What does the one of the most highly educated wine experts in the world drink when she’s at home? Master of Wine Anne McHale takes Vinediction on a tour of her personal cellar.
Belfast-born, London-based wine consultant and educator Anne McHale MW is one of 416 Masters of Wine in the world (that’s her, second from right on the MW homepage). Yet she claims, disarmingly, that her career “happened by accident.” Though I find it impossible to take McHale quite at her word, the spirit rings true. Accident is a way of saying she didn’t plot a conquest, didn’t scale the mountain with gritted teeth and a flag in her rucksack. It is a way of saying there were things she loved and excelled at, and pursuing them led here. A way, perhaps, of saying that knowing what not to do was enough.
“In my final year [at Cambridge] I went to the careers service and they were like, you could be a doctor, a lawyer, a banker. I was like, no, no, no.”
McHale left Cambridge with an MA in French and Classics, moved to London, signed on, and started looking for jobs. She found one with a company that imported French wines and needed a bilingual administrator. “Wine had always been in my family,” McHale recalls. “My father founded the first-ever student wine society at Queens University Belfast. He always talked about wine at the dinner table.”
Her father’s enthusiasm had been enough to prompt her to join the wine society at Cambridge; between that and her language skills, the wine job made sense. During her two years there she earned the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) Level 3 certification. Next was a marketing assistant role for New Zealand Winegrowers. Before long, Berry Bros & Rudd poached her. It was there, at wine enterprise founded by the Widow Bourne in 1698, that McHale earned her Master of Wine qualification.
“I knew a lot about it, which put me off,” she says with a laugh. “But I do well at exams so decided to be brave, take a risk.” Though it was “as challenging as expected, maybe more” McHale prevailed and won three awards on her way to the qualification, including the Madame Bollinger Medal for highest marks in the tasting portion of the exam.
Since 2016, McHale has been a full-time consultant and wine educator. She uses her world-class palate to create award-winning wine lists for hospitality and host bespoke tasting events, among other thing. Her crackerjack academic skills are deployed in private tuition for WSET Diploma students.
They’re fortunate, her students. McHale laughs almost as often as she speaks. Her joy, enthusiasm and lack of pretension are infectious – proof that one can take wine seriously without stuffiness or snobbery.
In this spirit, McHale treats Vinediction to a tour of the wines she loves and drinks.
What is the first wine you really remember?
In my Irish Catholic family the tradition was you didn’t drink alcohol until you turned 18 – you had to make a vow to this effect at Confirmation. I kept to my vow so the first taste of wine I ever had was my 18th birthday. My father poured me Champagne. I hated it [laughs]. Were he to present it to me, now my reaction would be much different.
What’s the first wine you open Friday evening?
I tend to have whatever is open from that week’s wine education. Last week I was tutoring a Diploma student on fortified wines, so I had a glass of manzanilla.
What wine do you take on a picnic?
I have a particular fondness for Beaujolais. It goes with every type of food and you can chill it in the summer. It’s supposed to be warm next week so I might have a little picnic on the terrace.
What wine do you pour to celebrate?
It used to be Champagne but I’ve developed a love of traditional-method English sparkling wine. A few years ago, I worked with a hotel to build the biggest-ever selection of English sparkling wines. In the process I got to know a lot of wine-makers and producers and recognized the quality. It’s my brother’s birthday today so I’ll be opening an English sparkling for our virtual get-together.
What wine is a foolproof host gift?
I try and tailor it to the person but, if I didn’t know anything about their tastes, Champagne is a safe bet. I tend to go for grower’s champagne, rather than the big houses, but I do have special memories of visits to Bollinger, so that would be my go-to.
What wine is comfort in a bottle?
For these long, gray lockdown days my comfort wine is a big, spicy New World red. I had a beautiful Shiraz from the Adelaide Hills this winter. Wow, was it delicious. Sadly, I don’t have a fireplace but, if I did, I would light it and have a big glass of that Shiraz.
What is the wine you recommend to all your friends?
If I’m out with friends and we’re looking at a wine list, I encourage them to go out of their comfort zone and not always order Pinot Grigio. If I spot a Santorini white, I recommend it, or something from Alto Adige – those wines are excellent.
What is your summer night sipping wine?
During the week I prefer wines that are not too high in alcohol, so an English still wine or a trocken [dry] Reisling – one of the Kabinett styles from Mosel. They’re dry, delicious and you don’t get a hangover, perfect for a summer evening.
What wine do you invest in?
I can open my wine fridge and tell you what is lurking. Let’s see: New Zealand Pinot Noir and Bordeaux blends that I’ll drink in five to eight years. Italian wines like Barolo. Chablis. Champagne ages incredibly well. I’m a huge fan of Cote Rotie in the Northern Rhone, so there are a few cases of that. And some vintage Port.
What is an underrated wine that shouldn’t be?
Two that jump to mind are Sherry and Beaujolais. I’ve been a big fan of both for a long time. Beaujolais is starting to regain its reputation but it’s still under-priced for the quality, as is sherry. Sherry is an acquired taste for many people – the dry varieties are quite savory. As an aperitif, or with seafood, I love a very chilled fino or manzanilla. With mature Manchego cheese I’d have a dry oloroso. And at Christmas, a little glass of cream sherry.