Hallgarten's Steve Daniel: 'Obscure is my middle name'

Chris Losh

Chris Losh

04 December 2019

With his long hair, beard and laconic manner, Hallgarten&Novum’s wine buyer in chief, Steve Daniel, has the air of an old-school geography teacher. Which is fitting because he spends an inordinate amount of time travelling the world ferreting out wineries to add to their portfolio.

His speciality is places that are, to say the least, off the beaten track. In the 1990s, for instance, when he was chief buyer at Oddbins and the world was still discovering Aussie Shiraz, he famously championed Greek wines. A couple of years ago he was as enthusiastic as a schoolboy about some new wines he’d pulled in from Majorca and the Canaries.

At a time when few wine merchants are looking to take on new suppliers of any description, let alone ones from countries that barely make into the text books, it gives Hallgarten&Novum an interesting point of difference.

So it’s no surprise that when we meet at a tasting to showcase their newest arrivals – as well as a few juicy agencies they’ve picked up from competitors  such as Undurraga (Chile), Mulderbosch (South Africa) and Tahbilk (Australia) – there is an inspiring smorgasbord of wine world esoterica as well.

Steve 'Obscure' Daniel

‘Obscure is my middle name,’ says Daniel – ignoring the fact that this would make his initials SOD. ‘I like to have different things. I want areas that have a story. I believe that the story is far more important when it comes to selling a wine than most things.’

The addition of his new Armenian winery ArmAs is a case in point. The country was designated ‘brandy producer’ by the Soviets (Georgia got the table wine) so the industry is undergoing something of a rebirth from scratch. But like its kvevri-toting neighbour to the north it has an 8000-year-old history and plenty of interesting native varieties.

Talking of kvevri, Daniel is, perhaps surprisingly, not the biggest fan of a style that seems to be as ubiquitously popular with somms as Gareth Southgate is with England football fans. Sure, he’s brought in a couple of new arrivals, but given the choice between clay-pot-fermented/aged and conventional, I think he’d choose the latter.

‘Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I’m more interested in a wine telling its story, which is the grape it comes from and the place it comes from,’ he says. ‘When you start using excessive skin contact it masks that story. The same if you ferment in amphorae – it has a winemaking impact.  I’d be hard pushed tasting a wine made in kvevri to say what it’s made from.

‘If I’m being cynical, I’d say that the amphorae movement arose in areas that maybe didn’t have Rolls Royce grapes. So if you’re a producer in Germany and you have Sylvaner in your vineyard how are you going to add value?’ His eyes glint mischievously. ‘You don’t see that many Rieslings from prime sites being fermented on skins in kvevri…’

While Daniel’s northern hemisphere travels range from Europe’s western edges (Tenerife) to the Caucasus on the fringes of Asia, he’s notably less keen on exploring the New World. Though he admits that South Africa is ‘exciting’, particularly for Syrah and Pinot, it’s not, generally speaking, traditional grape varieties that get him out of bed on a Monday morning.

More Rick Astley, please

‘Why do we need more Chardonnays from the New World?’ he asks pointedly. ‘Back in the day we needed them because the Burgundians were not making great Chardonnay that was affordable. What the Australians and Chileans offered was an alternative. But in France they’re making good reliable Chardonnay - and so is Australia. So I don’t need another one. What I need is a Mtsvane or Rkatsiteli.’

The question, of course, is how easy it is to sell these grapes – even if, as Daniel amusingly does, you call the latter ‘Rick Astley’. Interestingly, though, he thinks the trend to smaller wine lists might help.

‘An 80-bin wine list is a big one now,’ he says. ‘The big books have gone. So you can’t be encyclopaedic. You don’t want six Chardonnays, you want to make a statement. And when you have a small list you’re much more likely to have [wines] on by the glass using oenomatics etc. It becomes much more interesting. You can go into a restaurant and actually discover something.’

Unsurprisingly, for someone who thought that 1990s Britain was ready for a wave of Aghiorgitiko, he has no problem with running ahead of the customer, either.

‘I’m looking more at stories and terroir than countries,’ he says. ‘We’ve got wines from Etna, Santorini, Tenerife, because I like volcanoes. They have a story to tell and their flavour profiles are so different.

‘It’s not necessarily because the consumer is screaming out for them – I think it’s good to have things that are different and people will catch up. If I see a producer who is busting their balls against all the odds and doing something unique I want to support that.’

Which, of course, is no more than you’d expect. After all, ‘obscure’ is his middle name…

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