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A half century of fine wine: Our 50th anniversary

The article below was first published on our website in August 2019, to mark the 50th anniversary of Richard Kihl Ltd.  

Original Richard Kihl shopfront

August is quiet in the wine trade, as vignerons snatch pre-harvest holidays and wine shipments cease to avoid summer heat, so this is an opportune moment to mark our 50th year of trading in fine wines. 

Some of you have known the business since it was established in 1969, but for parvenus of the succeeding five decades, here are a few words about its origins.  Antony Irvine has owned and run Richard Kihl Ltd since 2001, but we often see Richard himself; now retired and often to be found tearing up the golf course in Aldeburgh.  Over a coffee one morning earlier this month, we quizzed him about the early days.

After National Service in the late ‘50s, Richard worked for Louis Vialard, owner of Château Cissac; initially in London but later at Cissac itself, as a 'stagiaire', working the '61 vintage.  We gather there may have been a degree of what might then have been called general gallivanting about.  In Bordeaux, he became friends with the family of André Portet, regisseur at Château Lafite-Rothschild.  Somewhere around this time he also recalls spells working in Burgundy and Champagne, as well as setting off to the Douro for a month, 'on the back of a friend's Vespa', to learn about port. 

Back in England, in 1969 he began trading from borrowed space in a friend’s office in North London.  Soon after, he took on basement offices in 160 Regent Park Road, Primrose Hill (home to the legendary Odette's Restaurant and later, Bibendum Wines).  In 1972, an adjacent property with space for a shop became available a few doors down at No.164.

Richard remembers the launch of the business as quite an occasion, complete with press coverage and Michael Broadbent MW on hand to conduct a grand opening.  Serendipitously, one of the office team had an interest in antique glassware.  José Solley sounds like an impressive, stylish woman.  With her help, the shop became a destination for collectors of fine antique and modern wine accessories, with collectors from around the world visiting the shop.

Until the exceptional but small 1961 vintage, Bordeaux was routinely bought by negociants 'sur souches', or 'on the vine', as well as in barrel.  The balance of power was with the negociants in those days.  Merchants often bought by the tonneau and bottled the wine in England, rarely if ever offering the wines to their customers whilst in barrel.

Young and impecunious, Richard had one advantage...excellent contacts in Bordeaux.  He saw an opportunity to sell en primeur direct to private collectors, something which only a handful of other, smaller merchants were doing at the time.  Early success with years like 1970 contrasted with the difficult 1971-'74 vintages, with the oil crisis leading to widespread difficulty for châteaux owners.  Loyalty during these years led to some impressive allocations ("four hundred cases of Cheval Blanc").  It was not until the arrival of the legendary 1982 vintage (and with it, Robert Parker) that en primeur really grew in popularity.

Despite (and in some ways because of) the challenges of the vintages and economic climate in the '70s, Richard built excellent relationships in Bordeaux.  By the time of the 1982 en primeur campaign, the office telephones at 164 Regent's Park Road were abuzz, attended by a team of fine wine sales people.  A good number of them went on to become well-known in the fine wine trade.

As the en primeur business developed, another development in the fine wine market was taking place.  The London auction houses opened fine wine departments, first Christie's under Michael Broadbent in 1966, followed by Sotheby's in '70 and the secondary market in fine wine began to grow.  Richard gave us an image of the auction room of Christie's at this time, with fierce bidding for the best lots in the mornings giving way to a more jocular air in the afternoons after a long lunch; "everyone would just stick their hands up to annoy the auctioneer...but he was quite good about it"!  As with en primeur, Richard Kihl Ltd was one of the first fine wine brokers, with the larger merchants opening their broking offices later in the 1980s and '90s.  Growing business with the US and the Far East followed.  Ever the innovator, Richard also recalled (to our complete surprise) being an early adopter of computers, bringing them into the business in 1986. 

In 1994 he moved the business back to the seaside town of Aldeburgh, his childhood home.  Antony joined in 1997 and has continued to grow the business, supplying trade and private customers worldwide.  Great relationships with the châteaux and negociants continue to be one of the pillars of the company, as well as access to some extraordinary aged stocks, both from our own extensive stockholdings and from the cellars of our private customers who trust us to look after their collections.

The rather sleepy looking shop front beneath our offices on Aldeburgh High Street continues to excite curiosity from passers-by, who sense it is not an 'ordinary' wine shop.  Trading as Slaughden Wines, it is named after a small fishing hamlet, painted by J.M.W. Turner (below) which once stood just outside Aldeburgh but was gradually engulfed by the sea.

We hope that stepping inside has introduced many people to a love of fine wine over the years.  It is also where we have the pleasure of meeting those of you who come to Aldeburgh from time to time (not a bad place to visit!).  Whether on the other side of the world, or on our doorstep, we would like to thank you for your custom both over the years and in the future.  We look forward to discussing many more of the world’s finest wines with you.

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