with enthusiasm, but in the back of my mind there was always a niggle; I wanted to make the wine myself.
SH: So, how did you go about learning the basics of the dark art of winemaking? It’s not just grape juice and a bit of sugar in barrels, is it?
LS: A buying stint at Waitrose gave me the confidence to blend, to pull out the elements in a cellar I liked, and create wines that suited our customers’ palates, but I wanted to get my hands dirtier. Literally. I could only dream of my own vineyard, not buy one, so I realised the only way I could get to create a wine would be to prove (and get paid for) demand before I had to pay for supply. I headed for the Roussillon, with my schoolboy French; a region whose combination of terroir, vine stock and artisanal ambition appealed to me.
In a small village called Estagel I found a family winery with very basic equipment but an incredible vineyard resource and struck a deal. I would make two barrels of wine in their cellar and if I could sell them then the next year I would come back and make 4. This growth would carry on until I was consistently selling through 18 barrels, at which point I could get a loan from the bank and buy some of the vineyard. I’m now at 12 barrels and will make 18 next year.
SH: OK, so tell us the gritty details, give us an idea of the skill involved. We won’t try it at home!
LS: I borrowed some winemaking techniques I had learnt in Priorat, in Spain – I’d written my dissertation for the MW on this fifteen years before. We hand harvested Grenache, Carignan, Syrah and Mourvèdre from the ancient vines (many over 100 years old), and fermented them in open top 500 litre barrels, using our hands in a form of manual pigeage to slowly and gently draw out colour, flavour and structure.
Fermentation in the cold cellars was drawn out, allowing the red, fresh elements in the wine, a reflection also of the granite soils on which the Carignan in particular was planted, to remain central to the wine. On completion of fermentation, when all the sugar had converted to alcohol we transferred the wine into standard 225 litre barrels and let the wine mature for 18 months before bottling.
SH: Now the glamorous bit; presentation and birth of the wine, if you like…..this was a blank canvas for you, so how did you go about it?
LS: Naming a wine is like naming a child, there was a list on my fridge door for months. Then walking through the vineyards one day I picked a small, yellow flower that was growing among the vines. Immortelle, I was told, was a regional flower named because long after being picked it retained its colour and structure, characteristics which I also looked for in my wine. I spent the last couple of weeks in Estagel with a sense of belonging, a tie to a place from which I have been able to create a reflection of and somehow left my own finger print. It has been an incredible journey that has yielded a wine of quality far greater than I could have ever hoped and may yet bring me my own vineyard in a place that’s very special to me.
SH: We love everything French too (especially when it comes to wine). But the beauty of this new list you’ve curated for us is it’s sheer scope and variety. Are you restless or rooted?
LS: Since the Immortelle project I have gone on to make wine in Spain, New Zealand and now I have started an exciting project in India, which in many ways, for all it’s challenges, I am as proud of as Imortelle. The name of the wine is YAATRA (Hindi for Journey, which perhaps best sums up all of the above). Ten years ago I never believed I would one day own vineyards but today it looks a distinct reality in one of my favourite regions of the world. In the fast paced world of wine consultancy, I love the fact that the Roussillion with its incredible history, evolves at a pace that generations of winemaking families have established. To be able to slow down and play an active role in such place is thrilling, giving a cultural and social aspect to my work that now feels like the most important result of starting two very personal projects. I guess that’s where my roots are right now.
SH: So that’s the vocational story. Tell us something leftfield about yourself?
LS: Um, I was going through some personal stuff about 6 years ago and had an urge for big blue skies and space. So I formed an 8 and rowed the Atlantic in 34 days – that is a world record for an 8 and we sunk a whole load of rum to celebrate.
SH: That does it for us!