Interview: Oz Clarke
Interview: Oz Clarke
The wine guru on coming to Wimbledon BookFest, the joys of English tipples and why he loves living in south west London
When Oz Clarke started his career as a wine writer back in the eighties, the very idea of English wine would send fear into the hearts, and stomachs, of most. But Oz has witnessed the huge change in the industry, which has seen English wine win award after award, beating off competition from around the world. His book ‘English Wine: From still to sparkling: The NEWEST New World wine country’ is designed to help readers discover the best local wines, from fizz, whites, reds and even dessert and orange wines – and he’ll be extolling the virtues of our local tipples at his forthcoming appearance at Wimbledon BookFest.
He’s very much looking forward to it. It’s handily down the road for Oz, who lives in Parsons Green, and he loves Wimbledon. He knows the area well. “The common was my countryside during the pandemic. I’d wander off into those wonderful old woods that we have and the heathland.” He adds that he likes how Wimbledon has the buzzing Broadway (he admires what the Polka is achieving for children’s theatre) and the transition as you head up to the Village and on to the common. And he also notes the area’s wine merchants are good, too.
But more importantly he’s looking forward to a good chat with the public. “It’s always great to meet all those people who make your work what it is: the people who watch the shows and read the books and want to talk to you about wine.”
And he’ll be hoping to talk about the fabulous wines being produced in England. Did he imagine when he first started his career, that this revolution in English wine was on the cards? “I don’t think I did – although I qualify that because I’ve been banging the drum about climate change now since 1993. And nobody was listening then. I was very much aware in the 1990s of the possibility of change in England, and what the rising temperatures might mean for wine.”
But it’s not only the climate that has made the difference but also the levels of expertise that have been growing in the industry. He notes that it was about 1997 that the first really good wine came out in the form of Nyetimber. “By the beginning of this century, there were one or two others. But now in the last five years, there are new superstars coming onto the scene all the time, who are winning gold medals around the world in blind tastings. And we’ve got a fantastic agricultural college, Plumpton in Sussex, which is focused on winemaking and grape growing, and is now globally recognised as one of the top wine colleges in Europe.”
Plus, we have enormous amounts of suitable land. Oz gives several examples of how the conditions around Britain rival the terroirs of France, such as the North and South Downs, which are comparable to Champagne.
Having started out as an actor, Oz followed his passions as a wine expert having won many a wine tasting competition as a student at Oxford. He must have a fine palate to be able to do what he does. So, is it an innate ability or something that can be learned? “If you can tell the difference between a cup of tea and a coffee, or a haddock and a banana, you can taste wine,” he laughs. “We learn as children to differentiate between foods and what we like and what we don’t like and what we want because food is a completely necessary part of our existence. Wine isn’t so you have to want to make the effort, but most of us have a good palate.” What is more difficult is the language we use to talk about wine, a skill that has made Oz one of the best writers and presenters on the topic. “Wine actually has no language of its own. You have to say that it tastes like something else like chocolate or a fresh Cox apple. Describing it isn’t easy and is one of the things that people get slightly nervous about with it.” But he says that you can easily build up your knowledge and vocabulary just by learning the main grape styles and then how the climate of a country influences the wine.
So, what does the wine pro himself actually drink at home? “It depends on many factors. In the middle of summer, maybe a nice properly made cider, from some of those wonderful old apple varieties. Or I might have an IPA from the south of England – we have some great ones locally in Wimbledon and Wandsworth. Last week, in the heat, I drank a lighter German wine that’s only about 7.5% alcohol, which was nice and refreshing. I might, when the weather cools, have a Chilean Pinot Noir. When I head over to the West Country shortly I might have a Camel Valley sparkling wine from Cornwall.”
As well as his phenomenally successful career as a writer, he is a much-loved favourite on TV, from his early days on Food and Drink to his series with James May – the award-winning Oz and James Drink to Britain – a caravan adventure around the British Isles exploring beers, cider, whisky, and wine. What’s next for Oz? “Hopefully more TV, because of course, that all got hammered with Covid. And I want to be out there travelling again – hopefully to South America, New Zealand and Australia because I need to get the smell and feel and the touch of these countries as it’s the best way to understand the wines…”
He clearly loves what he does. “I’m extremely lucky to be able to make a career out of my hobby. I have worked hard but if someone said I’ve never really had a job, I’d have to say they were probably right…”
Oz Clarke will be appearing at Wimbledon BookFest on 23 September.
Image credit to Keith Barnes Photography