I had an excellent visit to Octavian Vaults in Wiltshire this week (www.octavianvaults.co.uk), the largest fine wine storage warehouse in England.
I have wanted to visit this place, housed 100 feet underground in 30 acres of disused limestone mines, for a few years, but was prompted into finally making an appointment because of writing about the Bordeaux City Bond ( www.decanter.com/news/news.php?id=284790 ), and wanting to understand better just what they are up against.
The first sign that you get of the scale of the operation at Octavian is when you arrive at the heavily-guarded entrance. A security guard issued reflective waistcoats for the trip down to the cellar, and checked off our names (if I had been a customer, or moving any wine, I would also have had photos taken, not just of me but also the number plate of the car). We were met by Laurie Greer, operations director, who gave an excellent presentation of what they do, and for who, and were then given torch, oxygen masks (in case of fire or mine collapse), and then sent down the 157 steps down to the cellars (access in only by foot, which makes going back up a pretty good workout).
In the cellars, there are over 750,000 cases of wine, and from the section I saw, it seems at least 80% French (the official figures are 70%). The vast majority, unsurprisingly, are from Bordeaux and Burgundy, with row upon row of Lafite, Latour, Haut Brion, Petrus... this must be the biggest stock of classified Bordeaux in one room anywhere in the world. Among the most exciting bottles I saw were a 1983 magnum of La Tache, and several cases of Romanee Conti 1982. Some lucky private client had palates of all the first growths from 2005 - all five, plus Cheval Blanc, Ausone, and Pavie (interesting that Pavie made it in there). Apparently Octavian received 135,000 cases of Bordeaux 2005 last year, compared to a normal en primeur campaign when around 30,000 cases would come in once the stock has landed.
The oldest bottle of wine in Octavian is a 1775 bottle of sherry, the oldest dated bottle from the Massandra collection that fetched a record £37,000 at Sotheby's auction in 2002, and there has previously been a 1791 Lafite.
The majority of clients are trade such as Farrs (who have their own entire vault), or private cellars of trade clients (so Farrs would have wines of their own, and wines that they are storing for their clients), or private customers who go direct to Octavian. It is a seriously large and impressive business, and also a rather nice way to spend a few hours, calculating the value of that pallet of Petrus, and hoping that whoever is lucky enough to own it is going to actually open and enjoy a few bottles...