Episode 1: James Halliday's personal cellar

By Halliday Wine Companion

Which wines make up the 10,000 bottles in wine authority James Halliday's own wine collection?

Presented by
We take a privileged walk through his personal cellar in Victoria's Yarra Valley. James shares some of his favourites bottles and most memorable cellaring experiences. 

This series on cellaring is produced in partnership with Langton's Fine Wines.

Listen to episode one

Listen to episode two here.


Amelia B.:      I've heard him talk so passionately about this property and where he sits to work, and where he lives so often. And you think that's because he's got personal attachment and it's special to him, but pulling up here, especially on a day like today, it is unbelievably scenic.

                        Hi, I'm Amelia Ball, Editor of the Halliday Wine Companion magazine. I'm here in the Yarra Valley, about 60 km from Melbourne, on a perfect winter's morning to see James Halliday at his home and the Coldstream Hills winery he established in the 1980s.

James H.:      You see that kookaburra, he's got his eye on something there. Completely motionless and just staring. I don't know whether they've got the same sense of hearing as magpies do. They can hear worms and whatever crawling in the ground. So they rely not on sight primarily, but on hearing primarily.

Amelia B.:      Yeah.

James H.:      In 1985, no one in the Yarra Valley had thought to plant a vineyard on slopes as steep as these, but I did have a contact, very good contact with Brian Croser, and he in turn had David Paxton as his viticultural advisor, and he's very well known now.

Amelia B.:      Yes.

James H.:      Between Croser and David Paxton, they basically did the layout plan for the vineyard, and I then got to turn it from theory into reality. I got a gang of planters once the soil was ready and prepared to plant this section of a vineyard by simply sending around my law firm, where I was sort of the senior partner of the Melbourne office Clayton Utz, and just simply said to the staff there that if they chose to come out here and enjoy themselves, wonderful, start planting vines, their prospects in the firm would be increased and if they didn't, they would be immeasurably decreased.

Amelia B.:      Let me guess, you got a good crowd that day?

James H.:      Yeah. We got a good crowd.

Amelia B.:      We're about to get a tour of James's own cellar. It's a fitting place to start this series on cellaring for the Halliday Wine Companion podcast. And thanks to our partner in this cellaring series Langton’s Fine Wines. Please subscribe and review the podcast where you're listening. And for more information, you can always visit WineCompanion.com.au.

                        From the top of the amphitheatre-shaped vineyard and the building where James does all of his tasting, we took the private road up to his house, office and personal cellar.

James H.:      Do you want to come up with me then?

Amelia B.:      Yeah, if that's all right.

James H.:      Running directly from my chair, which is where I sit and work, you'll see that it's exactly three paces to the cellar. When we bought the house in 1985, where the cellar is now, and where the office outside the cellar is now, because they run parallel, was simply open to the four winds. It was the biggest car park in the Yarra Valley I suspect. Not quite, but you could imagine just how many cars you could park.

                        So what we did was simply run a double skin of bricks with insulation in between, and filled in against the cut of the hillside, at very little cost and at very little time. We had a cellar. This galvanised iron racking system was something I used in Sydney before I came down to the Yarra Valley. And its by far the cheapest and most effective type of single bottle storage. I wouldn't bother there too much, that's just rubbish there. I tend to keep the better ones a bit further down.

                        It was quite a task getting them from Sydney to Melbourne. Suzanne and I over-loaded deliberately a trailer full of boxes in our Rover V8 3000. And I thought it would easily do the job. Well, no. Not up the long mountains. And it would crawl slowly and ever more slowly. Instead of taking seven or eight hours, it took something like 12 or 13. It was enough to say, ‘no more’. And then it was all brought down. I think it was 30 tonnes, or some such, it was an enormous amount, by Clayton Utz because I was moving my office to Melbourne.

Amelia B.:      Happily!

James H.:      Yeah. So, it all fell together. The one terrible thing was --

Amelia B.:      Yeah, I was going to ask you about this. Yes.

James H.:      Yeah. When we pulled the first bottle out, that was fine. And then the next bottle out of a box, the next one should have been the same or similar wine, but no. It was radically different. And to cut a long story short, instead of them removing the bottles running vertically, top to bottom, bottom up, top down, they did them the other way, sideways. So it meant that there was absolutely no rhyme or reason to the 12,000 bottles. Suzanne did a lot of the work in just simply opening boxes and we sort of worked out a tenuous way of putting them into this racking. It was a major task and I've said many times, not in my lifetime will it be moved again.

Amelia B.:      No, not after that.

James H.:      Once is quite enough.

Amelia B.:      Wow. How do you actually structure it these days?

James H.:      Yeah. I used to know through memory. I didn't need to refer to what I had back then, which was just computer-generated stock lists, no more than that. But, each of these milk crates, when they started life, each of these crates had a number on it and then that cross-referenced to the major stock list on the computer.

Amelia B.:      Right.

James H.:      We're now going back over 30 years to that point and my tax advice here was that you didn't need to do it if you're keeping track of the bottles for track purposes.

Amelia B.:      Right.

James H.:      It was just endless irritation. So we basically ordered throughout by type and country. So these are all here, just running along here, French white Burgundy or some red Burgundies at top. That's basically French red Burgundy, as is the opposing wall. So even out of this sort of small space, you'll see there's quite a lot of Burgundy, which is why I came to the Yarra Valley.

Amelia B.:      No surprise there.

James H.:      Not to make Burgundy, because you can only do that in Burgundy, but to make the best pinot noir possible. I tried a Brokenwood earlier and it had been a disaster. Well, threw the wine away. I suppose that is a disaster. It wasn't very much.

Amelia B.:      Sure.

James H.:      This is basically mixed Australian on the left side from floor to ceiling. And semillon and shiraz are the two varieties there. Semillon, once again, is basically only screwcapped. I have had a couple of bottles, I have to admit, that have surprised me, which just didn't get drunk and then I've discovered them and I thought, looking at the colour, I can tell pretty quickly just looking at the colour through the glass whether it's going to be good or not. Yeah. And because of an overflow, we get the first trickle of German rieslings from the Mosel.

                        We then go on to the next bay. We've got German wines two-thirds of the way along on that side. And then just simply an overflow of some Bordeaux and actually some Coldstream Hills grades are that very end. And on this side, the opposite side, it's a mix. It's white. Basically white wine in this section. And once again, there wines from the Mosel Valley with the white caps, you'll see stick out quite clearly.

Amelia B.:      Yeah.

James H.:      There are similar wines, which are actually under the screw cap.

Amelia B.:      You mentioned the Coldstream Hills at the end there, have you got any of those early, early vintages still?

James H.:      No, not quite. I just grew tired of it. They did hang on for a while.

Amelia B.:      Yep.

James H.:      Yeah. I'm not playing games and hiding them from you. Just exactly where I'd find the oldest is a question. I don't have much of it.

Amelia B.:      No.

James H.:      Again, quite deliberate policy.

Amelia B.:      Yep.

James H.:      Now that I've got screwcap, I'm starting to buy it. And then I think, “Why am I doing this? I'm about to turn 80. I've got 10,000 bottles of wine in the cellar. Why are you buying more wine?” Well, there's no really convincing answer to that except with my favourite wines, it's nice to have them when they're young, and when they're old, and when they're sort of transiting from young to old. They're always changing. That's the nature of wine of course.

Amelia B.:      Yes.

James H.:      So there's always a place for them and that's why I buy them. It is the biggest cue I have for my ageing. I never used to think about it. As I said a moment ago, the big 80 is coming up in a very short period of time.

Amelia B.:      Yes.

James H.:      When I'm just doing tasting notes for the Companion, and I find myself writing, ‘This'll be absolutely wonderful wine in 10 years time and drink to 2034’ or whatever it may be, then I sort of take a breath and say, “Well, yeah, maybe. But I'm not going to be around to see it.” So it's a constant sort of niggle.

Amelia B.:      Do you feel sad about that?

James H.:      No. No, I don't. Well, I don't feel sad about dying. I've had 80 years so that's a pretty good run, and I don't actually ... hope I'm not going to fall over next week. The sadness is there for me not personally, but from all of these wines that I would so much love to have.

Amelia B.:      Yeah.

James H.:      But I really can't claim that I'm badly off. So, we've been sort of marching through remnants of Bordeauxs along here. I've basically stopped buying Bordeaux. I stopped actually in the 1992 vintage. After 1992.

Amelia B.:      Okay.

James H.:      I've got better things to do with my life than worry about brettanomyces in Bordeauxs.

Amelia B.:      Gotcha.

James H.:      So once again, moving yet another ... Over here, basically Rhone Valley floor to ceiling.

Amelia B.:      Yep.

James H.:      And at the far end, Coldstream Hills.

Amelia B.:       Mm-hmm.

James H.:      And on this side, there are Sauternes, Austrian, sweet Austrian, and Alsace rieslings down the far end. A couple of other things than just simply riesling. There is some semblance of order to what I'm doing in the good old days, or the bad old days, depending on your viewpoint. When I got a new two or three dozen bottles of wine in, I’d busily move everything so I could have these in their due place with the older bottles.

Amelia B.:      Yeah, right.

James H.:      That ceased to be viable a long time ago. And the consequence of that is that I don't move many of these bottles.

Amelia B.:      Yeah.

James H.:      Therefore, red wine and a cork don't get checked as frequently as they should. If they're 10 years old, they should be inspected every two, three, four years just to check that the level is not going down to far too quickly.

Amelia B.:      Mm-hmm.

James H.:      And it's really that. Once again, that's the bloody corks we come back to. And, once again, I used to know every wine in the cellar and have a mental map in my mind about the ones that I really should open and drink if there still okay. I would chuck them out if they're not.

Amelia B.:      Yep.

James H.:      But even that isn't sort of done with the same purpose as it used to. Actually, as you know, I work pretty hard and I don't have the time to do that.

Amelia B.:      No.

James H.:      It's a funny thing, that as I get older, it seems I have to work longer. It's only because it takes me longer to do any given thing. So they cancel themselves out obviously. Anyway,   that's life.

Amelia B.:      If you want to know what your cellar is worth, or you're after some tailored advice on which ones to buy and sell, Langton’s experts and wine brokers can guide you through the   process. Visit Langtons.com.au.

James H.:      So we keep on moving to yet another double row with the milk crates on one side. As in all of these instances, the galvanised reinforcing material they use in building sites, the   concrete. And this is all old, mixed Australian on this right hand side.

Amelia B.:      Okay.

James H.:      And on the left ... Tells you how often I come in here, sort of peer in myself. There's some more recent semillon. It's really a semillon right of there, predominantly. Wines   like Tyrrell's 2005 Vat 1 they're now releasing for about the, I don't know, third or fourth time. They, over the years, have released it sporadically.

Amelia B.:      Mm-hmm.

James H.:      And I say that the only reason that they are even releasing it now is they've run completely out of space for gold medals and trophies on the front of the label, and even the   backside of the wine could not have all of the wine golds and trophies that it's won. It is one of the great Australian semillons. It's still in the full flair of maturity. It's not a young,   nor old. It's in that lovely space in the middle.

Amelia B.:      Amazing.

James H.:      It does have, of course, screwcap.

Amelia B.:      Yes.

James H.:      I don't know how long it's going to live for. I would think another 10 years before you're really drinking a wine and appreciating it, against the background, that it is old and fully   mature. And, that if you wanted to taste it with all of its beautiful fruit of youth, well then you should have drank it earlier. No one is eternal. And even then this question, when   should I drink this wine, is such a personal question and there's no right or wrong about that. The process of age starts the day the wine goes into a bottle, and I'm thinking about   fruit, fruit expression primarily.

                        And inevitably, and it doesn't matter what the closure is, that primary fruit expression will slowly go down. However, that's offset by the fact, and this is an upstroke in the X. The   downstroke was the fruit freshness line.

Amelia B.:      Yes.

James H.:      The upstroke is the complexity line. And where those two lines cross in the X, you can write a window of opportunity. You just put a rectangle covering a fair bit either way, and that   suggests to you that that's the best time to drink that wine. But, the problem is, it's a fine theory. It can work, but it really does depend, or should be used by people, taking into   account how much they enjoy drinking very old wine on the one hand versus how much they enjoy drinking lovely young, fresh, vibrant wines.

                        Tyrrell's 2005 Vat 1, is almost the copy example of wine which is having the best of both worlds. Normally you don't have the best of both worlds. But I can't tell you when you   should drink this wine unless I know a lot about your drinking preferences.

Amelia B.:      Correct. Yeah.

James H.:      I can tell you whether I think it's good or bad. And I can tell you whether I think, well, it's starting to age to the point where it ought to be drunk. But anything more precise than   that, and in particular the journey that you've gone through, that is a very personal journey and one that only one can sort of travel.

                        So that one there is looking pretty ugly and that is almost certainly the result of, in part, the cork moth. But it can also happen with other wines with cork, which ... Now, just   stopping there, I would think the level in this wine will be down mid-shoulder or below. And then of course it's going to make a liar of me, because in fact, it's not bottom shoulder.   It's fairly low shoulder.

Amelia B.:      Yeah.

James H.:      And that is at a point where you've got to take your chances if you're a buyer. I mean, it's Clare Valley shiraz cabernet from 1981, so it's a reasonably old bottle.

Amelia B.:      Yep.

James H.:      I should say that at one stage I re-corked all my old Lindemans semillons from the early ‘60s. And it actually worked quite well. I read up, and talked to people... The Penfolds clinic   wasn't in existence then, but people knew about it. So I took the corks out, put in five to 10 parts of So2, and then put a new cork in, and a new shrink wrap.

Amelia B.:      And were you able to do that because you've got access to corking, and bottling, and --

James H.:      Well, anyone can do it. It was a hand corker.

Amelia B.:      Okay.

James H.:      Yeah. I mean, at the clinic, they evacuate all the air. They put in so2 and some from of ... Whether it's nitrogen or something else similar. I'm not entirely certain. I think it depends a   bit on the wine. I've always been asked ... Well, I haven't always been asked, but I've been asked if I'd ever like to go along to a clinic in action.

                        And we are finally getting toward the end of the cellar and a lot of the wines along here actually spill over. This is now the left bank I'm talking about as we're looking down this   aisle.

Amelia B.:      Yes.

James H.:      On the left hand side they're a lot of wines from ... Mental block for a second, which is ridiculous.

Amelia B.:      They look a bit iconic these ones we're looking at.

James H.:      Yeah, they're Penfolds. But the ones... Clare Valley…

Amelia B.:       A Wendouree up top.

James H.:      Yeah, Wendouree. And so they go along there, and then they hit there, and then they're also around the corner. They are the ones, beyond all else, and I've said before, “Well why   are you buying this wine? You can't possibly imagine you're going to drink it all in your lifetime, no matter how long you go.” And Wendouree is my automatic purchase. I have cut it   back. I only buy half a dozen bottles now.

Amelia B.:      Okay. That's restrained.

James H.:      Yeah. It is. I'm lucky enough to be on the list.

Amelia B.:      Yes.

James H.:      Yeah. It's certainly one of the great Australian red wines.

Amelia B.:      Yeah.

James H.:      And then the right ... oops, sorry. They're rieslings again. And rieslings up the top there.

Amelia B.:      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

James H.:      And then if we go around the corner ... Oh, sorry. I should also said in this one were mixed Wendourees and Penfolds.

Amelia B.:      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

James H.:      I've always held a view that it's better that I drink the wine than someone else does when I'm no longer capable of drinking it, i.e. I'm dead. So I've never ever hesitated to share   great bottles. I don't drink great bottles on my own. I could if I wanted to, but I'd rather share them with others.

Amelia B.:      Yes.

James H.:      I've also, I guess, really over the last 20 years, I have deliberately let the cellar down from the height that it had 20 years ago.

Amelia B.:      Yeah.

James H.:      If you went back to 30 years ago, you would've found a whole lot of Bordeaux, pre-1900, a lot of very old, very good wines. Probably that’s more than 30 years. Wines I bought from   Christies in London in the 1970s. Yes, I think that's right.

Amelia B.:      Mm-hmm (affirmative).

James H.:      ‘74 was a big bust in the Bordeaux wine trade and you could buy first-class Bordeauxs for very little money, marvellous. Not so many marvellous Burgundies. They were still in the   shade then.

Amelia B.:      Okay.

James H.:      People didn't really know. Most people didn't really know much about them. And Bordeaux, because of the size and the shadows in their production, that's ideal for the middlemen   to make money because they've got a lot of wine to move one. They may only make ... It's a very complex structure where the wine may have, after it left the shadow, may have   passed quite rapidly between two or three owners. And I put asterisks around that owners. As title passes under the sort of ...  Gentlemen of the trade, they don't muck around.   They never take you down for one per cent, as little as that. But that's in a 24-hour turn around. So if you multiply that on, you can see quite a lot of layers of profit being taken   before the wines finally reach the consumer.

Amelia B.:      Yeah.

James H.:      And therefore, their real interest to the trade was Burgundy. The quantities made ... No, it just as the Bordeaux model, which I call very disrespectfully the corporate model, simply doesn't work in Burgundy. It's an entirely different way that they were all made. So much of Burgundy is bought now from the cellar direct. Great Burgundies in Australia, you have to have a really good contact and a really good retailer to even ... It never hit the shops half the time, the really good ones.

Amelia B.:      And a lot of money. Yeah.

James H.:      They're just gone. Sold by the retailer or the distributor to best client basis. So finally, we come to Champagne. And it too, there's more sort of boxes at the top. They're have been   over years ... Two bottles of Champagne really ought to have been drunk. I think this lovely ‘82 and ‘75 Bollinger. Now, for Champagne to really perform over those long periods, it   needs to be in Champagne, in the chalk drives, where the temperature just doesn't vary from 12 or 13 degrees, whatever it is, the ambient temperature for that cellar.

                        So you've got very little of this issue that affects all cork finished bottles. As the wine warms, it expands. As it cool, it contracts.

Amelia B.:      Yes.

James H.:      So you've just got this infinite hydraulic shocking, going on against a cork in a still bottle, but also, equally against Champagne corks. I've drank 1911 and 1921 Pol Roger from the   cellar and otherwise from the ‘20s in Champagne.

Amelia B.:      In Champagne.

James H.:      And they are just dream-like, transcendental, wonderful wines, but you only see that when it does come from the cellar.

Amelia B.:      Yeah.

James H.:      I did have an air-conditioner over there, and then found that it really ... I was doubtful whether it was causing more damage than otherwise, because it was very limited and it sort   of blew down colder air down the aisle down here, but what about the bottles at the other end?

Amelia B.:      Yeah.

James H.:      I didn't think it was doing a trick. I knew then ... Again, it's a question of expectation. What was I? Then 50, 30 years ago will do. So I was 50 years old and I thought, why should I   care what's going to be the situation 30 years hence? Well, now I've got the answer. So I should have put in one of those butcher's type cooling so they don't dry the air out. They   leave moisture in the air. You don't have to worry about --

Amelia B.:      Right. What is the temperature in here do you think?

James H.:      Right now, it's about 14. Which is good.

Amelia B.:      14. Yep.

James H.:      But by mid-summer it'll be 22.

Amelia B.:      Okay.

James H.:      22, 23. The diurnal, the daily temperature range, is in fact pretty small. So it takes a very long time to cool down. It takes a very long time to warm up. The reason for that is this   number of bottles of themselves create a sort of cooling.

Amelia B.:      Yep.

James H.:      And then also the physical layer of it and concrete above and concrete double brick. And just the steel door that we came through.

Amelia B.:      Yeah.

James H.:      Yeah. But the people who say, “Oh no, the temperature of my cellar never varies.” Just get a double bulb thermometer, put it in the cellar, and come back in six months and tell me,   honestly, what you've read.

Amelia B.:      And if you had the power to make cellar on particular temperature consistently, what would you pick it to be?

James H.:      Yes. I think 13 to 14 is a happy medium between allowing some natural development. If you really wanted to keep the bottles much as they were when you first purchased them,   and they're under screwcap, 12 degrees. The Scottish castles were 10, 11, 12 where some of the magnificent wines came from. The diurnal range is zilch from summer to winter.

Amelia B.:      Yes.

James H.:      Almost zilch. So that stability is the real key to a great cellar. And there are such cellars in Melbourne now. They just cost a lot of money. You can get self storage.

Amelia B.:      Sure.

James H.:      They're expensive, but you get ... If I were starting again now ... That's a question I get asked in various context. Seriously, I think what I would do is spend more money in insulating  this whole area.

Amelia B.:      Right.

James H.:      And then putting in, as I say, one of the big condenser chillers so you're not drying out the air, with the idea of keeping the cellar at around 13, 14. And that would definitely extend the life of the wines.

Amelia B.:      We've just had the privilege of walking through James' personal cellar full of roughly around 10,000 bottles of wine, some of which I have never been in close proximity to. It's something that really caught my eye were just the iconic names. While he says he's gotten rid of a lot of older vintages under cork, there's still some incredible old wine there. When he tells his story about getting his collection down from Sydney, where the boxes were all just randomly put together, mixing different regions and styles, when you walk through those corridors of bottle after bottle, I just can't even begin to imagine the work that was involved trying to reassemble some sort of order.

                        If you're seeking more cellaring information, tasting notes, and behind the scenes exclusives with James Halliday, visit WineCompanion.com.au. Podcast listeners can also receive a free one-month digital membership by simply quoting podcast at the checkout. Terms and conditions apply.

                        Thanks for listening. It's been an absolute privilege to get a personal tour around James’s cellar and thanks also to our partner in this cellaring series Langton’s Fine Wines. For all details on the auction house, visit Langtons.com.au.

                        Check the show notes for more information. Next episode, we've got Campbell Mattison coming in to talk about all things cellaring. What are we going to be chatting about?

Campbell:      We're going to be entering the most romantic side of wine, cellaring. We're going to look at taking a bottle of wine, putting into a cool, dark place for a long time, crossing all your fingers and toes, and it coming out beautiful.

Amelia B.:      Wonderful. That's next episode. Tell a friend about the podcast and send your cellaring questions mail@winecompanion.com.au.

                        We have some bonus episodes ahead. You'll hear from James again when I sit down with him in the tasting loft at Coldstream Hills and ask him all about his own personal cellaring experiences.

James H.:      It's incredible how many people have said to me, "Seriously, how often should I shake the bottle in the cellar?"

Amelia B.:      Thanks for listening to the Halliday Wine Companion podcast.