Spending any time with Oz Clarke is valuable, but being able to share an hour on Zoom chatting about our respective lives in lockdown before diving into the new book he has written on English wine was particularly special. In this wide ranging conversation we also talk about what motivates him still to discover new wine regions, different producers and their wines, and then have the energy to write about them all. Most of all, though, as we move into English Wine Week, it shows the love and passion he has for English wine and how much he has enjoyed being able to tell the stories about the people as much as the individual wines that are now becoming the envy of so much of the rest of the world.
“I’ve always been a bit of a sucker for stuff that is completely different”. That’s how Oz Clarke was first intrigued by English wine before falling in love with all the different styles which he has tried to encapsulate in his new book on English wine out in September.
I must have been about 12 or 13 years of age when I first met Oz Clarke – well saw him on the TV at least. Every week I can remember being enthralled by this larger than life character who would pop up on the BBC’s Food & Drink show (one of the few shows my parents allowed me to watch on a school night) and talk about wine.
Not that I was interested in wine, but it was the way he spoke. The passion, the imagination, the knowledge, the expertise. He was food and wine’s equivalent of Carl Sagan talking about the solar system, or David Attenborough eulogising about the flight of a rare condor. It was mesmerising and completely unique.
The fact he would every week also be able to pick out where a particular wine came from, often down to the actual vineyard was one of the TV highlights of admittedly a limited week. Up there with other family viewing such as Ask The Family, Panorma, or Play for Today.
It didn’t, it has to be said, make me want to pick up a wine atlas, but it did mean I watched Oz Clarke every time he was on TV. All these years later having the chance to meet him, get to know him and discover he is exactly like he is on TV, but even nicer, has definitely been the highlight of having a career in the wine industry.
Spending an hour chatting on Zoom last week certainly made lockdown a lot easier. You can also settle in and share the same experience by watching the full interview we had in the link below, as well as pick out some of the highlights of what he said in the extra links below.
Full Interview Click Below
Life in lockdown
We start our chat talking about the isolation we are all going through in lockdown, particularly when we are so used to be out and about attending tastings, talking to producers and constantly sharing our ideas and thoughts about wine with others.
But it has also been a great opportunity to stop, think, and explore old books and wines you never have the time to read or taste, he explains. He says he starts the day by making a list and then tries to work his way through it, but too often finds himself in the cellar re-arranging old bottles, or deciding to see what one of them tastes like (4 minutes and 20 seconds).
It’s also been a time when he has finally got round to reading classics such as Sense & Sensibility (“not as good as Pride and Prejudice”) and re-visiting big political tomes like the life of Nelson Mandela.
He’s also had the opportunity to keep entertaining and educating the wine trade, and wine loving public alike, with his impromptu wine tastings in his cellar (7 minutes and 25 seconds), when, he says, he is simply moved to have to share something about a wine he has re-discovered – most memorably his brilliant eulogy to Chateau Musar (8 minutes).
English wine – time for something very different
The primary reason for getting together was to talk through his new book on English wine, simply titled ‘Oz Clarke English Wine’ (9 minutes 20 seconds). It might be the first he has written on the subject, but his interest in English wine goes back a few decades when he was still working in theatre (11 minutes 15 seconds) and there were arguably more faults in most wines that he knew how to pronounce.
His love and passion for English wine goes right back to his childhood growing up in the country near Canterbury in Kent and falling in love with what he calls the sense of “place” and being surrounded by the smells, noises and atmosphere that makes the countryside such a special place to be (11 minutes 52 seconds).
He wanted through the book to celebrate this “wonderful” English countryside that clearly means so much to him. “I just love every different county, the beauty and the idiosyncrasy, the horny handiness of some areas and the slickness of others, the curmudgeonliness of some areas and the joyfulness of other areas – I just love it all,” he says (12 minutes 50 seconds).
The main reason, he says, why English wines captured his imagination right from the beginning was for one particular reason – they were completely different to what he was able to taste from anywhere else in the world.
In fact he likens much of what has been happening in England to New Zealand and its ability to have brought completely “flavours that have never been made before” to a style of wine to the world – Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. Or Australia and its classic Chardonnay wines (14 minutes 30 seconds).
“I’ve always been a bit of a sucker for stuff that is completely different,” he claims and did not buy into the idea that “there must be something wrong it because it’s different, I was utterly thrilled that there must be something right with it”.
The sense there was “something special in our own backyard never went away” and that interest has only intensified over the 10 years as English wine has moved on to a whole new level.
The Nyetimber effect
The reason, he believes, English wine has been able to become so successful since in the last 10 years is down to what he calls “unashamedly the Nyetimber effect” (15 minutes 30 seconds).
Click in the link below to hear him explain what he means by the “Nyetimber effect”.
In fact so “remarkable” was the breakthrough that Nyetimber made in the 1990s completely changed the game and help give English wine it had, up to then, been lacking.
It was also when English wine started to give Champagne a run for its money with a style that was “just as good, but completely different” thanks to “the enormous intensity in flavour” (16 minutes 45 seconds).
Clarke goes on to talk about the importance of top level consultants – notably Stephen Skelton – and how they were able to use “intelligent expertise” to develop healthy vineyards that have gone on to transform the quality of English wines with higher alcohol levels and grapes that can now be picked a month earlier than in the past, but still with extra ripeness (17 minutes 35 seconds).
Then there is the impact of climate change and global warming that has made it possible to grow grapes as north as Hull and inwards down the Humber river.
A book for “wine lovers”
All of which have coincided and galvanised him to write a book that he hopes goes some way to celebrating and marking their achievements, but in a way that “talks” directly to the “wine lover” in England rather than create a technical book for the trade (19 minutes 55 seconds). The chance, as he says, to “talk about the sheer range” of “flavours, people and places” (20 minutes 40 seconds).
As he explains in this extract below.
As well as his passion and enthusiasm for English wine, Clarke is also able to share his knowledge and experience of tasting wines and visiting vineyards all over the world. Like in this section where he talks about how it is possible to grow Pinot Noir on heavy clay soils in England, which would not even be thought of in Burgundy (23 minutes).
Pride and people
Clarke also talks about the pride he has in being able to share the English wine success story (27 minutes 30 seconds). “I did feel an urge to write something to let everyone who wants to listen to me in on my sheer delight on what is happening, my amazement in what is happening and my thrill in what is happening.”
The book also has separate sections on the producers Clarke has been able to visit and, in particular, it shines the light on the people behind the wines as much as he does the actual wines themselves.
It very much helps give the book a personality and fits perfectly with what Clarke calls his conversational tone that he likes to get across when writing (28 minutes 40 seconds). His aim, he says, is to write like he is talking and will read paragraphs out loud to make sure he is captured the tone of voice he hears in his head. “If it sounds too bookish, I rewrite it.”
Here in this video extract he explains how he approaches writing a book.
Words of warning
Clarke also has some concerns about where the English wine industry is heading, in particular just the sheer volume of wine that is going to come into the market in the coming years due to the millions of vines that have been planted in recent years and are due to be planted in the years to come.
On the one hand it shows the confidence the industry has it itself, the worry is there will simply be too much wine to keep prices as high as they currently are (31 minutes 10 seconds).
The current pandemic could not have come at a worse time for the sector as it had built such a strong “momentum” on the back of the 2018 vintage, he adds (32 minutes 25 seconds).
Whilst it’s only right that English sparkling wine has been getting the plaudits it has in recent years, it is also a concern, he adds, that this year it’s likely 75% of English wine’s production will be for traditional method sparkling wine (34 minutes).
“Within two or three years we are going to have to try and sell twice as much of what we have at the moment” – or risk having a flood of traditional sparkling wine on the market now.
To avoid a potential “crisis” of over supply Clarke urges rules and regulations to be relaxed to allow for charmat and carbonated wine. “They are necessary for the survival of a lot of our producers (35 minutes 45 seconds).”
But he also cautions against introducing what he thinks are over priced charmats – at over £20 a bottle – which might be good news for those who can charge that much now, but will be unsustainable in the long term. “Ideally charmat should be half the price of traditional sparkling.”(37 minutes 40 seconds).
Equally he is also full of praise for the sector and how it has been able to position its top quality sparkling wine at £40 plus a bottle and make it such an established part of the wine market (41 minutes 40 seconds). He thinks the opportunity is now there for producers to establish English wine as a great producer of still wine too and look to position them around £15 (45 minutes).
Coming out of lockdown
We were also able to look ahead to our possible lives when we are able to come out of lockdown.
Here in this extract below he gives a great description of what he is most looking forward to post-lockdown and the chance to go to the pub and watch the bar man pour him his “fantasy drink” of a “locally brewed, medium strength” ale – click below for his description of this beautiful “frothing” creation of “great English draught beer” that only Oz Clarke can create. Perfection.
Clarke says he had been planning, in September, on travelling around the country, visiting different English wine regions to help promote his book, but is not sure if that will be possible now as he has many events cancelled that he was down to do in October and November (47 minutes and 30 seconds).
He has started to take his musical events online and run Zoom versions of his ‘Oz and Harmonica Concerts’ including a premiere of a new performance called “Gin and Phonic’. But he is pleased that all tickets for the live shows have been sold and no-one has asked for a refund.
Clarke is certainly ready and willing to attend trade tastings as and when they can be put on and is looking forward to the trial tasting being put on this week by R&R Teamwork in the car park of its offices. But he fears we won’t be able to do formal tastings for some time (50 minutes).
He is also keen to get out and around the country and start filming his drinks slots for James Martin’s ITV Saturday morning food show, but again does not know when that might be.
One thing that has been agreed is taking the Three Wine Men tasting series with fellow critics, Tim Atkin MW and Olly Smith, online with the new E-Wine Men series. An opportunity, he says, for them to potentially take it to far more people than they ever can in the flesh (54 minutes).
Not that it in anyway can replace the excitement and buzz he gets from meeting the public and talking about his favourite subject of wine and what it means to people.
”I love being out with the public and really miss that side of things.”
Which is perhaps why he admits he finds the switch to Zoom and doing online tastings more of a struggle than other critics during this period.
Clarke also gives some insight into how he prepares for any live appearance and that what might appear to be a very adhoc approach is actually very well thought through before hand (52 minutes). The skill, he says, is to look as though you are making it up as you go along, when actually it has all been meticulously thought through.
A skill he has got down to perfection.
- Oz Clarke English Wine: From Still to Sparkling. The NEWEST New World Wine Country is out on September 3 2020 and published by Pavilion Books.