The Fort Knox for wine
Wednesday, 24 May 2017 by Ben Browett
As the Customer Reserves Manager at Farr Vintners, I am often asked by customers about storage conditions for their wines. This blog details a trip to Octavian Vaults, the leading wine storage facility where all of Farr Vintners’ stock and £360m of customer reserves are held.
It’s a quiet, spring afternoon as I speed through sleepy Wiltshire villages along narrow country lanes. Incredibly, on the road to Bath from quaint Chippenham, lies the most sophisticated fine wine cellar in the world. Not that you would notice. The unassuming entrance nestled between neighbouring fields opens up to reveal an office and two small loading areas. It is underneath these however, that the one million sq. ft. former stone mine, Octavian Vaults, acts as the guardian of the UK wine trade’s reserves, holding over ten million bottles of fine wine.
Originally called Eastlays quarry, stone was mined here for building in the local area. Due to the high quality of ‘Bath stone’, it was shipped around the world, as far as South Africa where it was used to build Cape Town City Hall. In 1937, the government took control of the site, using it as an ammunitions store throughout World War Two. It wasn’t until 1989 that the site’s vibration and sunlight free environment was seized upon as the ideal resting place for £1bn worth of fine wine.
Other mines in the area, such as Burlington Bunker, a short distance down the road, have had other specific uses in the past. Formerly Spring Quarry, Burlington was earmarked as the emergency government headquarters in the event of a nuclear strike on the UK with a full range of amenities and the ability to house 4000 people.
What sets Octavian Vaults apart though is its position. Being located underneath a large hill, but above the water table, gives it ideal conditions without risk of flooding. This has affected several mines in the local area which are now either abandoned or used for special purposes such as MOD underwater rescue training. As well as being dry, the cellar remains at a constant 13ºc and 80% humidity so air circulation is controlled but with no need for temperature control.
When wine shipments arrive at the site, they are condition checked, given a unique bar code and transported down to the cellar. There are two entrances to the cellar, both via loading areas where wines are prepared for storage or delivery. Due to our huge amount of reserves, Farr Vintners has its own loading deck and train, transporting up to 4 tonnes at a time down to zones 1-5 of the cellar. This is complemented by two photography studios, where 35 cases a day can be opened, examined, photographed and resealed.
The fascinating aspect of Octavian Vaults, apart from the floor space, is the layout. The facility is formed by hundreds of stone columns with cases of wines placed on racks in between. We walk along one stretch between a wall of 1989 Yquem and another wall containing red Bordeaux. I notice a small corner where the jagged stone has been chipped away just enough to allow room for 20 cases of Bonneau du Martray, Corton Charlemagne. Around the corner, there is graffiti from the mid 1940’s, depicting famous generals and personal messages from soldiers who were based down here during the war when the site was storing weapons.
Shane Bush, who is showing me around, tells me the floor plan is the size of 27 football pitches and the rows of cases stacked floor to ceiling almost seems endless. Despite this, Octavian has recently built an above ground warehouse in a nearby town; such is the demand for fine wine storage currently. Fortunately for us, 100% of all Farr Vintners stock and customer reserves are stored underground in the Vaults. As a result, we can guarantee the perfect storage of the two million bottles that are either owned by Farr Vintners or by over 10,000 customers who store wine through us.
When a case of wine is needed for delivery or to be photographed, one of the twenty-strong team here who work exclusively for Farr Vintners, are sent off to pick out the case. ‘Pickers’ here walk up to 1800ft per ‘pick’ then use motorized forklifts to take the exact case, re-wrap the pallet and place it back onto the rack. Unlike a warehouse with numbered aisles, cases in Octavian are found by their proximity to the nearest stone column. The randomness of the layout and different width of the columns means every part of the cellar is different with more age worthy wines left to rest in harder to reach areas.
The perfect storage conditions here can be observed by looking at how wine matures in this environment. Farr Vintners recently bought the huge wine stocks of a deceased gentleman that had been stored uniquely in Octavian Vaults since en-primeur purchase- several thousand cases from 1982 to 2009. Remarkably, not a single bottle showed any sign of ullage- testament to the superb and unique storage conditions here.
The endless stretch of wooden cases A 'picker' retrieving a case
Octavian themselves describe the mine as the ‘Fort Knox’ for wine, hence why collectors are so keen to store prized bottles here, which include Terrantez 1763 and Latour 1961. It is the combination of safety and security as well as the perfect climatic conditions for maturation that mean Farr Vintners' customers can rest assured that their wine is being stored in an unrivalled wine storage facility.