Wine is a huge passion of mine – and not just the drinking (though I do love that bit) but but also the science behind where the different tastes come from. I’ve visited wine regions around the world and have a few more wine trips planned for the rest of this year. So when I got the opportunity to interview wine expert Oz Clarke I jumped at the chance to get some tips from a pro. After starting out as an actor, Oz got his big break into the wine industry on the BBC TV show Food and Drink. Since then he’s written about wine in books and newspapers, and has most recently been seen on TV tasting his way around the country with Top Gear presenter James May. He’s got one of the best palates in the business, but what makes him so popular is that he’s totally unpretentious, making wine approachable for anyone who’s interested.
Oz is going to be sharing his love of wine on two trips with Celebrity Cruises this autumn, with routes visiting some of the most famous wine regions in southern France, Spain and Portugal. The cruises take place in September and early October to coincide with the wine harvest, so as well as masterclasses and food and wine matching dinners with Oz onboard, guests can also take guided trips out into the vineyards.
I got the chance to have a chat with Oz about his wine travels and tastes, as well as picking his brains on some readers’ wine dilemmas. But first up I wanted to know where he got his love of wine from.
Where did your interest in wine start?
Actually it was when I was three! My brother had fallen into the River Ouse – we’d gone there for a picnic – so my dad was trying to save him from drowning and my mum was hysterical. We’d got this bottle of mum’s damson wine and as no-one was taking any notice of me I drank it. My dad managed to get my brother out then noticed the wine had disappeared, so turned me upside down and about 95% of it came back out. But ever since then I’ve loved wines which taste of damsons, like Malbecs.
I didn’t do any more drinking then until university. There was a subsidised wine tasting club, so for £2 a term you got four tastings and could take a date. I thought if I became good at wine, everyone would think I was amazingly sophisticated and irresistible to women. It didn’t work – none of the girls gave me a second date. But eventually I realised that although it didn’t help my social life, I was getting really excited about the flavours. I understood flavours and when they talked about how the land and climate affected the wine, I got it. So I thought I’d just keep going to wine tastings and a girlfriend would turn up eventually!
Some people are a bit put off by the pretentiousness that can come with wine, so where’s a good place to start if you want to learn more?
Get a bottle, open it, pour into a glass, drink and repeat! Seriously though, we have a real wine-drinking culture in the UK now with more availability of wines from around the world than any other country. Every supermarket has an amazing array of wines and if you go and browse the shelves you might feel a bit confused, but no one is going to know. In the old days you had to go into a wine shop and talk to someone, and social inhibitions and class came into it, but that doesn’t happen any more.
A good way to start is to choose four grape varieties – let’s say Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc for whites and Shiraz and Cabernet for reds. Then when you’re in the supermarket, pick a country. So you might go for Australia – choose an Australian Chardonnay and Australian Cabernet. Then next time pick another country and do the same. And within two weeks you’ll know which you prefer. Keep it simple – start with the grape variety and mix the countries. Then if you think about the countries, like ‘Australia, that’s quite hot’ and ‘New Zealand, that’s cooler’ you can see how it’s reflected in the wines – if you want something riper, more rounded go to Australia, if you want it greener, fresher go to New Zealand.
Having visited wine regions across the world, which do you find yourself drawn back to?
The first one I ever went to was Bordeaux – I drove down there from university with a couple of letters of introduction and saw vineyards, had lunches in chateaux and met winemakers. So I get drawn back there again and again. It’s nice too that it’s the first wine region stop on the cruise so I get to share that.
The other one is Australia. I first went there with Patrick Stewart and Glenda Jackson when I was an actor on tour with the play Hedda Gabler. I was gobsmacked by the wines out there. So much so that when I got six days off work I flew to Australia and back – four days there and two days on the plane – for my first real wine trip. I had to get home for a photocall for Evita, where I was playing General Peron. I snuck back just in time – I was playing a 55-year-old but didn’t need any make up, I looked about 100 that day!
And where would you tip as up-and-coming wine destinations we might not think of?
As countries go, the new world has almost played out already. But they’re always coming up with new areas – like undiscovered valleys in Australia and new regions higher up the Andes in Argentina or nearer the South Pole in Chile. Brazil is interesting too – there are some really good vineyards in the southern part that make smashing sparkling wine. If you want some good sparkling wine during the World Cup this summer, try some Brazilian. They also make sweet wines from the Muscat grape that’s as good as Asti Spumante.
Then there’s the Balkans – they’ve got an amazing wine culture that’s just waking up after the war. You got Croatia, with big, rich wines from Dalmatia in the south, and light, fragrant wines from Istria in the north. If you wanted to know where to go for a wine holiday, I’d say go to Venice, drive around to Trieste through the great north Italian vineyards, then go into Slovenia where they make some fantastic wines too, before driving across the border into Istria. If you’re brave there’s some good stuff happening in Macedonia and Serbia too, but Serbo-Croat isn’t an easy language and not many people speak English!
How did you decide on the destinations for your wine cruise with Celebrity?
We start with Le Havre so people can head into Paris if they like, but I’d just stay in Normandy, go to Honfleur and drink some of the best cider you’ll ever have and eat fantastic lobster. Then there’s so much going on on the west coast of France and in north-west Spain and Portugal the route made absolute sense. My favourite sail is probably Le Havre around to Bordeaux across the Bay of Biscay – we talk a lot about ‘the cruise is all about the destinations’ and sure, but you’ve got the sailing to enjoy too. I absolutely love being out at sea when you finally lose sight of land. Make sure to get out on deck!
Then from La Rochelle you can easily get into the Cognac region, and just down the road is Bordeaux with all the vineyards there. Then it’s a gentle cruise down to Bilbao, which is right next to Rioja, before a lovely trip along the coast to Vigo. Northern Spain is one of the great places to eat in Europe and is where the best white wines in Spain come from. Then we go around to Porto at the mouth of the Duoro Valley. It’s where all the ports come from but also Duoro red wines are now some of the best in Portugal, and there are very good white wines too so you can do an entire wine tour just in this one place.
When I found out about this interview, I asked my readers if they had any wine questions for Oz. First up was ‘What wines or regions do you think are the most underrated?’
With climate change, even with our erratic weather, the wines coming out of England right now are absolutely stonking. Sparkling wines are fantastic and there are a lot of good white wines – I had really lovely Chardonnay last week and a great Pinot Noir, one from Kent and one from Sussex.
Funnily enough, I think France is undervalued at the moment too. Beaujolais has had three wonderful vintages now yet so few people drink Beaujolais. It’s quite low in alcohol, very juicy and fresh and they don’t normally use oak barrels – which a lot of people are fed up with now – so just give it a try. Also it sounds silly but Bordeaux is underrated – an awful lot of people avoid it as they think it can be confusing. But a good place to start is Bordeaux rosé or white, with fantastic dry whites made from Sauvignon Blanc grapes. The smart money is also on the white wines from Italy which are starting to get really exciting – made with Falanghina and Fiano – and Greece is making some spectacular wines.
‘What red wines would you recommend for summer for someone who isn’t keen on whites?’
Look to Northern Italy for Valpolicella and Bardolino. They use a grape called Corvina which is a juicy grape which doesn’t have any bitterness and not much acid, so it has lovely soft, mellow type flavours. I don’t think you can get them much in this country, but if you could, the Alto-Adige has got some lovely light red wines called Vernatsch or Schiava which are so soft and easy to drink.
But on the whole I’d say new world wines would be better than old world ones. You might want to try a Pinot Noir from Chile or New Zealand. The Chilean ones in particular are not expensive and they’re softer, they’ve not got the bitterness of red wines like Cabernet Sauvignon.
‘What are your current favourite wines?’
It changes from day to day! I had a fantastic wine from Slovenia yesterday which was made from Sauvignon Blanc and Furmint. It’s fabulously fresh and zippy and snappy – I think Tesco have it [ED: they do]. I had a couple of Beaujolais from the 2013 vintage too, a Fluerie and a Morgon, and thought ‘wow, this is why we used to drink this stuff, make more like this!’.
I’ve had some Shirazes or Syrahs from the North Island of New Zealand recently too. It’s much cooler than Australia and the flavours are just as deep as you want them, but they’re much drier – very perfumey like lilies and violets and the fruit is a mixture of white pepper and blackberries and raspberries.
Then I’ve also had some really lovely Austrian wines recently with the Grüner Veltliner grape and the Reisling from Austria is a lot easier to get hold of than the ones from Alsace or Germany. It’s got a more lush quality in Austria as it’s a bit warmer, but there’s just as much history behind it.
And finally, straying away from wine for a moment, ‘You’re also known for being a big beer fan, where’s the best place to visit for beer?’
Manchester! The city is heaving with great beer. Whenever I get off the train there the first thing I do is head to the Port Street Beer House – it’s utterly dangerous – or to the Marble Brewery who’ve got two pubs and brew fantastic beer. There’s so much great beer being made around there. If you took somewhere like Huddersfield and headed west down through – what was that wonderful station buffet that James and I went to on Drink to Britain? [ED: this one] – then go into Cheshire with all those wonderful breweries like Boddingtons down there and over to Lancashire. Then you’ve got Cumbria too which is absolutely oozing with breweries. The north-west of England is one of the great places to drink beer.
Thanks so much Oz, I’m feeling inspired and off to pour myself a large glass of wine now! Big thanks also to Celebrity Cruises for arranging the interview, and to Jess, James, Chris and Damien for the questions.