Vincent O’Brien, MD of Octavian, as told to Sarah Abbott MW

Rare bottles hold stories as well as wine. The world at large has been fascinated by tales of long-lost wines and spirits recovered from shipwrecks or found in a forgotten corner of a cellar. One of the most famous (and cringe-inducing) is that of a 1787 Château Margaux alleged to have belonged to Thomas Jefferson, which was smashed just before it was due to be put up for sale, for over 500,000 dollars, in 1985. (That bottle was fully insured. Salutary insurance tales are a topic for a future post.)

Christmas is a time for opening memorable bottles: the Octavian team have delivered £50 million pounds worth of wine in the past week alone, as our customers decided to pull out that fine wine or whisky to mark their special moment.

The oldest bottle stored at Octavian vaults is dated 1727 and is a Rudesheimer Apostelwein drawn from the famous apostolic cellar of Bremen’s gothic Ratsteller. The wine is drawn from a mother cask instituted in 1727, the year that King George 2nd became ruler of England, and Bremen. If you did fancy a glass of this to toast the first (English) King’s speech for 70 years, expect to pay around £3,000 for a half-bottle…if you can find one.

Octavian are entrusted with several bottles of Lafite from the 1700s, including one from 1787, a vintage made famous by the “Thomas Jefferson” bottle now in the Forbes collection. Such ancient wines become memorabilia rather than drinks that delight. Madeira (of which we cellar examples from 1778 and 1740) is an immortal exception, probably.

Age does not necessarily correlate with value, and some of the most valuable wines we cellar mark time in decades, not centuries. Surging demand for Burgundy and Whisky is reflected in our most valuable individual bottles. Our deep, dark, stone vaults are what your £70K bottle of Domaine Leroy Musigny Grand Cru 2009 deserves until you’re ready to enjoy or sell it. We are looking after more fine whisky with every year. We cellared the headline-grabbing 1926 Macallan that was sold for a record-breaking £1.5 million in 2019. A fine dram for your Auld Lang Syne.

Wine can be bottled history but the life-stories of even the most valuable wines are commonly opaque. Collectors are asked to assess condition and provenance using proxies for traceability, such as the state of the packaging. The packaging used for some of the most precious bottles is as much use as Christmas wrapping paper when it comes to long-term cellarage and secondary trading. Last week we took delivery of an exquisite whiskey, presented in a bespoke wooden cabinet. This gorgeous item is valued at £55,000 but was shipped to us covered only by a slip card on top and sides, with the wooden base exposed to the elements.

We inculcate a culture of care and responsibility in cellaring these wines and spirits. There is a sense that they are living creations. A wine does not have to be stratospherically expensive to be precious to its owner. We know that many of the wines we cellar have emotional histories for our customers and can be mementos of a wedding day, a christening, or a loved one who has passed. We train our team to treat all bottles with equal respect and care.

Many of the bottles we look after are bought as investments, and we know that Octavian- cellared is a reassurance to buyers. But we enjoy seeing the Christmas favourites leaving us and knowing that our customers are preparing to enjoy a special wine. We have delivered a lot of Champagnes and Port in the last few weeks, and the traditional classics of Bordeaux and Burgundy have also been leaving us. We have had many requests for individual bottle-picking this year: this indicates that many of our customers are taking special bottles out, which is great to see. We hope they see that the faith they put in us was worth the wait as the sip their first glass.

Personally, I am going for a nice glass of Bollinger RD 2002 to start the day, followed by a bottle of Cos from same year. We aren’t having turkey – just in case people think I am a heathen !