in UK with Italian ancestry and living in Bordeaux for almost 50 years,
the colourful and bubbly Count John Umberto Salvi MW is a Bordeaux
wine specialist who has spent most of his 71 years around wine. Subhash
Arora caught up with him at Vinoble 2008 in Jerez last week and
chatted with him at length.
Jancis Robinson and Michael Broadbent are known rather well internationally,
they- and John are only a part of the special tribe in the wine industry,
known as Master of Wine. If they were given a degree, it would be an
MW, which they are addressed as.There are only about 260 members who
belong to the elite club, which admits the wine specialists after testing
their skills in a torturous procedure which keeps many more aspirants
falling by the wayside.
'My ancestors from the father's side were from a small village of Friuli,
called Sassoferrato, the same village from where Mondavi's family came.
It was a family of painters, sculptors. One of the direct descents had
designed the famous Fontana di Trevi in Rome. That is how we got the
papal title of 'Conte', says Salvi.
John's grand-father was a famous opera singer. He had gone to London
to sing in Covent Garden, when he fell in love with an English woman
and decided to stay back. 'My father was a wine merchant so I grew up
in wine literally till I decided to go to France to work for my father's
friend Allen Sichel in 1955.'
He was the sales director of Sichel when he quit in 1984 due to conflicts
in philosophy. 'I am a purist and he was a blend person,' says John.
Master of Wine
He did his MW in 1970, there were about 30 some persons who had earned
the title prior to him since the programme was initiated in the fifties,
he says. 'I was lucky enough to pass it during my second attempt only,
'adds John, indicating the tough standards set back then, in contrast
to what some people believe today that the standards have become much
Although he does not remember the living members more senior to him,
he reckons about 20 are still around, including Broadbent.
For anybody who is a wine aficionado, Bordeaux remains the Mecca of
red wine. It goes hand in hand with Burgundy with whom the Bordelaise
have a love-hate relationship. But most of the wines whose prices are
sky high are from Bordeaux or DRC (Domaine Romanée Conti)
with a few exceptions from Rhone.
'Unfortunately, Bordeaux is getting more and more polarised now. The
top producers (first, second and a few o the third growths, generally)
are super rich and flush with funds, with their coffers overflowing with
money, as a producer admitted in an open meeting to Jancis Robinson.
They have become arrogant, with a couldn't- care- less attitude.
On the other extreme, there are1500-2000 producers who brought the shutters
down last year since they could not survive. The problem is there is
too much over-production. Over 2 million liters of excess in Bordeaux,
with whites selling for around a Euro, means the farmers just cannot
survive. They are struggling hard with no funds to promote or market
the products. Today, Bordeaux offers a great opportunity to buy great
value-for-money white wines but you have to locate them yourself. The
growers don't have the money to come to you with their products. That
is the tragedy of Bordeaux.
Bordeaux En Primeur
'The very thought brings me shudders. The prices have
sky-rocketed during the last 2 years. The red vintage has been not great-
drinkable earlier but not for aging and has not potential for appreciation.
Yet the chateaux are resisting any drop. I think there should be a drop
of 30% while they are announcing of 3-10% only. I won't advise anyone
to enter this year.'
'Agreed the Sauternes has been an excellent vintage better than even
the two previous vintages, but the prices are very firm and don't forget
that Sauternes does not represent complete Bordeaux. I won't advise investing
in 2007 vintage.'
Champagne and champagne
'I believe champagne is the biggest success story of France. But I am
not surprised. There is no sparkling wine in the world which comes close
to Champagne. It is so distinctive that it would be very difficult not
to identify champagne on the palate no matter how closely the others
No doubt, the producers have got together and the prices are somewhat
controlled and are thus going up all the time. But I am not in tune with
those criticising expanding the champagne making region. Don't forget
that the land now including in the Champagne appellation has always been
a approved part but was withdrawn 50-60 years ago when the prices were
not remunerative enough and the aristocrats and nobility did not chose
to be a part of the appellation, a decision they regretted bitterly in
the later years.'
'The people who are critical in saying that it is just a ploy to add
production are not well-informed. Also, a few people who are in champagne
are disgruntled too; those who are on the fringe suddenly find their
neighbour's land shooting up 20-30 times.
It is also pertinent to note that the champagne from this region will
be released, not before 2014. So we have to be prepared for shortage
during the next few years. Also, none of the renowned Houses plan to
grab the new land to increase production. I guess they hope to make more
money by the prices of their product going up.
Impressions on Vinoble
Coming to Vinoble is like home coming to me. I have known many producers
for a number of years and I enjoy meeting them.
I have attended 5 of the 6 shows held so far including this one
and always look forward to coming here every two years. It is fantastic
they way the show has taken off. Earlier, the organisers had
trouble getting the sweet wine producers to exhibit. But now every serious
player in the world making sweet wines wants to participate. Some people
cannot exhibit, obviously because of the budgets but it is truly a grand
show for these specialist producers.
Naturally, it is a Mecca for those who are truly passionate about Sherries;
I am one of them. Every single wonderful sherry is at the show and the
producers bring out their best at the show. My favourites Lustau, Hidalgo,
Pedro Ramero, Williams & Humbert, Gil Luque, Gonzales Byass are
a few of the producers who are all here.
The best part of sherry producers is that they all have something at
the top which is of excellent quality. Most have a stock of old vintages
which is rare to see elsewhere. For instance W & H has añados
(vintage) of 1900 too.
The only thing I find uncomfortable is that their evening programmes
are not as grand as they used to be earlier. A few finger-foods being
passed off as tapas while you are standing around throughout the long
evening are not my idea of a cocktail or reception but I do make it a
point to be present as often as physically possible as a mark of support
to the show.
Wines of Spain
Sherry is one of the greatest wines of Spain and in fact the world.
I like wines from Rioja and Ribera del Duero, though I must admit very
few would match up to the classic great wines of Bordeaux.
I am also not very optimistic about the future of sherry the consumption
of which has been going down. The sherry people are making promotional
efforts, which they must, but I don't think it is easy to be on the come-back
trail. The youth have not taken to the drink at all and it is all but
finished as aperitif. Old folks like me love it, so do some women, especially
the Cream, Medium or Pedro Ximénez but that is not enough to expand
You must also appreciate that brandy is a big business-more important
for these producers. They have a slightly sweet and caramelised style
and darker colour which may not appeal to the Brits but Spanish and Latins
love it and the consumption is getting bigger for the Jerez brandies.
Alcohol Awareness Campaign in UK
'What do you say to the recently launched campaign by the UK government
to create awareness about the high alcohol content in big glasses of
wine and increase in alcohol content of some wines?' I ask, bringing
an instant roaring response,' That is hogwash and downright stupid. Even
a child of 9 years knows too much of alcohol is bad. The women who they
are trying to preach to, already know about the harmful effects of too
much wine. They will not cut down on their drinking with such campaigns?!'
'It is also regrettable that soft drinks companies are pumping money
in the campaign to safeguard their commercial interests.'
I think organisations like AIM (Alcohol in moderation) are doing a decent
job of creating this awareness and that is good. But I don't subscribe
to this campaign idea, sorry.
I Love India
'I have been to India only once but I would love to visit India again,'
says john wistfully. 'In what way could he help the Indian wine consumer
or the industry?' I ask.
'There are many ways I can help the importers and consumers,' he says.
As a consultant I have been helping the buyers in UK and the US to buy
wines from Bordeaux. And I don't mean only from the top Bordeaux Chateaux.
Having spent decades, I know the inside out of the region and can give
advice on picking value-for-money wines.'
As a niche area, I know there are many rich people who have money but
not enough knowledge about top end or investment grade wines. I could
assist them. For instance, last year I helped Antique Wine Company in
London, for whom I am a consultant, put up a complete vintage portfolio
of Chateau d'Yquem from 1870-2003, which was sold to a Russian collector
for a million dollars.
I helped one of my clients re-condition a case of the legendry '47 Cheval
Blanc where we tested, tasted, refilled and re-corked the case, which
was sold after 2 months for £ 75,000. The most enjoyable part for
me was that the 13th bottle from which we re-filled the case, had about
a third left in the end. So we had a '47 Cheval with dinner!
I can even organise an upmarket exclusive trip to Bordeaux chateaux
through Vinofino, the wine tourism company my wife Petronella runs for
high class clients. I am a guide for her company. These tours mean lunches
and dinners with the top chateaux proprietors and are exclusive, mind
you and each trip has a limited number.
'I like your newsletter delWine and would love to answer any questions
your readers might have not only about Bordeaux or French wines but pretty
much on any wine subject.'
Till you meet this grand ol' Brit from Bordeaux in India or elsewhere,
you can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org and
he will tell you like it is!