Interview: Oz Clarke on Writing, Criticism, Hedonism & His Favourite Wine

Oz Clarke

© photo provided

Oz Clarke

Oz Clarke

© photo provided

Falstaff: Your book Oz Clarke on Wine came out in September – it is a revised version of Red & White which appeared in 2018. It reads like an autobiography.

Oz Clarke: I don't think so and if that was an autobiography, I'm not sure that the lawyers would have allowed it. I talk about my life but it's absolutely not an autobiography, there's so much stuff missing.

The problem with autobiographies is you've got to talk about all your friends, and you have to spill the beans on all the secrets you have with all the people you love and like and I don't think I could write an autobiography.

So it's got lots of my life in it but it's not supposed to be an autobiography. It seems if I want to write about wine as it was, wine as it is now and wine as it is going to be, to make it worth reading, I've got to tell stories and when you're telling stories the best ones are the ones that mean something to you and things that happen to you.

Falstaff: What about the discussion about wine writing and the much-heralded death of wine writing?

Oz Clarke: Well, as far as I'm concerned, I don't feel like a wine writer when I write, I feel like a writer. I don't want to be a wine writer when I write that book. I think that wine writing has got itself into all kinds of pickles in the last ten or fifteen years.

Luckily with this book I was just literally just sent off by myself with half a dozen books of A4 paper. So I filled them up with writing. I obviously read lots of wine books and I pined for more fun in them, I pined for more personal experience, I pined for more opinions which are heartfelt and so few modern wine books have that, I'm not sure they ever did.

I want people to see this as a wonderful story of all the parts of the world of wine that I find attractive and amusing and emotional and as few parts of the world of wine that I find dull as possible.

But we've managed to slice away an awful lot of stuff but I put in extra chapters on stuff that I just thought I just feel like talking about. There's a chapter on 'A Wine Tasters Life' and it's really just about the kind of mad world that before Covid came along that a busy wine taster could lead and a life that people who don't know the wine world will think, 'It's impossible, that can't be true.' Well, you know, you read it, you know the wine world, it is true.

We knock ourselves from pillar to post willingly, enthusiastically, indulgently, hedonistically and intellectually. I don't think you're going to be much good at wine if you're not hedonistic.

Falstaff: So your wine education was not formalised?

Oz Clarke: Not at all, entirely self taught. I've met some fantastic people who've taught me but they were rarely lessons. I think I learnt more about wine from drinking wine with people than ever I could learn in sitting in a lecture hall.

God knows how I got through university, I was a disgrace to my college, but I did know how to write, consequently, even if I hardly knew anything about the subject, I could probably just about scrape a third class honours degree by them thinking, ‘he doesn't seem to know anything but I quite enjoyed reading that so we're going to pass him.'

Most of the writing in the world about every subject is too dry. I think the idea of being tangential is important, things like the Pinot Noir section in that book makes you think, 'what on earth is he writing about, but I'm really enjoying reading it.'

Falstaff: In your books and in your life, you let the wine talk, you let the people talk because you are curious, you want to know.

Oz Clarke: Well listening is great fun. One of the ways that the wine world is really good to us, is it gives us endless opportunities to listen to people. And it gives us endless opportunities to visit their place and one of the things that wine can do now very well, and it couldn't do when I was a student, is to express its place. Because, people know how to make proper, clean, bright wine now and they didn't, they really, really didn't. And some of the rubbish that I used to drink…that's why nobody drunk wine, that's why the new world was so important.

Falstaff: You championed New World wine in your BBC TV show Food & Drink which you presented with co-host Jilly Goolden in the 1980s and 1990s.

The world of wine had the written word, but it had no spokesman going out into the greater world. It had no spokesman going out into the modern, democratic, classless world, and saying, 'We'll speak for you. We'll be your champions. We'll democratise wine. We'll find a way of realising that wine can be easy, and happy-go-lucky, and enjoyable, and have no possible class connotations at all, and every single person in this country's got a right to a glass of wine if they feel like it, but we've got to make it easier for you. The wine has got to be more attractive.'

We set out to make wine as easy as possible. Not dumbed down, necessarily, because those early examples of New World wines, they don't want them dumbed down. They were magnificent.

Those early Chardonnays, those early Shirazes, we taught Britain to drink red wine on Penfolds Bin 28. That's a £25 bottle of wine, and it was a single vineyard, ancient vine Barossa Valley Shiraz. That's how we taught people how to drink red wine. We taught people how to drink white wine on the very newest of the white wines. The white wine that had never been invented, that had never been tasted ever before, which was New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnays from Australia.

We taught Britain how to love white wine on wines like that. It wasn't dummed down at all, it was just saying, 'Thank you, Australia. Thank you, New Zealand. Thank you, Chile.' Then, later, 'Thank you,' places like South Africa, Argentina, but that came a bit later, and it mainstreamed them. 'Thank you, South of France. Thank you, Rioja.' All of these things came along, but that meant that they'd got this whole idea of the New World, which is a state of mind, rather than a place.

Falstaff: What's always a feature in your cellar, or is there everything, all the time? Do you have a favourite?

Oz Clarke: Most of my cellar is single bottles because I'm like an absolute gannet. I love picking up stuff. I think one of the joys of being in the wine world is to be endlessly inquisitive. To always think, 'I can find something better, more interesting, different.' Not to sit back on your laurels and say, 'Okay, I've got that, and I think I'll just go on expecting that.'

This has been one of the problems with the way that wine criticism has gone in the last 20, 25 years. Too many wines are the ones which are given most approbation. You just think, 'But it's more of the same. It's more of the same.' Too many rich owners coming to the business, and instead of saying, 'Okay, I have a vineyard in Napa Valley, or in McLaren Vale, or in Bordeaux, or in Tuscany,' and saying, 'How can we do something spectacularly different?'

I think it is quite distressing, because it does mean that more and more wines have got an increasingly narrow, rather lush, and rich, and extractive, and opiate alcoholic, but fundamentally narrow world in which they operate.

Falstaff: What's your favourite wine?

Oz Clarke: It's different every day, every week. There are times in my life when I just want something bright and fresh, literally, the crispest and most vivacious Sauvignon Blanc that you can possibly find, and I just think that's exactly what I want.

There are times when it's just young Beaujolais, from six months old, and just redolent of the optimism of spring, as the sun begins to warm those slopes above those granite hills, and you can just feel the winter is over and the dew in the morning melts very quickly, and the sun comes up and heats the day.

One of the wines that I write about being one of my greatest wines ever, I have no idea what it's called. It was with a girl I'd eloped with, in Tuscany. We took the train to Florence, then we took the bus to the end of the bus line, and that was at the south of the city, and we saw a village in those lovely, blue hazy hills, a mile or two away, and we walked to that village, and then we found this village shop.

We walked in and we bought some of that strange bread that they have in Tuscany, without any salt in it. Then we bought some sausage and some cheese, and tomatoes. Then I said, 'Can I have some wine?' The chap said to me, 'Where's your bottle?' I thought, 'I haven't got a bottle.' He went and picked out a dusty old litre bottle from the back of the shop, went to this, frankly, bedraggled looking barrel, God knows how old it was, or how clean it was. He literally squirted this frothy, dark pink, pale red liquid into this bottle, topped it up, banged the cork in and charged me less than the bread had cost.

We walked up into a meadow, and had just a wonderful, eloping springtime afternoon, which you could call a picnic, if you wanted. The wine had more life to it. It was bursting with the thrill of the springtime, and being alive, and it was vivacious and giddied, and sour, and prickly, and I can't imagine a wine which had more life force in it than that wine, at that day, with that girl. No wine could have been better. I've still evaded your question.

Falstaff: So tell us.

Oz Clarke: I tell you, if I finally had to say one wine above all, which has given me more pleasure, but I don't know which days I will want it, and which days I just won't, I would say I go back to where I come from. Where I come from is great Bordeaux. Claret, in all its manifestations. Preferably not too ripe, preferably without too much Merlot. Preferably without too much new oak, preferably not too alcoholic. Preferably that fabulous savoury, refreshing beverage drink that Claret used to be, and if they really take time to change, seriously, it could be again.

© photo provided

Oz Clarke on Wine was published in September 2021 by Académie du Vin Library

ISBN 978-1-913141-18-9