Five Minutes with Oz Clarke
As lovers of wine, Hotel du Vin is delighted to be working with some of the UK’s most impressive wine experts as part of our partnership with the UK Wine Awards. The inaugural awards, which will see English and Welsh wine producers from around the country pitted against one another, have been designed to find the UK’s best wines across a number of categories – as well as crown a ‘Supreme Champion’ wine. So we sat down with each of our star judges to find out more about them and their love affair with wine.
Oz Clarke is one of the world’s leading wine experts with an international reputation as having one of the finest palates of anyone writing about wine today. Known for his accessible, no-nonsense approach, his passion for wine dates back to his time as a student at Oxford University. He has appeared on a number of BBC TV and radio shows that have been broadcast around the world.
Here’s what Oz Clarke had to say.
1) When and where did your interest in wine start?
At the young and tender age of three … it was a bottle of damson wine which my parents had out on a family picnic. My parents were dramatically distracted by my brother getting in to trouble in the river, and I found the bottle and drank the wine. I’ve always loved the flavour of damsons and wine ever since. For that matter, I love the flavour of damson in gin, beer and crumble.
2) What was the first English wine you tasted and what was your impression of it? How have English wines improved since then?
Back in the 1970s, with an astonishing wine produced in Kent – Staple Vineyard – produced by a florid-faced fellow named Bill Ash – he was one of the great innovators in the early days of English wine. The wine was bone dry and I was amazed. My mother would get some in for me whenever I came down to visit.
Pulham St Mary (Norfolk/Suffolk border) produced a superb example of Rivaner (Muller-Thurgau) – a Germanic variety you see so much less of these days – the wines I remember back then showed tremendous possibilities.
Then there was St Nicholas Vineyard, situated near Sittingbourne – Bapchild, the location of the vineyard, is known to be one of the great orchard areas of Kent, so no wonder the grapes from here produced wine with such clean as a whistle fruit.
And I must mention Biddenden, whose Huxelrebe and Ortega vines produced – and still produce today – wines of such delightful freshness.
It’s lovely that Biddenden still survives today – all the others alas are no longer.
3) England is best known for its sparkling wines. What other styles stand out?
The brilliantly perfumed dry still white wines, possessing phenomenally focussed fruit – they are different to anywhere else in the world.
We can make tremendously good Chardonnays, and tasty Pinot Noirs. Above all we have the ability to make these light, piercingly delicate and fragrant white wines which just seem to mirror the wonderful cool climate conditions in this country - and we can do so from the ‘heartlands’ of the South right up to Yorkshire.
As our climate has been warming so we’ll see more characteristic fruit and sensational flavours coming from Staffordshire, Gloucestershire, Shropshire and beyond.
4) Do you have to know a lot about wine to enjoy it?
No you don’t, it’s just that you will enjoy it more if you know a bit about it. The thing is that every single wine has something different about it. Each area within each wine growing region, each vineyard, bring something different to each wine, and from that we can learn just that little bit more.
The thrilling thing about English wine is that so much of this is yet to be discovered – we will want to know more about the differences between the Weald in Kent and the Downs in Sussex, and more about the strange-sounding grape varieties we grow … the flavours will be so distinct, so different – it will inspire you to want to know more.
5) What are your three best tips for picking an appropriate bottle?
- Pay the price you want to pay, or as much as you feel happy paying. Don’t pay too much, but don’t necessarily go for bargains either. Ultimately it is all about you and your friends enjoying the wine
- Don’t always stick with what you’re used to. When you’re out, buy by the glass to try something different. Hotel du Vin have a wonderful range of wines by the glass, for example – go in and ask for a glass of something you’ve never had before!
- When you can, drink the wine of the area. Just as we do when we’re visiting France or Italy, seek out the wine of the area in England and Wales. Increasingly over here this is more possible – on the high street, in restaurants and other outlets – even buying from the vineyards themselves if you are in the area.
6) We hear that Her Majesty the Queen serves English Sparkling wine at her state banquets. Is this true?
Yes, and many times over! Her 60 years on the throne was celebrated with English fizz; State visitors are toasted with our sparklers. The royal connections run further with the honour of having HRH The Duchess of Cornwall as President of the United Kingdom Vineyards Association – the industry’s national body (and organisers of the UK Wine Awards)
7) You are the Joint Chair of Judges in the new UK Wine Awards – what encouraged you to play a part in this competition?
Isn’t it brilliant that English and Welsh wines are achieving the recognition and accolades they so deserve. We have a terrific industry here – a growing, confident one – and we wanted the UK Wine Awards to reflect that confidence, to trumpet the message across the wine world that the English and the Welsh are coming and we will not be denied!